A Man Had Two Sons

Resources »EAPR »East Asian Pastoral Review 1994 »A Man Had Two Sons


Herman Hendrickx, C.I.C.M.



The peoples of the Ancient Orient  handed on the experience of their farmers in the form of wisdom sayings.  Since the origin of the plough-culture in Mesopotamia there has existed a treasury of experiential wisdom reflection about agriculture and households captured in sentences and rules.  This can considerably clarify the narrative world of Jesus' parables.  Parallel to the agricultural and household rules of the Ancient Orient, Hesiod's Works and Days,   written in the last third of the 8th century B.C., has brought  together the religion, customs, and life experience of Greek farmers.  In that work Hesiod presented the world of Greek farmers ordered according to its wisdom and values.  His design for a life of wisdom is encompassed by the quest for justice/righteousness.

If we want to understand the framework of expectation in which the narrator of the parable of the prodigal son places his listeners/readers, Hesiod's overall picture of a wisdom order for farmers is important.  Here appears in another cultural context the experiential background against which the parable of the prodigal son was developed.

The points of convergence between Lk 15: 11-32 and Hesiod's Works and Days are not immediately clear.  They have neither temporal contacts nor tradition-historical connections.  Neither do we intend to relate the ethos of Greek farmers of the 8th century B.C. boethian Ashra, the home of Hesiod, to the social and ethical notions found in Jesus' parables.  The historical and economic changes of the Hellenistic times were considerable.  In addition, we should take into account the distance between Hesiod's outlook on life and the Palestinian world of Jesus' parables.  Moreover, the parable of the prodigal son is not an isolated piece of writing, but a link in the chain of Jesus' parables.  To isolate it from that context is hermeneutically problematic.  Indeed, "parables make sense if and only if they are taken together.  An isolated parable is an artifact of the historical-critical method."

And yet the comparison between Lk 15: 11-32 and Hesiod should be attempted.  Peoples of different cultures or epochs have similar basic agrarian attitudes which result from the life situation of farmers.

In Hesiod's Works and Days we encounter the experiential wisdom and ethos of free farmers, a treasure of rules and guide-lines which the poet has further developed.  The imagery and ethical norm structure of Jesus' parables, on the other hand, develop out of biblical and Jewish wisdom, especially the ethos of farmers, as it is found, among others, in the Book of Proverbs, the Book of Sirach, and the apocryphal Testament of Issachar.

The interconnections between the Greek teaching of domestic economy and the corresponding rules of Old Testament wisdom have been given little attention.  We can here only partly make up for that lacuna.  All the same, Hesiod's value system can shed light not only on isolated features, but also on the overall understanding of rural life style in the parable of the prodigal son.

Historical and religious distinctions should not be disregarded.  While we note that the institution of the family and the system of ownership and inheritance are not identical in the parable and in Hesiod, we can nevertheless discover comparable norms and ways of conduct.


2.1   LK. 15: 11-32

A look at the history of the interpretation of Lk 15:11-32 shows that the unlimited goodness of the father and the unconditional acceptance of the prodigal son  at his return are the features of the narrative which lead to the point of the parable.  They break through the parameters of expectation and bring about a metaphorical  process.  However, when one pays attention to the narrative structure of the parable, it becomes clear that this identification of the point of the parable needs to be complemented.  For it has led to the elimination of the elder brother from the story and thereby to its arbitrary reduction to the first part of the parable (Lk 15: 11-32).  This is unjustifiable because of structural considerations as well as the type of parable we are dealing with, namely, that of a father who had two sons (Lk 15: 11-32).

The elder brother has often been interpreted as the proto-type of the Pharisees or the Jews who opposed Jesus' proclamation.  He eliminated together with the whole second part of the parable (Lk 15: 25-32).  This kind of literary-critical amputation is symptomatic of the conviction that the figure of the elder son is theologically dispensable.  However, the figure of the elder son is indispensable and not only from the point of view of the analysis of the narrative structure;  it cannot be overlooked either by anyone who recognizes the sapiential background of the story.  For the protest of the elder son raises the question whether the norms of the household and the rules of just action are still valid.  He raises the question of justice/righteousness.


