This week’s posts have centred on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Monday’s looked at the elder brother. Tuesday’s addressed misapplications of the parable to public policy and the church environment.

Today’s takes us back to Jesus’s time and to how inheritance issues and father-son relationships were handled. Much of what follows is not mentioned in most sermons on the subject, which focus on the need for forgiveness and lack of selfishness.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is found only in the Gospel according to St Luke (Luke 15:11-32):

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to[a] one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[b] 22 But the father said to his servants,[c] ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

In Jesus’s era …

One of the best expositions from a Jewish perspective comes from Berean Bible Church in Chesapeake, Virginia. The essay (or sermon) was published in 2013. Excerpts and summaries follow, emphases mine. Whilst it seems that this church is Hebraic, given their use of Yeshua and Yahweh, the traditions explained add new insight to this powerful parable.

Imagine that we listened to this when Jesus told it. In response to the complaint from Pharisees and scribes that He associated with sinners (Luke 15:1-2), He related three parables about finding what had been lost and rejoicing over it, i.e. He came to save the lost. To this end, He gave us the Parable of the Lost Sheep, then the Parable of the Lost Coin before concluding with the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The Prodigal — Wasteful — Son had the audacity to ask his father for his share of the property (verse 12). This was highly uncommon in those days. In fact, the younger brother might as well have said, ‘Father, I wish you were dead’, because an inheritance of this nature was distributed only upon death.

For whatever reason, the father agreed with his younger son. How much did he give him?

… according to the laws in Deuteronomy, the first born would receive a double portion, and so therefore, in this case, the younger son’s portion would only have been a third.

In verse 13, we read that ‘the son gathered all he had’. The verb had a deeper meaning then than it does today. It meant more than ‘picking up’ or ‘putting together’:

according to some scholars, the original language that is translated as “gathered all” literally means he “turned everything into cash.”

This makes more sense in the story, as it would be difficult for the son to have packed up all of the physical possessions and property that would have been bestowed to him.  Plus, the verse goes on to say that he spent everything, implying that what he had was in the form of money.

Imagine the father and elder son’s grief as they saw heirlooms and, even more importantly, portions of their land sold so thoughtlessly:

he most likely would have sold things at a low price in order to liquidate them as quickly as he wanted in order to leave.

This would take a big toll on the family overall too, because now, a big chunk of what was family property, and was most likely tied to the family income, was gone.

Not only would the family have suffered financially due to this, but the father’s reputation would surely have been in question. Living in community like they did at the time, the news of something like this would have quickly spread. Everyone would have heard what was going on, especially as the father or son was going around liquidating things.

So for the father, he was not only losing out financially, but the destructive relationship would have brought about public humiliation in town and to the father’s name in general.

The son frittered away every last coin on reckless living when a famine hit (verse 14). Because he was penniless, he had no means of feeding himself. He was so desperate that he did what no self-respecting Jew would do: hired himself to a Gentile pig farmer (verse 15). There, he fed the pigs but received no food himself (verse 16):

Chances are the speech and dress of the son would have given him away as being a Hebrew, and in an effort to rid himself of this man, the person assigns him a job he suspects will cause the man to leave. It can be hard for us to fully grasp how this is would be for someone from a culture that loathes pigs …

Some say that the pods spoken of here were not something that could even be digested by humans, and thus he was unable to even eat them, but truly and strongly desired to be able to.

He couldn’t eat what the pigs were eating, and asking others was not working, as no one gave him anything. He was finally at the end of his rope, unable to provide anything for himself.

Why had he not returned home earlier? Why had he stooped to such depths?

… something we may miss here is that according to Jewish custom, he was almost unable to go home. There was the ceremony known as the Kezazah – which means literally – “the cutting off.”

If a Jewish boy lost his family inheritance among the Gentiles and sought to return home, the community would perform the ceremony by breaking a large pot in front of him and declare – “so-in-so is cut off from his people.” Once performed, he would be an outcast and no one would have anything to do with him. So going home would not be putting himself in a very favorable situation anyway.

