To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, lest you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are still alive and have breath in you, do not let any one take your place. … At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance. [Sirach 33:19-20,23 (RSVCE)]
If one assign in writing his estate to his son to become his after his death, the father cannot sell it since it is conveyed to his son, and the son cannot sell it because it is under the father’s control. [Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra viii.7)]
Through His parables, Jesus related profound spiritual truths in stories that were easily understood and relevant to his listeners. Although Jesus’s original audience often didn’t like His message, they clearly knew what He was saying. Because of the vast cultural differences between our world and 1st century Palestine, I’m not sure we fully appreciate the impact His parables had on the people who first heard them.
Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across indulgent fathers and pleasure-seeking, selfish, and rude children but, when Jesus told the parable known as “The Prodigal Son,” honor and respect for one’s parents were of paramount importance as were the dignity and absolute authority of the patriarch of the family. Jesus’s listeners must have gasped in horror and unbelief when they heard Him describe behavior by both father and sons that defied acceptable conduct and cultural norms.
Although some fathers at that time might distribute their estates prior to death, they would continue to receive the income while their sons managed it. What is extraordinary in Jesus’s parable is that, by brashly demanding his inheritance, the younger son really is telling his father, “I wish you were dead so I could get on with my life!” Although the expected response would be to slap the boy and immediately disinherit him, the father does as his boy asks. When we read that the son “gathered together” his things, we think of it as packing up his belongings. The Greek word used, however, was sunago which, in this context means the son turned his inheritance into cash. Although preserving family property was of utmost importance to the Jews, the boy blatantly defies the Talmud by selling his share of the estate (thus depriving his father of its income). Since he leaves home within a few days, the implication is that he didn’t even try to get top dollar for the land.
By then squandering his entire inheritance, the son shows contempt for all that his father accomplished over the years. As if the story weren’t shocking enough, he compounds his sin and further dishonors his father by moving to a distant country (meaning Gentile land) and eating with pigs. Picture a son demanding part of his father’s business, selling it at a loss to a competitor, quickly squandering his money in wild living, and then going off to join the Taliban and you get a vague idea of how astonished Jesus’s audience might have been by this story. While the behavior of the father was baffling, the behavior of his son was absolutely unforgivable!
Both the Torah and Talmud were quite clear about one’s behavior toward parents and you can be sure Jesus’s listeners knew how this story was supposed to end. Jesus, however, had a way of turning people’s expectations upside down. This was the rabbi who spoke of the first being the last, praying for one’s enemies, walking by faith rather than sight, turning the other cheek, being weak to become strong, leading by serving, giving to receive, and losing your life to save it. If His audience was shocked at how the parable began, they were probably scandalized at how it finished.