Prodigal Son: what was lost

prodigal-sonThe Departure of the Younger Son. The parable begins with the younger son asking for what he considers his share of the inheritance – something that is for the father to decide. In the asking, the son communicates that he does not view the inheritance as a gift given because of his father’s good graces; rather he sees it as his due.

Kenneth Bailey, a NT scholar who lived for years in the Middle East, asked many people in the Near East cultures how one is to understand the younger son’s request. The answer is consistent and harsh: the son would rather have his father dead so as to gain the inheritance. In an honor/shame society it would be appropriate to ask, “What father having been asked by a son to give him inheritance…” Again the Lucan answer is not the answer of the society. The father grants the request. Where the younger son asks for “the share of your estate (ousia) that should come to me.” Luke tells us that the father “divided between them his property (bios, literally “life” – see note on 15:12).”

Imagination can fill in the familiar story line that is compressed with great economy: the extravagant spending, the attraction of freeloading friends, the crash. It should be noted that the young man squandered (diaskorpizo) the money. This does not imply a use for immoral reasons (which the brother suggests in v.30), but rather a thoughtless use of the funds. The term “dissipation’ (asotos) does imply immoral choices. There is a loss of his mindfulness and his moral compass. But there is more.

The family rejection which began in his request, heightened when he goes to a foreign, gentile land, becomes even more disparate. He attached his life and fortune to a Gentile family – and not as son and heir, but as servant. He is penniless and reduced to tending swine for the Gentiles. For the Hebrew, caring for pigs (Lv 11:7 and Dt 14:8) evoked the idea of apostasy and the loss of everything that once identified the younger son as a member of his family and of God’s people. He is even lower than the swine — they have access to the husks, but he does not. “He has reaped the bitter fruit of his foolishness.” (Culpepper, 302)

The Beginning of the Return. The conversion begins in the muck and mud of the pigpen. It is there that he “came to himself.” While there is ambiguity in the moment, the trajectory of the story points to the moment of coming to point of desire to return home – the place where he has a place to be whom God calls him to be. The moment shows the human capacity to renounce foolishness, to begin anew to reclaim one’s heritage and potential. Calamity finally brings him to his senses. He understands that he has no claim on his father and no right to be called son. But if not a son, then he will return to his home as a hired servant. He carefully rehearses his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”

He is not seeking to reclaim what he has renounced. Yet he knows that he, in any condition or circumstance, returning to the Father and his father. It is a classic penitential moment: address, confession, contrition, and a petition of healing.

After “coming to himself,” he rises and returns to his father. At this point in the narrative the focus shifts to his father

The Homecoming of the Son and Welcome by His Father. Tashjian notes “As Westerners we cannot really understand what the father has done unless we put ourselves in the context of Eastern culture and way of thinking. The son had dishonored his father and the village by taking everything and leaving. When he returns in tattered clothes, bare-footed and semi-starved, he would have to get to the family residence by walking through the narrow streets of the village and facing the raised eyebrows, the cold stares, the disgusted looks of the town people. So when the son is still far off, before he has entered the outskirts of the village, the father sees him and decides immediately what he must do. In compassion for his son and to spare him the pain of walking through the gauntlet of the town alone, he runs to him, falls on his neck, and kisses him.”

As the earlier parables had asked, “What father would do such a thing? Already being shamed by the actions of his impudent son, again shaming himself by running through the town making a spectacle of himself.” But this father has been keeping vigil and sees his son coming “a long way off.” Anything but coolly reserved, he runs to meet his son, hugging and kissing him. What father would do this? Human? Likely, none. But no other image comes closer to describing the character of God.

The son has “addressed, confessed and expressed contrition” but does not get to the petition. He cannot get through his rehearsed speech. Ironically he does complete the “confessional” part of the speech, but the reconciliatory part is not the son’s role, but rather that of the Father, who makes his intentions immediately known: “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” These show that the young man’s father fully accepted him as his son. The robes and the ring were signs of high position in the family. Sandals showed that he was a son instead of a slave, since slaves did not usually wear sandals. There is no thought of recrimination, no policy of making the young man prove himself worthy. The only important thing is that he is alive. The son himself is more important than anything he has done: “because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.

One curious element of this portion of the parable is this: did the father interrupt the son before the young man reached the “hired worker” portion of the prepared speech? Or did the young man simply stop, already seeing the action of his father to run to him, perhaps the joy on his face, and come to know that he was already forgiven and restored as a member of the family?

Notes

Luke 15:12 share of your estate: literally “the share of the property (ousia) that falls to me”

divided his property between them: where in the first part of the verse Luke uses ousia, here the word bios (life) is used. Some scholars point out there is precedence for the ousia and bios being synonyms for the word “property.” I would suggest this play on words points to as aspect, not the most important for sure, but an aspect of the story that involves inheritance laws and traditions in the ancient Near East.

Luke 15:13 collected all his belongings: literally, “after gathering everything together.” This identical phrase is used in the works of Plutarch (Cato Min. 6.7) that means converting everything to silver. It is likely, given his travels, to have converted his inheritance into money.

a distant country: indicating a psychological as well as geographical distancing.

squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation: diaskorpizo (squandered) does not imply a use for immoral reasons (which the brother suggests in v.30), but rather a thoughtless use of the funds. Yet the term “dissipation” – asostos – is used 3 other places in the NT and it refers to drunkenness, licentiousness, passion, carousing and lawless idolatry.

Luke 15:14 a severe famine: Biblical literature suggests that this was a frequent occurrence in an area in which agriculture was always a hazardous enterprise. In any case it hastens the son’s return home

Luke 15:15 to tend the swine: As in the story of the Gadarene demoniac (8:32), the herd of pigs represents something unclean for the Jews ( cf. Lev 11:7; 14:8). To tend the pigs of a Gentile is as alienated as a Jew could imagine. Raising pigs was forbidden by the Mishnah.

Luke 15:17 Coming to his senses: literally, “came to himself.” It should be noted that Luke does not use his normal word for repentance – a word he uses over 25 times in his writings. One might argue that this is the son’s moment of repentance, but a more likely suggestion is that the young man is not in misery because of his sense of sin, but because he has fallen on hard times. The young man is not repentant, but practical.

hired workers: misthos, refers to day laborers, i.e., people without steady employment, who have no ongoing relationship to a particular farm or family. This status would be even less than an indentured servant.

Luke 15:18 I have sinned…no longer deserve…treat me: The planned three-fold statement is (a) a confession of guilt, (b) admission of the destroying the father-son relationship, and (c) a possible solution for the father’s plight. But one wonders what the young man thought his sin was? His insolence? His realization that he is unable to provide for his own father in the father’s retirement years?

Luke 15:19 your hired workers: The contrast here is between a member of the family (and heir to the property) and a misthios, and hired laborer with claim of permanence. Notice in v.22 that the father calls to one of the doulos (servant or slave) to wait upon the returned son. In v.29 “all these years I served you” incorporates the noun douleúō “to serve as a slave.”

Sources

  • Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 294-305
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 568-86
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 234-42
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) p.963-4
  • Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/
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