And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in the country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” (Luke 15:11-16)
I’ve always thought the “parable of the prodigal son” was misnamed because the term “prodigal” is never actually used in the parable until I looked up the history of the word. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term originated with this story and is rooted in the Latin word “prodigalis” meaning “wasteful.” Interestingly, the root term is also where we get the word “prodigious”, meaning “impressively great in extent, size, or degree.” So the implication is that the term “prodigal” references one who is exceedingly wasteful to an impressive degree. So this actually gives more context and understanding to the accepted title of this parable (even though the title itself is never given in the Scripture) because it uses a term that was familiar to the readers of the Latin Vulgate when the term was formulated.
Looking at the first portion of the parable, we can now extrapolate some more details about the family that was presented.
- The family was indeed very rich, but the ownership of the family fortune was still with the living father/patriarch of the family.
- Patriarchial inheritance was a privilege of the wealthy since the poor of the day likely did not have enough property to warrant legal familial succession.
Inheritance is reserved for after the death of the patriarch. To demand your share of the inheritance before the death of the father is to essentially treat the father as if he is already dead. This also required that the whole of the estate be divided in accordance with inheritance law, with the oldest son receiving a double portion of the property. As a result, the oldest son would obtain 66% of the property, while the youngest would only receive 33% of the property. If there was an adopted child in the family, they would have also been entitled to a double portion under Jewish law, but that exceeds the scope of this parable.
Now that the youngest son has his premature inheritance, he decides to abandon his home and his country. He proceeds to lavishly (and foolishly) spend and waste his entire inheritance until he had nothing in reserve. And suddenly, economic collapse befalls his new homeland and he is forced to resort to literally selling himself into slavery to a pig farmer. Not only has he driven himself to this low point of self-imposed slavery, but it’s slavery of the worst kind in the minds of the Jewish establishment of the day – feeding ritually unclean omnivorous scavenger pigs.
One thing we’ve learned recently is that pigs can be aggressively territorial. They stink and they’re messy. However they are amazingly intelligent, but they use their intelligence to satisfy their own selfish appetites. Sure, they may even be cute – for a time. But they demand constant attention and they can be bullies if they don’t get their way.
And that’s not even the worst of it. In the midst of all of this turmoil, the son was now alone. What friends he was spending his money on had abandoned him. Even his own employer/slave master wouldn’t feed him. He was physically, spiritually, and now emotionally isolated. And this pattern holds true even for us today.
We as believers tend to become so discontent with the grace that God has given us that we treat Him as dead and still in the tomb, demanding His gifts for our own edification. And we take His grace so for granted that we isolate ourselves from the remainder of our spiritual family and decide we don’t need the fellowship of the body of Christ. Ultimately, our spiritual lives dry up and the gifts no longer have value and the only thing we hunger for is the scraps that even the pigs won’t eat.
I can testify that my own life traveled down this road on different occasions as I allowed arrogance and discontent to color my vision of the Father. I’ve physically isolated myself from the church out of spirit of selfishness. This led to me journeying for years in a dry spiritual wilderness, thirsting for something of value to quench the burning in my soul. Too ashamed to return to the fellowship, I tried filling that thirst with all manner of other less than satisfying pursuits – work, alcohol, distractions, etc. But it all left me feeling empty, dry, barren, and alone.
We are made to live in relationship with one another. As believers, we are designed to be in relationship within the body of Christ – to build one another up for the advancement of God’s Kingdom, rather than the detriment of His family. All too often, however, we take His grace for granted and choose to live life on our own terms. Inevitably, as a result, we end up face down in the mud begging for scraps from the pig trough instead of enjoying the feast at the Father’s table.
But as long as we have breath, it is never too late to come to our senses and return to the home of the Father. It requires setting aside our pride and being willing to accept the consequences, come what may. But His grace is worth it and life within His house is far better than life in the pigpen.