At this point the theme of Hesiod's Works and Days  enters into the picture.  It is the work of a rural rhapsodist who is familiar with rural life.  He poses the question of justice/righteousness from the perspective of farmers.  Hesiod's audience are not aristocrats and would be found in the villages.  The author reckons with the social world and understanding of farmers.  That goes especially for the second part of the book referred to as "agricultural calendar."  In it agricultural rules are presented in gnomic sayings, that is, sayings characterized by sententious wisdom especially concerning human conditions or conduct, which have often been considered arbitrary and incomplete.  But their emphasis does not lie on a detailed description of agricultural work, but on the observation of the right time and order for work and rest, sowing and reaping.

In Hesiod, the work of the farmer is accompanied by religious rites, e.g., the prayer addressed to Zeus and Demeter at sowing and reaping, whereby the "holy grain" will become sound and heavy (line 465), and the sacred nudity while sowing and reaping: "strip to sow and strip to plough and strip to reap, if you wish to get in all of Demeter's fruits in due season, and that each kind may grow in its season" (391-392).  The whole process from sowing to reaping is a cooperation of gods and people determined by religious rules.  Any disruption is considered sacrilegious.

Hesiod and his readers share the conviction that in his agricultural work the  farmer has to submit himself to a divine order.  Whoever acts thus exercises a form of justice/righteousness which will result in the blessing of the harvest.  The question of justice/righteousness surfaces already in Hesiod's presentation of the five generations of humankind.  In the last, the iron generation (173-201), the crisis of family solidarity manifests itself in the disintegration of the rules which were constitutive of the household.

The crisis begins with alienation between fathers and sons.  Next, friendship and hospitality collapse.  All further social structures fall apart.  Brothers become enemies.  The highest  obligation of sons, to take care of their parents in their old age, is no longer honored.  The crisis reaches beyond the oikos,  the house(hold), to the whole of society; club-law and encroachment reign: "they will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another's city" (191-192).  Perjury takes the place of faithfulness to an oath.  What in the household appears as a crisis of family solidarity, becomes in the polis, the (city-) state a crisis of justice/righteousness.

An agricultural crisis with  acute suffering for the small, independent farmers has led to the demise of orderly society.  In the conflict with his own brother Hesiod has personally experienced the collapse of traditional structures.  His answer is not a pessimistic worldview or a withdrawal from responsibility, but an attempt to renew society on the basis of work and justice.  Hesiod wrote a paraenetic poem which intended to lead his brother Perses to work and justice.

The twofold task of work and justice is ultimately only one, as the context of the so-called  "dike -(justice) paraenesis" and work paraenesis makes clear.  The first dike -paraenesis addressed to Perses expresses the conviction that violence and lawlessness will not last (213-247).  In the end they will be overcome by justice. The blessing of the field and peaceful prosperity of the household are understood here as the natural consequences of justice and are described by verbs of growth.

In the second dike-paraenesis, addressed to judges and kings (248-273), Hesiod warns judges about the consequences of perverted judgments:  The virgin Justice..." sits beside her father, Zeus the son of Cronos, and tells him of men's wicked heart, until the people pay for the mad folly of their princes who, evilly minded, pervert judgment and give sentence crookedly.  Keep watch against this you princes, and make straight your judgments, you who devour bribes, put crooked judgments altogether from your thoughts.  He does mischief to himself who does mischief to another, and evil planned harms the plotter most" (256-265).

A (city-) state in which unjust people function as judges is not a human society (274ff.).  The praxis of club-law is a relapse into the animal order.  With the loss of the administration of justice people lose whatever is humane.  Through renunciation of violence and adoption of justice (274-285),  Hesiod wants to create a new foundation for the threatened social life.  Justice and agriculture should again be the foundations of society.  Indeed in the whole section, 298-319, ergon, "work," means work in the fields.  It characterizes the just, keeps need and hunger far away and fills graneries and storerooms.  Of farmers it can be said:  "Through work people grow rich in flocks and substance, and working they are much better loved by the immortals" (309).

