I heard a song this morning based on the prodigal son and something in this song made me think of an aspect of the story I had never really thought of before. Luke 15 tells us that the prodigal son had traveled to a distant or far away land after he took his inheritance and left home.
I have been on a quest of late to learn to recognize when I am interpreting scripture purely from my own Western (American) understanding so that I can see and understand God’s Word in a broader light. The American mindset and the Middle Eastern mindset is vast.
- · Americans prize individualism while Middle Eastern cultures are built on collectivism.
- · Americans value self-worth, personal accomplishments along with personal pride in these two things but collectivist cultures pay close attention to how individual actions affect the family or group as a whole.
- · Americans live a life of being prideful or ashamed. Collectivist cultures live by the code of honor and shame.
Before I go further it is important to note that shame and shaming or being ashamed are two distinct concepts and should not be confused as similar or the same. In a collectivist culture a person can either bring honor to their family or dishonor (shame). In accordance with this each personal decision is weighed out keeping these two factors in mind:
- · Will this action or decision bring honor to my family or group?
- · Will this action or decision bring shame upon my family or group?
Another aspect of this way of living and thinking is that the ultimate goal in families and communities is to bring as much honor as possible to the head of the family or group. This is because in collectivist cultures honor brings opportunities and dishonor removes opportunities for families, groups, and individual members. If the family was honored everyone benefited with increased or continued opportunity. However, if one individual brought shame upon the family or group the whole group suffered in that opportunities would be removed from all members of that family or group.
With this understanding in mind I want to look again at the story of the prodigal Son in Luke 15.
The younger son in the parable asks the father for his portion of the inheritance.
Immediately we as American’s have a couple of misunderstanding or things that we might not catch because we just don’t understand the culture.
In Jewish culture unlike in the West a father did not have to die in order for an inheritance to be passed on. It was within the rights of the father to hand out the inheritance at any time he saw fit. But because this handing down of the inheritance before death had caused problems in the past it was noted in the Mishna (The most basic definition of the Mishna is that it is the written account of the oral law of the Torah.) that it was not advisable to hand down inheritances while the father lived because if he found that he became in need he would have to ask for the inheritance back from his children. This would cause dishonor and as such should be avoided.
Never-the-less it was still the legal right of the father to decide for himself if he desired to hand out inheritances while he still lived.
One interesting aspect of the story is that it was not the right of the son to demand the inheritance. While it was the father’s right to decide the timing of inheritances it was his right alone and according to Jewish customs he could not be coerced into handing out the inheritance at any certain time by his children. This too would have been seen as bringing dishonor to the family.
Next, if a father did divide the inheritance while he was still alive no one was allowed to sell that inheritance for money or dispose of the property. Neither the father nor the sons could do so.
This explains what we see next in the story. In Luke 15 we see that a few days after the younger son receives his inheritance he gathers everything that he had and leaves. The son travels not just across town to strike out on his own but instead goes to a distant land. Scripture tells us that it is there the son squanders all of his estate. So why did the son go so far away?
Remember, it was illegal for the son to sell or dispose of the property he had inherited while his father was still alive. Everyone he knew in his home land would have known that he had received his inheritance from his father and that his father was still alive. Consequently, since no one wanted to be guilty of enabling a son to bring shame or dishonor to his father thus bringing shame to their own families the son would not have been able to sell or squander any of the estate he had inherited while still in his home town.
It was necessary for the son to travel a long distance away so that he could use the inheritance as he pleased while his father still lived. He had to travel to a place far enough away so that no one knew him or how he had obtained his estate. He needed to become a stranger.
That’s exactly what he did. We see that the son travels not just to a distant land but to a land of Gentiles. This was as far away as a Jew could get from home. It was here that the son could be sure that he would not be hindered by his family connections. He was free to do and act as he pleased.
In these actions of both demanding an inheritance while his father lived and moving to a distant land to squander that estate the son was sending the message that he wished his father were dead. Moving to a distant land would have added even more dishonor to the family and the father.
Next, Luke tells us that after squandering everything the son realizes what he has done and begins the journey back home. Sure, we like the older son in the story could focus on the squandering but it is a better use of our time in my opinion to focus on the returning and our role in aiding it.
Notice that the son plans and rehearses what he is going to say to his father once he sees him again.
