12 – Give me my share
‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’
When the value of a family is in its land holdings, the farm is often handed down, intact, to the older son upon the death of the father. If there is more than one son, however, complications arise. There are only a few alternatives open to a father of more than one son. (Daughters, by the way, were given a dowry on their way to being married and entering into another’s family. If they were unmarried they lived in the continued charity of the father and his sons.)
The father can deed his entire estate to his oldest son, and insist that the younger sons serve the oldest son, who upon the father’s death or disability, becomes the new patriarch of the family. The younger brothers will now be expected to obey him, as they had their father when he was alive. Sibling rivalry made this at times an onerous solution. But presuming that the younger sons can live at peace with the leadership of the older brother, another complication eventually arises. As the years go by, younger sons marry, have children, who in turn will marry and have children, and soon the farm cannot support the burgeoning family. Eventually some members of this enlarging family will have go and seek their fortune.
A second approach was for the father to divide the estate in his will, and upon his death all that he had would be divided and distributed according to his wishes. This is the approach recommended in the Old Testament Apocrypha.
Hear me, you who are great among the people,
and you leaders of the congregation, pay heed!
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,
in case you change your mind and must ask for it.
While you are still alive and have breath in you,
do not let anyone take your place.
For it is better that your children should ask from you
than that you should look to the hand of your children.
Excel in all that you do;
bring no stain upon your honor.
At the time when you end the days of your life,
in the hour of death, then distribute your inheritance. Sirach 33:19-24
That approach was self-protecting, and distrustful of sons and daughters. It cautioned against making one’s self vulnerable to the vagaries of one’s offspring or any other beneficiary.
There was, however, a third alternative; the one taken by the father in the story we are examining. He had two sons. A father could help his younger sons find a new future for themselves, off the land. A father is under no legal obligation to provide financial capital for the younger sons, but often a sense of moral obligation, and love for his other sons, would move him to promise to provide a specific amount if a son wanted to leave and set himself up in another business.
There were some fairly clear guidelines in such a case. An elder son was normally given “a double portion” of the estate. This did not necessarily mean that he would be given twice as much as any other son might receive. Nor did it mean he would receive two thirds of the estate, with the remaining third being divided among the rest of the sons. The “double portion” would include all the land, the main house and its furnishings, the outbuildings and the farming implements, and enough money for operating expenses so that the well being of the farm would not be jeopardized in the division of the assets. The amount that would be available for division would be from the liquid assets made and accumulated through running a successful farming business.
The younger son in the parable has been vilified in many ways. Some of this criticism may have been well deserved, but some of it may have been handed out unjustly. He has been called “insensitive” by asking prematurely for the money he would get at his father’s death. He has been called “impatient”, wishing for his father’s early demise so he can get his share of the booty. He has been called “greedy”, thinking more about money than about his father or his family. He has been accused of being hostile to authority, overly independent, an escapist from responsibility, with only ill intentions from the very get go.
But I suspect the criticism may be unfair. This young man may have received an offer from his father, that if he ever chose to leave and seek his fortune elsewhere, the father would be willing to give him the share that had been agreed upon. The son may have thought long about staying, but sensed, that though it might be a good short term solution, it did not promise much for the long term. It may well be that the older brother, whom we will meet later, was not an easy person to work with, and might be a more difficult boss upon the eventual death of his father.
We presume that the man is young when he leaves home. Apparently he has not married yet. The young are adventuresome. They are often optimists about themselves and the future. They are often risk takers. The younger son may well have lived under the shadow of his more serious and more focused older brother, and thought he would like to try his hand at succeeding in his own way.
By the time of this story, young men have been leaving their Palestinian homes for more than five centuries, heading off to Africa, Europe, or Asia, increasing the size and number of Jewish communities throughout the far-flung places of the empire. Emigration was a bright option for those looking for a fresh start. “Go west, young man,” was an ancient bit of advice as well as of more recent vintage. So our young man also heads off to a distant country, to try his luck.
On the day he leaves home, he may very well have been filled with great intentions to do well. He does not intend to blow his nest egg. He does not plan to crash, anymore than the sheep decides to get lost or the coin to drop out of sight. He left intentionally, of course, but not necessarily with any insidious intent. At least, when the story begins, his motives are not impugned or his character maligned.
We know what happens of course. He fails terribly and finds himself doing things he would never have thought himself doing when he left home. We have no reason to presume that this was his purpose in leaving. This young man is our brother. He is ourselves. He is every man and every woman. All of us know the sad truth of those bitter words, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” What begins with noble resolves can often be subverted, and high hopes can quickly disintegrate into deep despair. We who think we stand, need also to beware lest we fall.