To be sure, Hesiod does not explicitly refer to agricultural work as the way to justice,  as does Xenophon at a later date, but he states clearly that by strict observance of the rules and rituals in dealing with the land, the farmer can live unconstrainedly in harmony with the gods.  Hesiod thus knows a twofold justice: the justice of the farmers and that which is demanded of all people, namely, respect for social norms.

The religious aspects of agriculture are often neglected in recent literature in which the activity of farmers is considered neutral.  One speaks of, e.g., "some morally neutral activity such as sowing and harvesting."  This does not fall in with Hesiod's view or the ethos found in Jesus' parables.

In Hesiod's program of work and justice we meet the ideal of the free farmer who occupies himself in his house and home according to the established order, who sacrifices to the gods, and observes the laws of ritual purity.  The farmer does not always follow the political events in the agora, the public forum.  He is too busy for that.  Nevertheless, he is entirely given to a righteousness of performance, which ensures the increase of his goods, and he knows that the blessing of the gods requires justice in society.  The most important requirements are the preservation of the right to hospitality, the maintenance of family solidarity, and equality in the eyes of the law.

The farmer knows that he cannot live suitably on his fields when arbitrary judgments are pronounced in the (city-) state,  Hence he does not hesitate to compare the legal decisions of the aristocratic judges to the justice (dike ) guarded by Zeus.  He does not hesitate either to reproach the judges with their arbitrary decisions which are influenced by class interests.  This ethos which revolves around the two poles of work and justice, and sees in them the basis of social life, is rightly understood as a form of the rural sapiential regimen.


When we turn now from this early rural ethos of household and work among the Greeks to Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, even while paying attention to historical, social and religious differences, we can notice some similarities.  The parable presents the patriarchally run household of a landowning farmer as a totality of persons and possessions.  Nothing is said about ritual forms of dealing with the land which may have existed in Jewish popular religion.  Precisely in the religious activity of Israelite farmers the notion of Yahweh's ownership of the land had for a long time been locked in battle with the Canaanite rites.  It suffices here to refer to the ideal which considered agriculture as the form of life offered by God.

The transfer of property from father to son is in accord with several juridical regulations mentioned or presupposed in the story.  Here the question concerning the juridical norms prevalent in Jesus' time should be raised.  Behind them, whatever the inheritance regulations might be, remains the ancient demand of family solidarity, according to which distribution and premature inheritance claims are considered a break of solidarity.

In Lk 15: 11-32 the elder brother represents the ethos of the household and of the farmer more strongly than the father.  Some social and economic factors indicated in the parable, like the coexistence of laborers (mistoi) and slaves (douloi; Lk 15: 17, 19, 22, 26), or the question of ownership and inheritance, are to be discussed elsewhere.  Important here is that the elder son is characterized as a worker.  At the return of the younger brother, the elder is "in the field" (lk 15: 25).  We can picture the elder son in the role of a steward or manager who supervises the laborers during the day and gives them their daily wage at night.  But he may also be seen as a foreman who himself gets to work.  Both interpretations are possible, but the second is more probable.  The fact that he is "in the field" indicates that, notwithstanding sign of prosperity (festive robe, sandals, ring), we are dealing here with relatively small farmers.

In the world of the small farmer a feast is an exception, an unexpected event which stands out from ordinary days.  Outside the feasts fixed in the yearly calendar, there are normally no celebrations.  This explains the surprised question of the elder son at his return from the field: "He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on" (lk 15: 26).  The fatted calf is mentioned three times (Lk 15: 23, 27, 30).  This underlines the sobriety of the life-style, as does the reproach of the elder son to the father: "... you have never given me a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends" (Lk 15: 29).  A feast with one's friends and peer group was a privilege of rich young people in Hellenistic cities.  This is consistent with the words of the elder son: "For all these years I have been working like a slave for you" (Lk 15: 29).

The elder son incorporates the household and the ideal of work and austerity related to housekeeping.  By the words, "I have never disobeyed your command" (Lk 15: 29), he describes himself as a just person in the context of the household system, and acknowledges the obligation of work and moderation as its foundations.  He protests against the threat to the household order posed by the unconditional acceptance of the home-coming brother.