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls gives this example of a fatherly warning that relates here:

And now, my sons, be watchful of your inheritance that has been bequeathed to you, which your fathers gave you. Do not give your inheritance to the Gentiles…lest you be humiliated in their eyes and foolish, and they trample upon you…and become your masters.

This is what the son has done; he has squandered his inheritance among the Gentiles. So, he was now literally a man without a home, and had no way to return to his family or any of the rights he previously held as a member of his community. When it says in the verse that he took a journey, the Greek word used only here by Luke literally means that he “traveled away from his own people.”

So, he has left his people, cut all ties and rights to them, took everything he owned and lived recklessly and lost everything. He had nothing left, nowhere to go and of course could not simply call his parents to come and pick him up.  

He knows going home would mean dealing with the ridicule of the rest of the village, as well as that of his brother who now has the rights of the rest of the father’s possessions.

In his brokenness, the younger son decided he had no option but to return home and face the consequences from his family and the village. In his desperation, humility struck. He was satisfied to be a servant as he had relinquished his status as son (verse 19).

The father saw him coming from a long distance (verse 20). Is that not what a parent does when a missing child returns? He or she instinctively knows his own children from afar.

The father could hardly wait to embrace his son and ran to meet him. I have an image of a long, dusty road leading to the family estate, with the father near the house and his son at the end of the road in the distance. Without reading too much into what Jesus left unstated, I do wonder whether the father might have been doing paperwork and had a strange premonition which caused him to leave the house and look down the road.

The father’s running would have been deeply undignified. A Jewish man did not show his legs in public. He would have had to gather up his robe and expose them in order to run, lest he stumble. Even worse, he was running towards a son who brought him grave dishonour:

The Jews considered this highly undignified in their culture. The patriarch never ran or never made the first move in such a situation.

Not only did the man hug and kiss his son, welcoming him back into the fold but, equally crucially, he probably did not want the son going into the village where angry people might have performed the aforementioned Kezazah ceremony on him.

Interestingly, the Berean Bible Church exposition doubts whether the son is actually repentant, which goes against most interpretations of this parable. The son only wanted to eat to survive:

One thing we should notice here is that the son was not repentant. Many over the years have understood that when it says “he came to himself” that it implies a repentant attitude, but others point out that there is nothing in the language to really reveal that at all. He does not mention being sorry for anything he had done, he simply realizes that he was truly starving and decided enough is enough. He reasons that even his father’s servants have food, and that is what he desires to have so he won’t perish.

He will acknowledge his sin against the father, but only because it is a means to an end – he desires to eat, even if it is as a servant.

What the Prodigal Son said is close to what Pharoah said to Moses (Bible verse emphasis in the original):

The words he chooses to say to his father may have some significance too …

When the son says “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,” The words used here are a paraphrased version of the words of Pharaoh to Moses after the plagues. Pharaoh says:

I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. (Exodus 10:16 ESV)

Some commentators say that the Aramaic version of this verse is worded even more closely to the way it is stated in our text in Luke. If that is indeed a legitimate link, we all know Pharaoh was not repentant. He simply wanted to manipulate Moses and get away from the bad situation, and that seems a similar attitude that the son in our story has.

Note that what the son says (verse 21) to his father differs somewhat from what he planned to say originally (verses 18, 19). He might have had second thoughts when he saw his father running towards him. Was it in anger? He didn’t know, but it is a good assumption. The father could have given him a good beating, not unknown in those times. According to the mores of the day, the son would also have thought that he deserved it.

Instead, before the son can say anything, the father restores him to his former status with an embrace and a kiss (verse 20).

As the lost was now found (verse 24), the father set out to treat him like a prince with the best robe a ring and sandals (verses 22, 23). The fatted calf was very much a part of this reconciliation.

An exposition on HubPages explains the significance of the father’s actions (bold emphases in the original, those in purple mine):

Custom #4 The father kisses his son on the neck as a custom of greeting and an expression of forgiveness.