The account of the runaway son is a story that is fiction, and yet at the same time it is a true story. It never happened. At the same time it has happened millions of times. This story is so archetypal, that upon hearing it, we understand it immediately.
The history of the world is filled with the accounts of sons and fathers in disagreement. Recently, as I prepared to preach a sermon for Father’s Day, I decided to interview the people I encountered that week as part of my research. Somewhere in each conversation, I moved to the question, “Do you like your dad?” or “Did you like your dad?” if he had already passed away. The answers that came back were mixed. Some offered variations of the words, “Oh, I love my Dad.” Others said, “Well, yes, I love my Dad”, but there was some hesitancy, as though that were not the spontaneous answer, but an answer that came from thinking about it. But most of the people answered with some variation of “Well, I’m not sure…” And they told me of strained relationships, of disagreement, of significant hurt and some of abuse. Some told me of leaving home when they were teens, others of staying home, but never feeling at home. Others told of visiting their dads, but mostly out of a sense of “ought-ness”, not desire, and most of them carried feelings of regret about their relationship with him.
This tension in the relationship between fathers and their sons appears to be almost genetic. In the animal world, when the male offspring come of age, they need to map out their own territory, and often there is tension in the group until the younger male goes off to make a life of his own.
Tensions between parents and their teens are almost expected. We speak of the age of rebellion as being the teen years. We see the high frequency of sons and daughters kicking over the traces during this time in their lives. Parents raising teens often feel that they are continually holding their breath during those years. Parents feel more insecure during this period than at any other time in raising their families.
Parents may feel this way because they remember, all too well, their own feelings during this stage of life. They remember how difficult those years were in the home of their own parents. They may remember how much trouble they got into. They may want to protect their sons and daughters from duplicating the experience of their own youth. Before they became parents, they too had often been “sons on the run”. They do not want their sons and daughters ending up in one of life’s pig pens.
Of course, some of our parents may have been clones of the older brother. They have no such memories of their own defection. They never drifted away from home or God, and cannot understand the quest for freedom. They cannot understand the legitimate yearnings of their own teens. This lack of understanding adds its own tensions to a household.
The word “teen” is an interesting word. It comes from the word “between.” Young people are in-betweeners. They are in-between childhood and adulthood. They are trying to shuck off the hyper-dependency of childhood and trying at the same time to assume the responsibilities of adulthood. This transition takes time, and at times is a difficult process, but all young persons need to make their way towards full autonomy.
Carl Michaelson[i] writes: “We are essentially beings who rebel. This is not because we are perverse. It is because we are made in the image of God. Ultimately we are to be responsible only to God. Therefore we must rebel against anything that compromises this ultimate responsibility.”
The quest for independence and autonomy is built into every one of us. We are not intended by God to be compulsively dependent upon anyone, and we are not intended to be obedient to anyone, except by our own free choice. As adults we have been given the capacity to rebel against every dominion, including the devil, the state, the church, the culture, our parents, ourselves, and even God.
In older forms of the wedding ceremony, the woman promised to “honour and obey” her husband. Thank goodness that has been deleted. Wives are not to obey husbands. They are adults, not children. And even children are only to be obedient while they are children. When we come of age, we are not to obey our parents, we are asked to honour them, respect them and love them.
Cults and cult leaders demand obedience. They expect their converts to conform to the creed of the cult, in mind and behaviour. That is why they are cults. They demand unthinking obedience from their converts, and make “Stepford Wives” out of their followers.
The totalitarian state demands obedience. “Conform or be imprisoned” is their rule. “Obey the authorities or we will terminate or incarcerate you.” But persons persuaded against their will are of the same opinion still. Coerced compliance rarely makes true converts.
The peer group also demands obedience. They may cry “Do not conform,” but then insist that we conform to their expectations, or we are out of the group, excluded because we do not bend to peer pressure.
Part of being fully adult involves making up our own minds, making choices freely, and serving and obeying whom we will. We have been warned about the hidden danger of the “compliant child” who finds it too easy to obey every authority for good and for evil. The child that easily obeys parents, may just as easily obey those with insidious intent. We are created by God to rebel against all authorities so that ultimate allegiance is given freely only to those we choose.
[i] Carl Michaelson, “Authority”, A Handbook of Christian Theology, ed. Marvin Halverson & Arthur C. Cohen, (New York: Collins, 1958) p. 24.