The ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ Was Plagiarized

Jesus would have flunked English class. Most of his best work is plagiarized. No citations. No credit given to the original sources. For instance, the Parable of the Good Samaritan—one of his most famous stories—is word-for-word stolen from 2 Chronicles 28:15. Or what about his famous woman at the well ordeal? Been there, done that with Abraham’s servant, with Jacob, and with Moses. He feeds the Israelites bread in the wilderness; even the crowds catch on to that one–“Hey, this is Moses’s schtick!” (John 6:31-ff).

It should be no surprise then, when I tell you that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is also a patchwork of blatant plagiarism less subtle than a ninth grader copy and pasting from Wikipedia.

The Light Bulb Moment.

I was having coffee with my friend Chris, and out of the blue he says, “Hey, I want you to read something and tell me what it makes you think of.” I say, “Okay,” and he has me turn to Luke 15:20. I read it out loud:

“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Of course, this is a famous part of the story. The bereaved father is watching for the return of his son, and a haggard yet familiar silhouette slowly rises against the horizon. His heart jerks him from his chair, and he runs to take hold of his lost boy, embracing him and kissing him.

No sooner did I finish reading the sentence that the light bulb went off: this is Esau and Jacob. My friend had been reading through Genesis and noticed the obvious connection:

“Jacob himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Genesis 33:3-4)

The most intimate, heart-wrenching moment of Jesus’s story is not original. He plucked it right out of Moses’s volume.

Not Again.

It’s audacious to plagiarize once in a short story–but twice? Perhaps Jesus had been reading Genesis in his devotions the night before, because another clear literary theft comes just two verses later in the narrative. As the parable continues, the son tries to apologize for his actions and begs his father to receive him as a humble servant. The father doesn’t even hear his son’s apology. He’s too busy planning a celebration:

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate!’” (Luke 15:22-23)

Jesus paints a picture of a young man going from rags to riches in an instant. And it feels eerily familiar. Where have we seen this movie before? Ah yes, the story of Joseph:

“And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck. And he made him ride in his second chariot. And they called out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’” (Genesis 41:41-43)

Through Pharaoh’s generosity, Joseph rises from slave prisoner to the second in command. The father in Jesus’s parable is not an original character. Down to the ring-and-robe details, he’s Pharaoh stolen and repurposed.

Plagiarism for a Purpose.

I’ve been a little tongue-in-cheek. The reality is that Jesus wanted his audience to see his blatant copycatting for what it was. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the third and climactic story condemning the grumbling Pharisees and scribes who said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them!” (Luke 15:2). The parable climaxes when the sniveling older brother berates his gracious father for forgiving his brother. At that moment, the Pharisees see themselves—seething mad that God would even consider receiving foolish, filthy sinners.

However, it is Jesus’s blatant plagiarism that really stings. The father is a composite of Esau and Pharaoh. He runs, embraces, and kisses the sinner—just like Esau. He clothes the poor sinner like a king—just like Pharaoh.

Here is what Jesus is not so subtly implying to the self-righteous Pharisees: “Esau and Pharaoh are more like the Heavenly Father than you. Esau, the rejected degenerate, was more compassionate than you, O Pharisees. Pharaoh, the pagan idol worshipper, had more generosity toward a poor Israelite than you, O Scribes.”

It’s purposeful plagiarism. The knockout punch was a swing that may have gone over some of the common people’s heads, but it landed squarely on the jaws of the Pharisees. They knew the stories of Esau and Pharaoh. Jesus didn’t even try to conceal his plagiarism, because he wanted the Pharisees to see the clear evidence of his copy and paste—and to draw the painful conclusions.

As readers of Luke 15, we must heed the warning that those who begrudge God’s compassion and generosity to poor sinners are worse than Esau and Pharaoh. But there is also hope for those of us who know we are sinners poor and needy. The father in the parable looks like Esau and Pharaoh, and yet we see how much compassion and generosity he has for his wayward son. How much more then will our Heavenly Father lavish us with his compassion and generosity in Jesus Christ?

(painting by Rembrandt)