The Lost: going away

Prodigal_Sons_web11 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.  13 After 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.  16 And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.  17 Coming 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.  18 I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  19 I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers

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.

The 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 a 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)

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.

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
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at crossmarks.com
  • 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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