Prodigal Son: inherit

prodigal-son11 Then he said, “A man had two sons, 12 and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. 13After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. 14 When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. 15 So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. 16And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. 17Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. 18I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”‘ 20So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. 21His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, 24 because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. 25Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. 26He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. 27 The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 28He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. 29 He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. 30 But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ 31 He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. 32 But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”

The parable, the longest in the Gospels, consists of three main parts: (1) the departure of the younger son to a distant land where he squanders his inheritance (vv.11-19, “squanders” is the core meaning of “prodigal”), (2) the homecoming of the son and welcome by his father (vv.20-24), and (3) the episode between the father and the older son who stayed at home (vv.25-32). How this parable differs is that what is lost is a human person – one who has existing human relationships with his father and his brother. The younger son’s metanioa is not simply a change of his mind in absence of these relationships. Repentance necessarily involves those relationships.

The traditional title of the parable focuses on the younger son who left home, yet it is the father who is the central figure. Perhaps a better title would be “The Parable of a Father’s Love.” Culpepper [300] goes farther: “The name one gives to this parable already telegraphs an understanding of its structure and theme. To call it ‘The Prodigal Son’ is to emphasize the first half of the parable (vv. 11–24) to the neglect of the second half (vv. 25–32). ‘A Man Had Two Sons’ focuses on the father’s relationship to the two sons and recognizes that this is ‘a two-peaked parable,’ a parable with two stories. ‘The Compassionate Father and the Angry Brother’ compares two ways of receiving the lost. The virtue of the title ‘The Prodigal Son, the Waiting Father, and the Elder Brother’ is that it recognizes the significant role of each of the three characters and calls attention to the shifting point of view in the parable—from the prodigal son (vv. 12–20a) to the waiting father (vv. 20b–24) and to the elder brother (vv. 25–32). Alternatively, one may regard the parable as having two parts: the father’s response to the younger son (vv. 12–24) and the father’s response to the older son (vv. 25–32).

Jewish Inheritance Customs. The relationships with the Father are the central axis of the parable, yet it is good to know something about inheritance customs. In the ancient world, not less than now, a person’s property is transferred at death. Fathers were discouraged from distributing inheritance during their lifetime (Sirach 33:20-24). But if he did, a father still was entitled to live off the proceeds while he lived. This can be seen in the following wisdom advise:

To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, lest you change your mind and must ask for it. At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hours of death, distribute your inheritance (Ecclesiasticus 33:19-23).

Other scripture includes that according to Deuteronomy 21:17, the firstborn son was to inherit twice as much as any other heir. The Jewish Mishna, which was probably developing in the time of Jesus, gives this rule: “If one assign in writing his estate to his son to become his after his death, the father cannot sell it since it is conveyed to his son, and the son cannot sell it because it is under the father’s control” (Baba Bathra viii.7). Even if a father decided to divide up his property among his heirs, neither the father nor the heirs could dispose of the property while the father was still alive.

In our parable, the younger son presumes upon the father’s prerogative and initiates the events with his request for his inheritance. Not only did he ask for his inheritance, which was bad enough, but he did something that was unthinkable and contrary to scripture and custom: he sold his inheritance, converted it to money (see note on 15:13) and moved to Gentile lands. The younger son’s actions spoke volume. By demanding his share and leaving, the younger son is cutting his ties with his family, with no regrets. He takes everything with him; there is no reasonable hope that he will be back. His departure with a substantial share of the family estate also means a loss to his father and brother, adding to the latter’s animosity.

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