Then He said: "A certain man had two sons. "And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.' So he divided to them his livelihood. "And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. "But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.
"Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. "And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. "But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 'I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, "and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants." '
"And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. "And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.' "But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. 'And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; 'for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' And they began to be merry. "Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.
"So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. "And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.' "But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. "So he answered and said to his father, 'Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.
'But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.' "And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 'It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.' "
When viewed through the lens of Jewish tradition the parable deals with two types of people and in many ways reinforces the teachings of the P'rushim (Pharisees). The theme of the parable is not (as a number of prominent theologians argue) a polemic against the Pharisees, but is a beautiful story which demonstrates the nature of G-d's love for two types of sinners. The profound message of the parable is closely related to a Jewish understanding of G-d and humanity and expresses a worldview that is one of the legacies of Pharisaic thought.
While examining this parable through "Jewish eyes" so to speak, we will consider a number of parallel rabbinic parables that contain similar theological concepts which will hopefully serve to enhance our understanding of the Jewish thought of the Second Temple period, as well as the parable itself. The parable describes a family in crisis where there are three principle actors: the father, the younger son, and the elder son. The parable is the classic story that sharply contrasts the actions of the two sons.
We are probably all familiar with stories of how families fall apart or fight amongst themselves after the will of a deceased relative is read. Well, the shock of this story recorded in Luke would have struck the listener right at the very beginning, when the younger son ask for his father's inheritance before the death of his father. It is important to understand that the son's request is tantamount to seeking his father's death.
According to Jewish law (cf. Mishnah) a father could execute a will before his death, which is what takes place in this parable. Nevertheless, it would be quite presumptuous on part of the son to initiate the execution of his father's will while his father was still alive and the request in the story would have shocked the original audience of this parable. (The younger son's actions were reprehensible and may have even brought to mind Deuteronomy 21:18-21). So, in response to the request of the younger son, this is what the father does: he divides his estate between his two sons, the older son receiving a double portion.
According to the provisions of the Mishnah, the father would retain usufruct rights even if he divided his estate before his death. This allowed him to retain a certain amount of control over the sons' property and assets after the execution of the will and served to protect an aging parent from any irresponsibility on the part of the heirs. This would explain why the father was still able to give orders to the servants of the estate (vv. 22-24) after he had divided his estate between his two sons (v. 12).
In the mishnaic tractate, Bava Batra, we read:
If a man assigned his goods to his sons he must write, "From today and after my death." So R' Judah Jose says: He need not do so. If a man assigned his goods to his son to be his after his death, the father cannot sell them since they are assigned to his son, and the son cannot sell them because they are in the father's control. If his father sold them, they are sold [only] until he dies; if the son sold them, the buyer has no claim on them until the father dies. The father may pluck up [the crop of a field which he has so assigned] and give to eat to whom he will, and if he left anything already plucked up, it belongs to all his heirs. If he left elder sons and younger sons, the elder sons may not care for themselves out of common inheritance at the cost of the younger sons, nor may the younger sons claim maintenance at the cost of the elder sons, but they all share alike [Bava Batra 8:7; 136a and Bava Metzia 75b].
David Daube observes that this facet of Jewish law is described in the talmudic literature:
"The father at the same time as he paid off his younger son, made a gift of the rest to the elder, keeping back for himself the usufruct and the running of it for life. This transaction, fully recognized in the Talmud, may be alluded to by the phrase 'he divided unto them the goods,' which, on this premise, would not be inexact at all. The younger son obtained absolute control and enjoyment of his share at once. The elder was also given his share - so that on the father's death there would be nothing for the younger to inherit." (Inheritance, 330, D. Daube)
(To be continued . . .)