Inheritance Customs

This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year C: the Prodigal Son. 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), (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 from the two preceding it is that what is lost is a human person – one who has existing human relationships with his father and his brother – and whose relationship gets tangled up in the oldest of family squabbles: inheritance.

The relationships of sons with the Father is the central axis of the parable, so it is good to know something about inheritance customs in their 1st century Jewish world. In the ancient world, no less than now, a person’s property is transferred at death. Fathers were discouraged from distributing inheritance during their lifetime (Sirach 33:20-24). This can be seen in the following wisdom advice:

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).

But he could make gifts before he died. The father could grant title of the familiar assets to the sons, but if he did, a father still was entitled to live off the proceeds while he lived (like a remainder trust of our time). The rules were described in Mishnah (Baba Bathra 8). If a man decided to make gifts he normally gave the capital but retained the income. He could then no longer dispose of the capital, only of his interest in the income. But the recipient could get nothing until the death of the giver, unless he chose to sell the capital, in which case the buyer could not gain possession until the death of the donor. [Morris, 258]  “If one assigns 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. In v.13 the text says he “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 planned travels, the younger son converted his inheritance into money and then 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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