Cultural Perspective and the Prodigal Son


Osobo O. Otaigbe, in his book “Building51jtl2ynvgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ Cultural Intelligence in Church and Ministry,” tells a story from Mark Powell regarding different cultural responses to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Numerous Christians from three nations (United States, Russia, and Tanzania) were told the story, and asked about the story. The question was why did the prodigal son end up in the pig sty?

  • The majority view of Americans was that the prodigal son ended up in the pig sty because he squandered his money.
  • The majority view of Russians interviewed was that it was because of a famine.
  • The majority view of Tanzanians was that it was because no one helped him out.

Who is correct? Well, let’s look at the passage (Luke 15:13-15):

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.

So who is correct? They all are. He squandered his money, there was a famine, and no one helped.

One culture focused on the Individual, one on the Community, and one on Fate.

Culture filters what we see and hear, and guides our interpretation and behavior. But in this particular case all three views have a point, but none ultimately matter. The story is ultimately about the Father (God) who welcomes and restores– regardless of whether the problem is due to individual fault, community failure, or kismet.

However, if I could only choose one viewpoint, I might focus on the one of the Tanzanians.

  • Individualism can lead one to see solutions in oneself… and that is the wrong place.
  • Fatalism can lead one to see solutions in luck or perhaps “calling.”… and that ultimately does not bring solutions.
  • Collectivism can lead one to see solutions in relationship to others… and that is a better place to look.

A Christian understanding probably comes closest to seeing things in the third sense– our relationship with God and with others.

Regardless, multiple viewpoints can be beneficial… not forcing new ideas into the text– but helping us find our own blindspots.

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