The Prodigal Son Story, part 1.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 June 2023

Luke 15.11-20A.

Our English word prodigal means “wasteful.” But over time—after generations of average people never bothering to look up “prodigal” in a dictionary—people presumed prodigal has to do with the son in this story leaving his family. Hence prodigal has taken on a second definition, “a person who leaves home with the intent to be dissolute.” A prodigal son isn’t just a trust fund baby who recklessly wastes money; he’s fleeing his family so he can go to the big city and sin himself raw. Because that’s kinda what the prodigal son in Jesus’s story did.

But no, it’s not precisely what he did.

I’m gonna analyze half the story now, and the other half later. Lots of Christians have unpacked this story, and mostly (and rightly) just focused on the moral of the story: The father is overjoyed that his son came home, and welcomes him unconditionally, as will our heavenly Father when we repent. And sometimes they focus on the elder son’s bad attitude. And sometimes they spend way too much time speculating on what the prodigal’s various big-city sins were… kinda like the elder son. Funny how a lot of those sins have nothing to do with the text of Jesus’s parable; they’re pure speculation based on pure projection. They say an awful lot about what the preacher might do with a big pile of cash.

Well anyway. Off to the story. Which is usually called “the Prodigal Son,” or by people who wanna avoid the ambiguity of what prodigal means, either “the Wasteful Son” or “the Lost Son.” Or if they wanna focus on the happy ending, “the Loving Father” or “the Forgiving Father”—or if the focus is on the disgruntled brother, “the Two Brothers” or “the Prodigal Son and the Unforgiving Brother.” Clearly I don’t have a problem with the original popular title.

Luke 15.11-20 KWL
11 Jesus says, “A certain person has two sons,
12 and the younger of them tells his father,
‘Father, give me the part of the property coming to me.’
So the father divides his living between them.
13 After not many days, gathering everything,
the younger son journeys to a distant land,
and there he squanders his property in excessive living.
14 Once he’s spent everything, a severe recession hits that land,
and he begins to be in need.
15 Going to stay with a citizen of that land,
the citizen sends him into his fields to feed swine.
16 He longs to gorge himself on the husks the swine eat,
and no one gives him anything.
 
17 “Coming to his senses, he says,
‘How many of my father’s employees abound in bread
while I’m being destroyed by this recession?
18 I will get up and go to my father.
I will tell him, ‘Father, I sinned against heaven and before you.
19 I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.
Make me like one of your employees.’
20A And getting up, he goes to his father.”

Dividing the property.

The story starts with a father and two boys, and since Jesus didn’t give them names, I’m gonna swipe the names from the lousy 1955 movie based on the parable, The Prodigal. (I don’t recommend the movie at all, by the way. It takes some egregious liberties with Jesus’s story.) So the prodigal would be Micah, his father would be Eli, and his older brother would be Joram.

Micah came to Eli and asked for “the part of the property coming [to me].” We don’t know how often sons in ancient Israel would come to their fathers with such a request, but it did happen regularly enough so that neither Jesus nor Luke felt they had to explain the idea.

Preachers wanna make the prodigal son sound like as bad a human being as possible. So they’ve invented this popular idea that Micah asking Eli for his inheritance was culturally wrong. That “demanding one’s share of the inheritance before the father died was tantamount to saying, ‘I wish you were dead’” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible @ Lk 15.12 —and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that spin on the story.

But clearly the authors of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible have either never read, or chosen to ignore, Joachim Jeremias’s The Parables of Jesus, which lays out in detail how Jesus’s culture would’ve handled such an idea. Jeremias actually believed this isn’t a parable; he claimed Jesus is describing something which happened in real life, which Jesus personally knew about. That’s how plausible Jeremias found the situation.

The legal position was as follows: there were two ways in which property might pass from father to son, by a will, or by a gift during the life of the father. In the latter case the rule was that the beneficiary obtained possession of the capital immediately, but the interest on it only became available upon the death of the father. That means: in the case of a gift during the father’s lifetime, (a) the son obtains the right of possession (the land in question, for example, cannot be sold by the father), (b) but he does not acquire the right of disposal (if the son sells the property the purchaser can take possession only upon the death of the father), and (c) he does not acquire the usufruct which remains in the father’s unrestricted possession until his death. This legal position is correctly depicted in the parable when the elder brother is indicated as the sole future owner, Lk 15.31 but nevertheless the father continues to enjoy the usufruct. Lk 15.22, 29 In verse 12 the younger son demands not only the right of possession, but also the right of disposal; he wants a settlement because he proposes to lead an independent life. Verse 13: Συναγαγὼν πάντα: after turning the property into cash. Ἀπεδήμησεν εἰς χώραν μακρὰν=he emigrates. Jeremias 128-129

Because sometimes that was why family property would be divided: Emigration. Jews would leave the land of Israel and move to other parts of the Roman Empire, to make their successes elsewhere. They were likely never coming home. It was considered a legitimate reason for people to divide property.

