The Prodigal Son – part 1

This coming weekend is the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we consider the parable of the Lost Coin in the context of the recurring Lucan theme of “Celebrating the Lost and Now Found.” Today and tomorrow we will consider the longer, more detailed parable of the Prodigal Son.

11 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.

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