“There was a man who had two sons.”

The Lost Younger Brother

Jesus’s story might best be named the Parable of the Two Lost Sons. It is a drama in two acts, with Act 1 entitled “The Lost Younger Brother” and Act 2 “The Lost Elder Brother.”

Act 1 begins with a short but shocking request. The younger son comes to the father and says, “Give me my share of the estate.” The original listeners would have been amazed by such a request. Not that there was anything amiss in the son’s expectation of a share of the family wealth. In those days when a father died the oldest son received a double portion of what the other children inherited. If a father had two heirs, the oldest would have gotten two-thirds of the estate and the younger would have received one-third.

However, this division of the estate only occurred when the father died. Here the younger son asks for his inheritance now, which was a sign of deep disrespect. To ask this while the father still lived was the same as to wish him dead. The younger son was saying, essentially, that he wants his father’s things, but not his father. His relationship to the father has been a means to the end of enjoying his wealth, and now he is weary of that relationship. He wants out. Now. “Give me what is mine,” he says.

The father’s response is even more startling than the request. This was an intensely patriarchal society, in which lavish expressions of deference and respect for elders and particularly for one’s parents were of supreme importance. A traditional Middle Eastern father would be expected to respond to such a request by driving the son out of the family with nothing except physical blows. This father doesn’t do anything like that. He simply “divided his property between them.” To understand the significance of this, we should notice that the Greek word translated as “property” here is the word bios, which means “life.” A more concrete word to denote capital could have been used but was not. Why not?

The wealth of this father would have primarily been in real estate, and to get one-third of his net worth he would have had to sell a great deal of his land holdings. In our mobile, urbanized culture we don’t understand the relationship of the people in former generations to their land. Consider the line in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! “Oh, we know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand!” Notice that it doesn’t say the land belongs to them, but rather that they belong to it. This neatly sums up how in the past people’s very identities were tied up in their place, their land. To lose part of your land was to lose part of yourself and a major share of your standing in the community. We have all heard stories of powerful and successful CEOs, both men and women, chucking their whole careers in order to care for a hurting, needy child. While not an exact parallel, this is what the father does.

This younger brother, then, is asking his father to tear his life apart. And the father does so, for the love of his son. Most of Jesus’s listeners would have never seen a Middle Eastern patriarch respond like this. The father patiently endures a tremendous loss of honor as well as the pain of rejected love. Ordinarily when our love is rejected we get angry, retaliate, and do what we can to diminish our affection for the rejecting person, so we won’t hurt so much. But this father maintains his affection for his son and bears the agony.

Keller, Timothy. 2008. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. 1st ed. New York: Dutton.

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