01 November 2015

Culturally Understanding the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) Pt 1

Most people familiar with biblical stories, have heard of the well-known parable commonly referred to as the Prodigal son, which is found in Luke 15:11-32. Now most all bible scholars will tell you that you should never push the symbolism or story line of a parable too far, and that the main thrust of the message is more important that all of the little details one can try to pull from it – and this is true.

And while this is a fairly simple story as far as the amount of details we have, there is still a lot that can be missed simply because we are of a different cultural background than the original hearers.

Lately at our church we have been learning more and more about the cultural surroundings of the first century writings, especially the Hebrew mindset behind them. This same Hebrew understanding needs to be applied to the parables, like this one.

There would be points and details that they would have immediately grasped and story gaps that they would have filled in simply because of their background and understanding. So, I would like to dig into this story a bit, and examine this story in light of some of the cultural surroundings and understandings that may escape us, and to fill in some pieces that we may miss.

Many people typical think this is a nice story about forgiveness, and leave it at that. And while this is somewhat a true analogy, there is so much more that never gets considered. I think the most common application of this parable in the modern church, is to see it as applicable to any repentant sinner coming to God, and the forgiveness he brings. In the latter part of this message I will explain why I believe this understanding of the intent of the original parable is a false one.

For most people I believe, when they think of this story they think of it as mainly a story dealing with the one rebellious son. However, there are actually two stories that need focused on. And honestly, the second one is probably more of the focal point of the story for the audience he is speaking to.

I will mention though, that this parable is the last part of a series of three parables that Yeshua has told right in a row in this section. Some commentators have even shown how all three are interconnected to maintain a main single thread throughout, but I am not able going to take that route today. Instead, I wish to focus on just the third story, but first, I would like to read the opening remarks that start the three story segment.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable. (Luke 15: 1-3 ESV)

So, we see the setting that started this parable trilogy. It is because Yeshua has been hanging out with tax collectors and sinner that the Pharisees were grumbling. And due to their grumbling, he spoke to them the three parables. Now, let us jump to the third one about the father and his two sons. I will be breaking it down in sections as we go.

And he said, "There was a man who had two sons. 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. (Luke 15:11-12 ESV)

What we find here is a request from the younger son to his father, requesting his portion of the inheritance basically. However, there are a few things that we may miss here by not understanding the cultural significance of the request.

First off, he is not actually asking for his inheritance. Especially in that type of culture, an inheritance is what one receives when the father passes away, and it means that the son was then responsible to handle the father’s duties. The son would become the leader and assumes the care and power over what was left to him.

In our day and age, for most of us at least, an inheritance is a chunk of money or goods that we possess. In days of old, if your father’s owned a large farm with lots of servants and/or employees, then the responsibility of all of that was turned over to the son.

The son could turn around, close shop and cash it all in, but that rarely happened. To that culture, the land, the business, and the family were all tied to the place they were established, and the sons took over to continue enlarging upon what was previously established.

The Greek word for inheritance is kleronomia, and it is used elsewhere, like the parable of the vineyard in Matt. 21, where the owner put tenants in the vineyard, and when it came time to reap it, he sent servants, and the tenants killed them. So he sent his son to the tenants:

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' (Matt 21:38 ESV)

They knew that one day the son would be the boss when he inherited the family business. But in our story, that word is not used. In our story, the son is not asking for a piece of the family business. He did not want to assume any responsibility or authority, he simply wanted to cash out and leave on his own.In the normal course of events, when the father died, the two sons would own it all and continue expanding upon it, but in this case, he had no desire to continue with the family at all.

In our verse, he uses the word ousia, meaning the son is asking for the possessions or wealth that is his portion. In doing this, he is asking to cash out of the whole family. He wants to take what is his and leave, leaving his position in the family, and all future connections and benefits of it. He wants to break all ties and relations and go his own way.

On top of that, what he is asking for something that is not even a consideration that is due to him until his father passes away. Culturally, to ask such a thing as this is the equivalent of wishing his father were dead. The Bible Background Commentary states it this way:

To ask one’s father for one’s share of the inheritance early was unheard of in antiquity; in effect, one would thereby say, “Father, I wish you were already dead.” Such a statement would not go over well even today, and in a society stressing obedience to one’s father it would be a serious act of rebellion for which the father could have beaten him or worse. (Bible Background Commentary, pg. 233)

In real life, this request would be met with a refusal, anger and punishment. And of course, we find that to be the very case throughout Scripture whenever Yahweh’s people turned their back on Him, it was met with judgment time and time again. However, in this story, the father agrees to let the deal be done, and he divides the possessions and gives him his portion.

One thing to also note is that 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. So, after the father has divided things, he gives the son his portion, and then we are told that:

Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country… (Luke 15:13a ESV)

Here we find that only a very little time has passed, and the father has given the son his cut, and the son has packed and is leaving. Now, 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.

Now, in order for the son to have sold everything, including part of the family land, 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. Now, the son has taken everything and left for a far country, and we are told:

…and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. (Luke 15:13b-14 ESV)

Now, after all of that, the son has left and lost everything. Now all of that money is all gone, there is a famine, and he has nothing to survive on. You would think at this point, most kids would run back home with their tail tucked between their legs. But 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.  

So what to do? We'll take a look at that in the next part.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4