As we saw, the second part of the parable (Lk 15: 25-32) proves indispensable for the narrative structure as well as for the sapiential experiential background.  The first part (Lk 15: 11-24) brings to the fore the relationship between the father and the younger son.  This is an agreement with one of the main lines of sapiential thinking which develops the ethos of the household and the relationship between fathers and sons.  There are, however, also Greek and biblical texts which develop the question of justice in terms of the relationship between brothers (Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, etc.).  In these texts the problem of justice is presented as incorporated in two polar figures.

It is not accidental, then, that Hesiod too develops his theme of work and justice in terms of the opposition of two hostile brothers.  In the conflict with his brother the poet has experienced the breakdown of fraternal solidarity.  He considers his brother's behavior a fundamental breech of solidarity.  What is the root of this conflict?  From Works and Days  it appears that after the division of the inheritance Perses tried to enrich himself by obtaining (at least part of) Hesiod's share:  "For we had already divided our inheritance, but you seized the greater share and carried it off, greatly swelling the glory of our bribe-swallowing lords who love to judge such a case as this" (37-38).

Since the inheritance was divided it is clear that there was no question of common possession.  The time in which brothers lived together on the land owned by the father as "undivided joint family" (C.W. Westrup) was past.  But as ideal the original common property of brothers, attested in Greek and Roman law as well as in the Old Testament and  Talmudic law, continued for a long time to have some influence.

In the Old Testament this ideal is expressed, e.g., in Ps 133: 1,  "How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity" (NRSV); "behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity" (RSV).  This ideal constitutes the foundation of solidarity among brothers. Just as binding as this active support of brothers for each other is the passive solidarity of the family which obliges the well-to-do brother to intervene with the creditors on behalf of an impoverished brother.  Hesiod seems to fear that he will be obliged to intervene with what remains of his inheritance on behalf of his brother who squandered his share.

Whereas Hesiod placed the question of justice at the center of his Works and Days, in the parable of the prodigal son it is only implicitly addressed and, therefore, often overlooked. This is especially true of interpretations which, attracted by the figure of the father, want to see only the overflowing fatherly love and resist all attempts to consider the concept of justice in the interpretation of the parable.  The protest of the elder brother in the second part (Lk 15: 25-32) is thereby neglected.  This approach rests on preconceived theological premises which are contradicted by form critical, style critical and structural analytical findings.

However, even at this point of our research it is already clear that the intention of the parable can hardly be understood without taking into account the second part.  The re-acceptance of the younger son is a juridical act which should be in agreement with the order and justice of the household.  This is expressed by the elder brother.  Only when one pays attention to his protest can one recognize the metaphorical process of the parable.  For the anger of the elder brother is less a reaction kindled by the celebration than a protest against the re-acceptance of the brother who, by his departure and dealing with his inheritance, has proven himself untouched by the instructions of his father.  Moreover, he has violated the solidarity of brothers.  The elder brother denies the home-coming son the address :"brother" (Lk 15: 30), which is used by the slaves and also by the father (Lk 15: 27, 32).  Thereby he refers unmistakably to the breech of solidarity.

The parable, like  Works and Days, deals with a situation in which the fraternal association does not continue to exist after the father's death.  As in Ps 133:1, the "living together" of the brothers has become merely a sapiential ideal which is no longer institutionally and juridically practiced, but continues to influence society as an ideal.  The younger brother did not do justice to this ideal.  The elder brother understood the re-acceptance of the younger one as a threat to his own lifestyle based on obedience and work.  Indeed, in the last part of the parable the narrator presents this lifestyle as endangered.  He makes this clear by the unusual move of the father who "came out and began to plead with the elder son to come in" (Lk 15: 28).

The author emphasizes this still more by the open ending of the parable.  Indeed, the parable does not end saying, "And they went in to celebrate."  The open ending leaves the problem of the elder son unsolved.  It does not so much state the resentment of the elder son but rather the question about justice.  It is not the business of the listeners/readers to find the solution to this problem, as a didactic approach might suggest.  The open ending  under-lines the collision between two basic orders or systems in the narrative.  The father's actions do not agree with the order of the household which is represented by the elder son, and which is an order of justice resting on the foundations of work and obedience.