Legitimate, in part, because there’s actually precedent for it in the bible. Before Abraham died, he gave his kids “gifts,” and it seems receiving these gifts meant they had a quit-claim on any further inheritance they might get from Abraham’s patriarchy when they died. Isaac would inherit it in its entirety.

Genesis 25.1-6 NRSVue
1 Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. 2 She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. 3 Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. 4 The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. 5 Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. 6 But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.

No family squabble between Isaac and his seven brothers (’cause let’s not forget his older brother Ishmael): They’d received their “gifts,” so all was good. They’d later became various Arab tribes. You probably remember the Midianites, with whom Moses lived for 40 years; yep, they’re fellow descendants of Abraham. Moses’s distant cousins.

Pharisee literature, like the Mishna, also shows precedent for this idea. In a culture where extended families tended to live together, sometimes a son had to become independent of his father, so he’d take a portion of his family’s wealth—a “gift,” they usually called it, borrowing the language of Genesis 25.6—which was either a substitute for his eventual inheritance, or was funded by it. The son and his family would then go to another province or land. Sometimes for a profitable business venture. Sometimes a daughter had inherited a portion of her father’s property, Nu 36.2 so her husband decided to run that land rather than his father’s property, and it just made sense for him to take his wealth and go there. Sometimes they could buy better land than the family was currently farming. There were any number of legitimate reasons for this to happen.

And it looks like this was why Micah asked for the money: He was gonna emigrate! He was moving to a faraway land (the χώραν μακρὰν/hóran makrán of verse 13 which Jeremias mentioned in his book). No doubt that was the reason he gave his father: “I know some Jews in Rome; they’re making a fortune selling cloth; you already know how good I am at selling the family crops; I can’t miss out on this opportunity!” Something like that. Maybe it was true; maybe not; but it got Eli to part with the money.

That’s pure speculation on my part, ’cause of course Jesus doesn’t say. And it doesn’t really matter! The whole point was Micah was going to lose all that money.

But this whole idea of asking the money would be an utter rejection of his father and his family: Pure melodramatic horsecrap. Maybe that’s more how our culture might interpret such a thing: “Hey Dad, let’s pretend you’re dead; give me all the money I would’ve inherited from you.” But not theirs. Property and inheritances back then did not solely belong to the father; they belonged to the family. The father might run it, and rule over it and his family like a tinhorn dictator, but the culture didn’t consider it his property; really it was God’s. Lv 25.23 He could mismanage the land, but he couldn’t sell it permanently; family always had the right to buy it back. And twice a century, any land purchases would automatically revert to the families who originally owned it, and purchase prices would reflect this. Lv 25.13-17 Wealth was meant to stay in a family, regardless of which family member was currently in charge.

So in no way do the scriptures call it wrong to give your children inheritance-sized grants, and the Pharisees considered such things wholly acceptable. It was okay for Micah to ask his dad for his inheritance! It was okay for Eli to grant it!

What was not okay was squandering it.

Losing the property.

Jesus doesn’t say how long it took Micah to blow through all that money. Or even how much it was. It might not even have been all that much. Rich families back then had slaves, but Micah only ever mentions his father’s employees Lk 15.17, 19 which suggests his father couldn’t afford slaves. (Yes, Jesus mentions δούλους/dúlus, “slaves,” in verse 22, but the word can mean “servant” as well.) It’s possible Eli wasn’t that wealthy—which is why he’d be receptive to the idea of Micah going away to make his fortune.

Micah was likely granted the entirety of his inheritance, not just a cash equivalent of the projected income from it. Eli later told his elder son, “All that I have is yours,” Lk 15.31 so Micah wasn’t gonna inherit anything more. That meant he was given a full third of the estate. Joram got the other two-thirds—a double portion because the eldest brother typically held the birthright to the patriarchy, and would have to take care of all the other family members, slaves, and employees connected with it. If the family property was small and humble, a third of it would be even more small and humble. Enough to get you started in business though.

But Micah frittered it away prodigally “with riotous living,” as the KJV puts it. Lk 15.13 The word ἀσώτως is an adjective-form of the ἀσωτίας/asotías, “excessive living,” which Paul denounced to Titus—it should not be something either an elder or an elder’s kids are accused of.

Being asotías in Greek culture meant you were too messed up to be saved. Usually from the sorts of immoral behaviors that outraged even the gods (and if you know the mythology, the Greek gods were rather immoral themselves): You were that far gone. The gods were gonna destroy you.

So yeah, you can imagine Micah was merely foolish with his money: He rented an expensive house, picked up too many checks for his friends, lost track of just how much he was spending on liquor, and spent way more time on recreation than work. But asotías means he wasn’t just foolish; he was sinful. When his elder brother Joram later complains how Micah “devoured your assets with prostitutes,” Lk 15.30 NRSVue he probably wasn’t projecting; Jesus means to say Micah had done exactly that.

