1. The request. The younger son requests his inheritance while his father is still alive and in good health. In traditional Middle Eastern culture, this means, “Father, I am eager for you to die!” If the father is a traditional Middle Eastern father, he will strike the boy across the face and drive him out of the house. Surely anywhere in the world this is an outrageous request.
The Prodigal is not simply a young boy who is “off to the big city to make his fame and fortune.” Rather, this young son makes a request that is unthinkable, particularly in Middle Eastern culture. The father is expected to refuse–if he is an oriental patriarch! In fact, he is not, which brings us to the second point.
2. The father’s gift. The father grants the Prodigal the freedom to own and to sell his portion of the estate. Five times in the parable the father does not behave like a traditional oriental patriarch. This is the first instance. The inheritance is substantial. This is a wealthy family that has a herd of fatted calves and a herd of goats. House servants/slaves appear. The house includes a banquet hall large enough to host a crowd that will eat an entire fatted calf in one evening. Professional musicians and dancers are hired for that banquet. The father is respected in the community, and thus the community responds to his invitation.
Transferring the inheritance is a serious matter that should only be dealt with by the father as he approaches death. Furthermore, the Prodigal “gathered all he had,” or as the New English Bible puts it, “turned [it] into cash.” This means that he is selling his part of the family farm.
As that happens, this horrendous family breakdown becomes public knowledge, and the family is shamed before the entire community. Jewish law of the first century provided for the division of an inheritance (when the father was ready to make such a division), but did not grant the children the right to sell until after the father’s death.
In a second departure from the expected norm, the father grants the inheritance and the right to sell, knowing that this right will shame the family before the community. Thus, from the opening lines of the parable, it is clear that Jesus does not use an oriental patriarch as a model for God. In the contemporary West, Jesus is often accused of having done so. Such is not the case. Rather, he has broken all the bounds of Middle Eastern patriarchy in creating this image of father. No human father is an adequate model for God. Knowing this, Jesus elevates the figure of father beyond its human limitations and reshapes it for use as a model for God.