Custom #5 The father gives the younger son the best robe, a ring and sandals. These gifts are public indications that this son was no longer a servant but a son who has been welcomed back into his house.

Collectively, the items represented the father’s best for his son. The ROBE belonged to his father, so this was symbolic of the father honoring the son and treating him like royalty and giving him the clothes off his own back.

The RING represents the father’s authority and a symbol of reinstatement to sonship.

The SHOES or SANDALS illustrate that the son is not considered a slave or a servant any longer. Slaves and servants didn’t wear shoes but would go barefooted. The prodigal son returned home as a slave.

Slaves carried and tied their masters’ sandals. (Remember John the Baptist said he wasn’t worthy to tie Jesus’ shoes). The father was indicating to his son that he was receiving him back not as a servant but as a beloved son.

Custom #6 A fatted calf was killed to celebrate. Meat was not a part of the daily diet. It was normally reserved for special celebrations.

Overall meaning of the parable

The message is that God the Father forgives sinners their sins, no matter how atrocious, for which Jesus suffered and died on the cross.

The elder brother embodies the self-righteousness of the Pharisees, scribes and others in the Jewish hierarchy who did not deign to associate with little people and sinners, whom the younger brother represents. The religious elite were far too holy. Sounds a bit like some high-ranking clergy today cloistered within their walls except for the scheduled church service, television programme or photo op.

Jesus also intended for this parable to signal the end of works righteousness. He, the Messiah, was now among them ushering in the New Covenant. From that point, the Jews could continue to adhere to the Law of the Old Testament (older brother), but it would not bring them salvation. As What Christians Want to Know explains:

The religious leaders saw their rewards due for their works.  They didn’t understand that they can bring nothing to the plan of salvation and if they try to earn it, they do not understand how God saves and that it is Jesus’ righteousness alone that accounts them worthy.  No human works can ever earn salvation. The youngest son had nothing to bring, no good works, and came back with barely the shabby clothes on his back. This may be why the father provided a robe for him and sandals for his feet.

The father’s pursuit of his son parallels Our Father’s pursuit of sinners to bring them back to Him:

it is with great intensity that God the Father seeks those to whom will be His children for now and for eternity.  And God never gives up this pursuit. The Bible emphasizes:

    • there is no one who seeks God (Romans 3:11);
    • that our “Salvation does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16);
    • that Jesus tells them plainly that, “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.” (John 10:29); and
    • as stated by Paul that, “… he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and willto the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:4-6)

A note for those evangelising

These days it is highly likely that those clergy and laypeople engaging in local mission or evangelism work will encounter Muslims. The Berean Bible Church exposition says that many Muslims believe the Parable of the Prodigal Son means that anyone can be forgiven without repentance and belief in Jesus Christ.

It is hard to understand their reasoning. Perhaps they are reading the story too literally: loving human father forgives desperate human son. The End.

In such a case, the mission worker must explain that this parable (among others) is an allegory. It is a story that explains the great divine truth, namely:

the Father in heaven, sending the son, who is God incarnate, who assumes the humiliating position as a human in order to passionately go out and seek and save those who were lost, and bring them into reconciliation and sonship once again.

The Koran is more history and instruction rather than genre. Today, much of Islam involves the book’s literal interpretation. Reading philosophy and literature from the ancient Muslim world has been discouraged in recent decades, and, with it, the ability to think critically and abstractly. In Europe, at any rate, there are very few Muslim philosophers. Many Muslim secondary students here are dissuaded at home or by imams from studying philosophy or literature.

In any event, the conclusion about the Prodigal Son remains the same. What Christians Want to Know puts it like this:

Perhaps He is pursuing you now.  If you are reading this, He has either sought you and bought you or He is seeking you now, you who are lost.  It is time to come to the Father through Jesus Christ today, as John 14:6 says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Will you come today?

Let us pray the answer is yes.

Tomorrow: the Prodigal Son and the lost tribes of Israel