In the parable, as in Hesiod, the conflict between the brothers originates in their dealings with their father's possessions.  To the elder brother the share of property given to the younger one remains the property of the father (see "your property" in Lk 15: 30).  The narrator's "dissolute living" (Lk 15: 13) is not essentially different from the elder son's "devoured your property with prostitutes" (Lk 15: 30).  But in the mouth of the elder brother the objection gains in sharpness.

Allusions to the elder son's "moralism" found in some commentaries are unwarranted.  Even after the premature division of the inheritance, the father's property should be accounted for and be available for the support of the aging parents (see Sir. 3: 12, "My child, help your father in his old age...").  By his refusal to join the celebration the elder son formulates his protest and opposes the re-acceptance of his younger brother by the father.  This occurs without the participation of the elder son and is unlimited.  The elder son can only utter the protest of one who has been passed over.  He does not react to the invitation to the feast.  He holds on to the antitheses of preserving against wasting, work against idleness, obedience against rebellion, renunciation against festive joy, but also slavework of the firstborn against freedom and reintegration of the one born after him, who has made himself penniless and homeless.


But his protest lacks vigor.  What remains for him is the language of sarcasm, which interpreters often oppose to the overflowing goodness of the father.  They overlook, however, that the elder son's protest is formulated in sapiential style.  The reproach "this son of yours...who devoured your property with prostitutes" (Lk 15: 30) is comparable to the scorn of the Book of Proverbs for the idler, or to Hesiod's condescending address to Perses: "foolish Perses" (397,633).  In Hesiod's work and in Jesus' parable the conflict between the brothers concerns, therefore, the crisis of the sapiential lifestyle of farmers based on justice and work.


House and home are at the center of the parable's narrative world.  The departure and return of the younger son revolve around the home.  The property of which he asks his share is at the heart of the household and is often considered almost identical with it.  Yet the parable is not an economic treatise about housekeeping.  Rather a rural household comes to the fore: laborers take care of fields, slaves busying themselves with the household chores like killing the fatted calf; slaves and laborers supervised by family members.

The contrast between  "outside" and "inside" occurs more often than the "house" which is explicitly mentioned only in Lk 15: 25.  It coincides with the field and the house.  The younger son takes off with his share to the outside, and at his return the father runs to meet him outside. From the house come robe, sandals and ring.  The younger son returns inside the house where there is celebration.  And now the elder son who spent all his life "inside the house", is outside.  The father goes outside to meet him, but at the end of the parable it is not clear whether the elder son joins the celebration in the house.  "It is left untold whether the elder son finally relents and goes inside after the father comes out to entreat him.  One feels understanding for the position of all three protagonists, but in the end the parable shows a prodigal son inside feasting and a dutiful son outside pouting."

With the contrast between "outside" and "inside" the ethos of the household is also addressed.  This can be developed in comparison with Hesiod's work in which the house(hold) is a unity of persons and possessions.  Both texts describe a small family of free farmers, not an extended family living on commonly owned land.  Hesiod's experience, advice, and recommendations are meant for a household comparable to that of the parable.  In the introduction of his Works and Days Hesiod presents the task of the head of the family.  He is an example of productive activity.  He is well-to-do because he "hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order" (22-23).  Hesiod gives concrete examples for gathering as the first task of the household:  "He who adds to what he has, will keep off bright-eyed hunger; for if you add only a little to a little and do this often, soon that little will become great.  What a man has by him at home does not trouble him: it is better to have your stuff at home, for whatever is abroad may mean loss" (361-365).

Unlike the parable of the rich corn farmer (Lk 12: 16-20; often called the parable of the rich fool), Jesus' parable of the prodigal son does not depict the process of acquiring, collecting and bringing in, but the action of one who "squanders" what the father has gathered (Lk 15: 13).  This happens in a "distant country" which is  characterized precisely by its distance from the house.  The visual angle from which this "squandering" is observed is that of the house.