Maybe more, but Jesus never says more. Yet I have heard some downright nasty speculations about what more Micah did with all the money. And as I said before, it reveals an awful lot about the preacher! Some of our preachers come from rough backgrounds. Some of them don’t, but they’ve obviously fantasized about dabbling in some rough stuff, and it all comes out whenever they denounce other people’s sins. I once heard a preacher go on and on in lurid detail about all the orgies the prodigal son probably attended, and of course Jesus never said anything about orgies. Why would one’s brain immediately go towards orgies?… unless of course one’s brain has already spent quite a lot of time there already.

Well, so much for the money. Micah was dead broke… and then comes the recession. Bibles tend to translate λιμὸς/limós (or λειμὸς/leimós in some texts) as “famine,” but that implies food scarcity, and there actually wasn’t any food scarcity, ’cause somebody had enough food to feed pigs with. Limós means wealth scarcity: Not enough gold. Not enough jobs. No way for Micah to make a living.

Ordinarily if a Jew was poor and hungry, he could glean from the edges of the neighboring fields. Lv 19.10 But this practice was only valid in Israel. Micah wasn’t in Israel anymore: If he was caught gleaning from his neighbors, they’d consider him a thief and kill him. So he needed an income.

Bibles tend to say Micah “hired himself out to one of the citizens of that region, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.” Lk 15.15 NRSVue The word which gets translated “hired himself out,” ἐκολλήθη/ekollíthi, actually means “glued himself to”—this wasn’t a guy who hired him, but someone Micah kept following around, asking for help. You know the situation: Someone in the workplace decides you’re gonna be their buddy, and always comes to you for help or advice. Or it’s that one family member, or friend from high school or church, who’s always asking for favors. Or it’s that one political candidate who’s always begging you for money because he’s been indicted for treason. Micah became that kind of needy person. But not a leech, who did nothing in return; in exchange for his help, the guy sent Micah to take care of his pigs. His swine.

Swine, I should remind you, were ritually unclean animals. Hebrews weren’t permitted to eat them. If you touched one, or stepped in its poo, you couldn’t go to worship till after you’d baptized yourself and waited till sundown—and since swineherding, like shepherding, is a 24-hour job, there’s little chance Micah would get off work before evening so he could clean up and go to synagogue. As if he even went.

I’m not sure Micah was paid for this job; or if so, he certainly wasn’t paid much. He was still starving. So much so, he dreamt of eating the swine’s food. The “husks” they ate, called κερατίων/keratíon, were probably carob-tree pods. They’re sugary (which is why they’re often used as a chocolate substitute), and eastern Mediterranean residents used them to fatten their swine. Carob’s not a bad thing to eat… but stealing food from the swine would’ve got him fired, and he wasn’t willing to risk his job, meager though it was.

Going home.

Swineherding gives you lots of time to think, and Micah finally realized the best thing to do would be to cut his losses and just go home. Working for his father as an employee was better than the starvation wages he currently had, and (assuming Israel wasn’t also suffering from recession) his dad’s employees weren’t starving!

So he devised a plan: He’d go home and repent to his father. He even drafted a little speech. “Father, I sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your employees.” Lk 15.18-19 Sounds pretty humble.

Nevertheless I’ve heard many a preacher denounce Micah’s plan as pathetic, as insufficiently repentant, as scheming, as all sorts of evil things. How dare he presume his father’s gonna accept his apology and give him a job?—and why would you hire somebody who’s demonstrated so little ability with money?

I remember this one sermon I heard as a child, in which the preacher gave a five-point sermon about how self-serving the prodigal son’s plan really was. How he wasn’t really repentant; this was all a scheme, and if you parse the sentence in careful detail, you can see how this was really about benefiting himself, with no real repentance in it whatsoever. Though I have a better-than-average memory, I don’t remember all the details of that sermon, and I’m gonna credit the Holy Spirit for that, because it was so graceless. Even at the time, with me being a kid who didn’t know any better about a whole lot of things, I knew it was so graceless. The dude repented! The whole point of Jesus’s parable is our heavenly Father’s radical forgiveness of his repentant children—even if we’re not as repentant as certain legalistic Christians would prefer.

Because humanity’s pretty much in the same boat as Micah here. We’ve been granted some generous resources, thanks to God’s prevenient grace. And most of us have squandered ’em. Talents and abilities which could’ve been used to glorify God and uplift humanity, but we use ’em to enrich ourselves, exploit others, seize power and deny it to anyone else as “unworthy”… or of course we don’t even use those talents because it’s more fun not to, or easier to be lazy. We’ve all gone astray; we all need to come to our senses and turn to our Father. We’re not worthy to be called his kids either.

But like the prodigal son’s father, our Father is more than willing to embrace us—just like the father in the next part of Jesus’s story.