The son purposely traveled not only to a distant land but he traveled to a distant people as well.
He gave up his family and his people.
It is only when the son realizes that the people he was living among cared nothing for him that he began to realize what he had really given up. He desired to belong again to a family; a people. He began to see what he was missing.
He missed being connected to a people in that shame/honor society where he would be cared for. He missed having those who would look out for him and his welfare. In a collectivist culture it was unthinkable not to take care of your family because it would bring dishonor. The best way I can describe it in American terms would be that there is a real sense of team in a collectivist culture and this is what the son was missing; to be valued and to value others for the sake of the whole because as I stated before when the whole family benefits from honor each individual benefits. There is safety and security here.
So we see the son set out on his long journey home.
In a collectivist culture it is seen as a great danger and sadness for anyone to go anywhere alone. They always travel in groups and at the very least a group of two people. So the fact that we see this son traveling alone in this parable would have evoked great sadness in the Jewish audience as it should in us as well.
So there the son is alone with a long, difficult walk ahead of him. Not only did the distance make this walk home a long one but the circumstances surrounding why he had to walk so far would have added to the hard walk home.
With every step the son recalled his past decisions. Each step would remind him just how far away from home he had gone and why he had traveled so far. We see the son rehearsing as he walks home what he will say to his father in hopes that he just might be accepted back into the family even if it is as a servant. The son doesn’t even consider the state of being a servant in his father’s house as anything dishonorable. He just wants to make it home any way he can.
The son had been forever changed by his experience. He had gained a new understanding of the family, of his father, of honor.
But though he understood them differently he also understood himself differently. Would they understand as well? He could only hope and have faith in what he knew of his father.
What a difficult walk home.
We are not told how long the son lived in this distant land only that he had nothing left. He had no food, no provisions for this trip. We already know that he was hungry. He had squandered everything in a land that was now engulfed in famine. He was so hungry that he as a Jew took a job feeding pigs and considered eating with those pigs.
Now, that’s a hungry Jew!
We also know from the story that he had come to realize that no one in this distant land cared for him at all.
This son was hungry, tired, and knew all too well that he was alone
…and now he must walk the great distance to get back home without assurance that he would be accepted again.
All he had left was hope and just enough faith to take each step.
Hope that he would make it safely home. Hope that his father would accept him. Hope that this family would accept him. He hoped in the goodness of home.
We know this trip was an emotionally and physically difficult one from what we see in scripture. Not only was the son alone, hungry, and tired but he was concerned about how he would be received once he reached home.We see in the story that the son rehearses what he will say to his father.
How often when we are unsure of the outcome of a situation do we rehearse our lines in hopes of being understood? In hopes of being accepted?
This journey home was a difficult journey, possibly in part because of the distance or terrain though we are not told but certainly because of the difficulty of retracing the very steps that led the son to his current situation;
the steps that took him away from home and caused him to lose everything.
I can’t help but think how much easier that journey could have been if the son were not alone as he walked. How much easier and safer his journey would have been if his older brother were out searching for him to make certain he made it home because he loved him. Because he loved his father and desired his honor be restored more than his own comfort and pride.
There are so many today that for one reason or another have left God and His family. Some are bravely taking those necessary steps back home but it is a long difficult trip. It is a journey full of danger, self-doubt and apprehension.
Am I taking the right path? Is this the way home I cannot remember for sure? Will my Father accept me? Do I remember Him correctly? Will I make it there safely or will I get lost and hurt along the way?
It is also a journey of amazing faith that says I remember that my Father is good and the trip is worth it.
Still what a beautiful and honorable thing it would be if God’s children who stayed with the family would go out searching for their prodigal brothers and sisters and help them come safely home again.
How it would ease their journey if we would meet them with food and provisions and the safety and comfort that comes with traveling together. How it would strengthen their resolve and faith if we would listen while we walk as they recount their experiences away from home and what they have learned about themselves and life. What a restorative action it would be if we would prove their faith in God’s unconditional love for them and acceptance of them just as they are through our own actions and desires. My, how time would fly; why…you would both be home before you knew it.
What a beautifully enjoyable walk that would be!
MJL Staff. What is the Mishna. n.d. www.myjewishlearning.com/article/mishnah (accessed May 16, 2017).
New American Standard Bible. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation., 1995: Update.
Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O'Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 2012.