Only once, and then in a paradoxical way, the younger brother is presented as "gathering" (Lk 15: 13, "he gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country").  His gathering is not work; he hurriedly collects the share of the inheritance his father gave him, to take it away from the household.  Very quickly he finds himself in a situation of indigence, loses his self-sufficiency, and becomes a poor petitioner.  In the logic of its sapiential narrative art, the parable does not leave any doubt that by squandering his inheritance the younger son turned upside-down the ethos of the household.

5.   A LOOK AT LK 12: 16-20

A look at the parable of the rich corn farmer (Lk 12: 16-20) makes this clear.  It shows that Jesus presupposes knowledge of the gathering and preserving function of the household.  In the agricultural thinking of Israel as well as of Greece,  a bountiful harvest was considered a divine confirmation of the diligent work of the farmer.  In the blessing of the harvest appears the agreement between God and the beneficiary of the bountiful harvest.  On the other hand, profit made by business is regarded critically.  If farming is willed by God, then prosperity obtained by work on the land is to be distinguished from any other kind of riches.  In the ethical order of the household the head of the family provides for the future.  He does not go for fast gains by selling; only when all the needs of the household are provided for does he sell.  The rich corn farmer who demolishes his barns and builds bigger ones does therefore what the rules of the household expect from him.  Whoever seeks to store the bountiful harvest before it is damaged acts wisely according to the ethos of the household.

This cannot be seen as long as one reads the parable only as a paradigm of right and wrong relationships to material goods.  This reading finds in the attitude of the rich farmer only ungodliness and disdain for his needy fellow person.  But if Lk 12: 16-20 is understood not as an example story but as a real parable, it should neither be treated as secondary, nor forcibly interpreted eschatologically.  Whoever enters into the world of the narrative should pay attention to the coherence of the image world of the rural and economic house (hold),  bountiful harvest, storerooms, occupations like gathering, sleeping, eating, drinking, celebrating form a semantically compatible linguistic web which depicts an orderly agrarian world.

The metaphorical process gets underway as Deus-ex-machina solution of the divine voice (Lk 12: 20).  The intrusion of a divine voice is found only here in the New Testament parables and is considered probably secondary by most scholars.  It constitutes an incursion into the orderly sapiential world.  God's judgment is expressed in the same sapiential language which the parable narrator has used from the beginning.  There is no switch from sapiential to eschatological concepts.  The metaphorical process leads to neither a sapiential nor an eschatological admonition.  The parable does not deal with the recognition of the uselessness of riches in the face of death.  Neither does it admonish the listeners/readers that "we are just as foolish as the rich fool under the threat of death if we heap up property and possessions when the Deluge is threatening."  The parable itself does not lead to a parenaesis, and Lk 12: 12 is to be considered an addition.

The "extravagance of the solution" (P.Ricoeur) is to be found in that in the preceding portrayal nothing referred to the unexpected judgment.  Therefore, the conclusion does not criticize wrong conduct.  We are not dealing with the fate of the individual as is the case in similar sapiential formulations as, e.g., Eccl 2: 18-19:  "I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me - and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?  Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.  This also is vanity."

The question, "And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?"  (Lk 12: 20b) concerns much more the whole established order of gathering, providing for the future, and preserving.  This conclusion, which breaks up the story, is in its shocking character comparable with the "unjust" treatment of the workers of the first hour in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20: 12-15), with the praise for the un-just steward in Lk 16: 8, and the celebration for the returning spendthrift son in Lk 15: 22ff.

The ending of the parable of the prodigal son should here still be kept on hold.  What should be shown is that Jesus addressed his hearers with regard to the order of gathering and preserving in the household.  This common property of sapiential thinking is also present in Lk 15: 11-32.  Father, sons, property, and inheritance are the introductory signals of the parable.  They suffice to describe the whole household as unity of persons and possessions.  By the departure of the younger son with a part  of the family possessions the household is fundamentally affected.  The  sapiential context of Jesus' parable doesn't know anything about the younger son's search for identity or the enterprising spirit of Hellenistic colonists as some modern interpreters would have it.  All this has not yet entered the world of sapiential narration.  The story thinks first of the household as a preserving institution and then leads the hearers to the "steep doorstep of astonishment."

