5. Expensive living. Many times the Prodigal is accused of “loose living” or “riotous living.” The Greek adjective in this phrase, however, does not imply immorality. (Syriac and Arabic translations in the Middle East have for 18 centuries preserved this finely tuned detail.) Jesus gives no hint as to how the Prodigal wasted his money. We are only told that he was a spendthrift.
At the end of the story the older son publicly accuses his brother of spending the money on harlots. But he has just arrived from the field and knows nothing. He clearly wants to exaggerate his brother’s failures. This tension in the story disappears when words such as “riotous living” (KJV), “loose living” (RSV), or “dissolute living” (NRSV) appear in the text.
6. The search for employment. When his money is spent, the Prodigal would naturally return home. But he has broken the rules. He knows that the qetsatsah ceremony awaits him if he returns to the village. He is thus desperate to somehow recover the money. For this he needs a paying job. Twice he tries to obtain one.
The first attempt is feeding pigs in the far country. The second is the game plan he vocalizes on the eve of his return home. These two plans must be looked at with some care. The first plan, becoming a pig herder, does not work. The text deliberately affirms, “No one gave him anything.” Like Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, this parable contains no excess verbiage. Each phrase is carefully crafted to carry precise meaning.
As a pig herder, the Prodigal is fed but not paid. The first-century Jewish reader knows the Prodigal must earn back the money he wasted if he is to avoid the qetsatsah ceremony. Having failed at his first try, he plans one last roll of the dice–he will go home, get job training, and earn his way. To be accepted for that job training, he will need his father’s endorsement. But how will he convince his father to trust him one more time?