Kenneth Bailey points out that when he began (in the 1950s) to study the story we traditionally call the Parable of the Prodigal Son, he came a across records of debates between medieval Christian and Muslim scholars about the nature of this story. The Muslims argued that the story is about a young man who gets lost. He obviously represents man in his sin. After he gets into difficulty, he seeks to return home. He seeks the forgiveness of God. So he returns home and the Father who represents God welcomes him. It is as simple as that. You have no incarnation, no cross, no redeemer, no sacrifice, no suffering, no way of salvation, and no god made into a man. And this is Evangilium in Evangelio, Jesus central parable about repentance and salvation! Why, they asked, do Christians invent all this other stuff to cloud what is really a very simple teaching? Bailey says that the Christian scholars offered flimsy responses and that the Muslims appeared to have the better understanding of the passage.
Have we missed something with this passage? That question began Bailey's lifelong love affair with this passage. What his studies found may surprise you when you read this through the context of Middle Eastern culture. So here we go.
11Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them.
Many commentators have suggested there is nothing particularly noteworthy in this passage. The request of the younger, while maybe a bit uncommon appears to be a legitimate request. Kenneth Bailey shows that nothing could be further from the truth.
There are recorded instances of fathers dividing their estates among heirs while they are still living. Abraham did this to avoid conflict within his own tribe. However, the idea that a son would request the division of the estate by his living father was unthinkable. Bailey claims to have searched countless ancient records and inquired of other scholars on this matter. There is no evidence of this ever happening in the written record!
The younger son's request is equivalent to wishing his father's death. The father is in the way of the son's plans and the son wants to get on with life. So offensive is the idea that the father would not have been blamed for killing his impudent son on the spot.
But there is third character participating in this transaction. Because we are of another culture, we miss a crucial assumption being made about the older son. The older son's role in such a case should be the role of mediator. He should be confronting his younger brother and telling him to beg forgiveness. He should be interceding with the father begging him to have mercy on his brother. What do we get from the older son? Silence. We also apparently get a division of the estate uncontested by the older son. Something is amiss with the older son.
Of course, the most scandalous thing of all is that the father grants his son's request without protest.
13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
Here we have more insult to the father. In cases where a father divided his estate with his sons while living, both the father and son were prohibited from independently selling off parts of the estate. Furthermore, while technically belonging to the son, the father had claim to the estate for his own survival and care. Here the son sells the estate and leaves, depriving his father of the livelihood to which he was entitled.
If you have ever been involved with probate proceedings you know that it can take months to resolve the issues of dividing an estate. It was not much different in Jesus' time. Verse 13 says "A few days later" the son took his inheritance and ran. He no doubt found someone in the village on the sly and did the transaction. He probably did it at below market cost to facilitate a speedy exchange. Why was he in such a hurry? Because he knew that if the village found out what he had done, they would have been furious. He was racing the clock to avoid having his deeds discovered before he could leave town.
Later in this story, the older brother will accuse the younger brother of living like a heathen, spending his money on prostitutes. Bailey points out the words "squandered" and "dissolute" in the Greek do not carry a connotation of immorality. They simply mean he was reckless with his money and did not watch his finances. This will become important later in the story.
Verse 14 points out that the younger son is now in a dilemma. The Jews were prohibited from selling their land to gentiles. If a Jew did such a thing, the community would perform a ceremony that cut that person off from the life of the community. The only way to return to the community was to repurchase the land. Not only has the son disrespected his father but also he cannot return to the village because of his offense of squandering his inheritance with gentiles. Now he has no resources and cannot regain his estate.
15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
It was considered inappropriate in Middle Eastern culture to deny someone's request for assistance but one way to get rid of a person was to make their life so miserable they moved on. According to the Torah, Jews could not eat pigs or touch a pig carcass. Technically, feeding pigs was not prohibited. Yet in Jesus day, the Pharisees would have considered such work unacceptable. This gentile citizen was clearly trying to rid himself of the younger son. Carobs (pods) were of little nutritional value to human beings and his desire to eat them was in essence a way of saying he wished he was a pig!
17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!
Many commentators have argued that the phrase "came to himself" was a euphemism for he repented. As we will see shortly this is not so. It merely means he has taken full stock of his situation and realizing there must be better alternatives. He has disrespected his father, his older brother now controls the remaining estate, and the community may be ready to stone him as soon as he shows his face. Still, facing these obstacles now appears preferable to his present dilemma. What will he do?