For the whole narrative world of the parable, not just for its climax, the son is already lost at his departure.  The consequences of this departure are marked out from the beginning.  Whoever lives outside the household is in danger because the protective order of the household no longer reaches him.  He becomes a homeless person without social belonging.  The question where and when the younger son's offence against the father begins can be clearly answered from the perspective of the household:  it does not begin only when he "squanders" his possessions.  Already his departure from the house with his share of the inheritance appears wrong for those who are familiar with the law of life of the household.  Even though the juridical system did not in principle exclude a division of the inheritance during the father's lifetime, the demand of the younger son and his departure are opposed to the family ethos.


The narrative world of the parable of the prodigal son deserves our attention.  By careful listening we can recognize the parable character of the story.  When we understand who are the people presented, we can also perceive the parable's ethos.  We experience in the story the clash of two worlds.  The collision takes place between the world of expectation and experience which faces the listeners in the "prodigal" material and the sapiential nature of the account, and the world whose presence and future Jesus indicates, the world of the kingdom of God.

Jesus tells the story of a father who lives with his two sons on his own farm.  The two sons behave differently; one makes demands, the other does not.  Let's first consider the father's farm.  For the work he has, beside his two sons, slaves (douloi), for the heavier work (Lk 15: 25), and house slaves (paides), for the lighter work in the house (Lk 15: 26).  He presides over a household well provided with material goods.  Festive garb, ring and sandals are available and fetched upon request.  To have supplies and provisions for all life situations belongs to the wisdom of the head of the family.

Whoever wants to know the condition of a household must inquire about the social intercourse of people with each other, about the distribution of the work, and how people relate to their property.  In Lk 15: 11-32 the father does not entrust the work in the fields to his slaves.  They must be few in number.  For the harvest he has recourse to free laborers (mistoi, Lk 15: 17,19).  Slaves have to be fed, clothed and cared for throughout the year; but the laborers make demands on the household only as long as they are employed.  They do not belong to the household.

For all that, the father is not presented as a great landowner.  He lives with his two sons and the whole family on his own land.  Work and life are inseparable.  We should, therefore, not think of a big estate but rather a small farm according to Hellenistic and Roman proportions.

If he were a great landowner, the father and his sons would have lived in the city.  The farm would have been supervised by a  steward  (oikonomos).  The owner would visit the farm only rarely to check on the steward and to inspect the condition of the fields and the cattle.  The father of the parable does not fit the picture of a great landowner, since his elder son is outside "in the field" (Lk 15: 25) and not dealing with the goods and finances in the house.  The parable implies that the family, especially the sons, are actively involved in the work.  We are dealing, therefore, with free farmers who, far from the city, live and work on their land.

For the understanding of the  plot of the parable it is very important to figure out if the demand of the younger son for his inheritance does already break through the ethos of the narrative sapiential world.  For a long time this question was formulated as follows:  Is the sin of the prodigal son to be found already in his claim on the inheritance and his departure, or only in his squandering life in a distant country?

Within the meaning of the rural ethos of the narrative world of the parable his demand and departure should be considered the decisive step which removes him from the world of the father and the household.  His action contradicts the internal norm of the household which is geared towards preserving and maintaining, not towards dividing and separating.

The father acts as the guarantor of the sapiential order of the household.  He represents the ideal of the free farmer who sees in the cultivation of the God-given land the activity which conforms with justice on which God's blessing rests, which finds its expression in the produce of the field.  The ethos of the younger son stands in sharp opposition to all these.  In a sapiential context he represents the unwise, the fool, who opposes the wisdom represented by the father.  For such a situation there is only one solution in the context of sapiential  instructions for life.  The unwise person must acknowledge his mistake and try to repair the damaged order.  Only thus can he regain his lost place in the household.

But precisely at this point in the narrative a collision takes place between the sapiential order and another, new order.  The son who has run aground is lifted up from his situation of extreme humiliation in an act which is plainly without analogy.  Here the narrator begins to thoroughly disorient his listeners.

Is it wise for the father to act this way?  Has not the younger son squandered his inheritance?  Can he be established a second time in a right which ha has forfeited?  Doesn't this endanger the order of the household?  Doesn't he deserve punishment, warning and constraint rather than celebration, joy and honor?

The "steep doorstep of astonishment" (E.Biser) arises here between the narrator and the listeners.  Is it fair and justified to prepare a joyful celebration for the lost and "shipwrecked" son?  The unconditional re-instatement of the son in his forfeited rights signifies the "extravagance of the solution" (P.Ricoeur).  It is the surprising feature of the narrative which starts the metaphorical process which makes the story into a parable.

Here must also begin the protest of the listeners involved in the stipulations of the sapiential narrative world.  It creates more room for itself in the opposition of the elder brother.  This protest has a two fold concern.  It is directed against the unconditional re-instatement of one who has dissociated himself from the regimen of wisdom.  Thereby the order of the household should be protected and maintained.  It cannot exist and endure if the conduct of the younger son were to remain without consequences.

With his championing the cause of the order of the household in the second part of the parable the elder son becomes the actual representative of that order.  Only when we have heard his protest in all its sharpness, when we have gone with the elder son through extreme astonishment and near perplexity, can we free ourselves from the narrative world of the household and penetrate the new reality which is opposed to it in the collision of two worlds.  It is the reality of the kingdom of God.

While this story does not become a parable without the astonishment and conflict, without the questioning of the world based on performance and right, the parable depends on the second part of the story.  Without it, the story remains an example, an example story which presents and confirms the existing world   Only by the strong protest of the elder brother is the world of the household, the world of our present experience pushed to the limit and, in the glare of the reign of God, even over its limits.  Without the protest of the elder brother the parable would amount to plausible generalities, or a kind of self evident instruction.  It would leave the world as it is, and describe it ethically or religiously.  But now, by alienation and protest, we are made aware of the fact that the re-acceptance of the younger son is no groundless act of grace, which leaves the sapiential world intact.  The re-acceptance of the prodigal son appears rather as a juridical act, which breaks through and contradicts the order and justice of the household.  This is made clear by the elder brother's opposition.

In the second part of the parable the roles are considerably changed.  The father no longer represents the order of the household;  that role is now taken up by the elder son.  The order of the household is shattered and in the process is opened up.  When the parable takes up the younger son and brother in an act of unparalleled reinstatement, without probation or penance, it alters the order of the household.  At the same time the listeners/readers are summoned to join in this radical change.  The father, who celebrates the returnee with  a feast is no other than  the one who until now held sway in the established sapiential order of the household.  But now he acts differently.  He leads the listeners/readers by way of identification, through protest and opposition, and finally through a higher level consent, to an encounter with the new world intended by the parable story:  the new world of the reign of God.


This article does not intend to present an overall interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son.  Rather, it attempts to highlight some cultural and socio-economic features which have parallels in Mediterranean literature and which may help us to better understand the background of the parable, as well as some of its features, and even the parable as a whole.

This study is far from exhaustive.  We limited ourselves to Hesiod's Works  and Days  (and a few features of Old Testament Wisdom).  But similar research should be, and has been done on the household ethos presented by Xenophon, Aristotle, and later Greek schools, as well as by Old Testament literature, especially Proverbs, Sirach, and the apocryphal Testament of Issachar.

Moreover, there is a long literary tradition which develops the topos of dissimilar brothers and the young squanderer, from the Sumerian Dialogue, "The Father and His Wayward Son," to treatments by Philo of Alexandria, Seneca, and the rabbinic parables.

The findings of the above mentioned studies deepen the insights obtained from our limited research.  They confirm the affirmations made in the present paper.

We hope that these few pages may inspire and encourage others to attempt a study of the parable of the prodigal  son (as well as other parables) in dialogue with their presentday culture and the contemporary ethos of free small farmers.

  • Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) in Spirituality and Leadership
    Aug 04
    Nov 30