In Jesus’ time, the vast majority of people in Galilee (and Samaria, Judaea, for that matter) lived from an agriculture in which grain, animals, and fruit trees, esp. olive trees and vineyards, were the main elements.
The basic resource, even for the Greco-Roman cities, was agriculture, an activity which required incessant labor, esp. when population pressure (as seems the case since the Iron age, and certainly the Hellenistic period) drove people to cultivate even the steepest hills, spending much work in stone terracing and retaining walls, paths, towers, and the digging of thousands of cisterns in the rock.
What of the distribution of labor? Most of the agricultural work was done by sharecroppers and their families, day or seasonal laborers (perhaps often coming from the same families), tenants on fixed rents, who probably were less common. There were also independent farmers, especially in the hill country, sometimes fairly well-to-do, as in the case of veteran soldiers in the territory of some of the neighboring Greco-Roman cities. Above these people involved in production, and disposing of more authority over the land than them (and therefore more secure access to food and other goods), were large landowners, often priests, esp. aristocratic priests, who were connected to other landowners and even sometimes princely houses through social, cultural, and kinship bonds. And above them all was the king. Herod Antipas was a client-king of the Romans in Galilee in Jesus’ time, whereas Judaea was under direct Roman rule.
The concept of land property was expressed in Aramaic in terms of authority. Many strings were normally attached to this authority over land. The first one was that the “landowner” owed his authority to someone above him with whom he was in a relation of debt and service, and in the end to the divinity. The second one was that this authority depended on a continuous, active protection of those below.
Role of debt
In this ancient economy, given the lack of exact economic measurements (and inadequacy of censuses), there was no way of knowing if the pressures put to bear in the extraction of a “surplus” from the people under one’s authority (at whatever level) were properly set. There could not be a proper accounting or prediction of what could be extracted as taxes and rents, except for specialized crops such as grapes and olives for which yields are more readily calculable. The tax basis was not well known, owing to the climate of the area, and it is likely that people (including many priests) were loathe to see traditional ways changed (for instance, measurements of land were as sown land, not in the form of surveying pure units of area, as the Romans were wont to do. So, the best way to know if the pressure was being properly applied on sharecroppers, tenants, tax-farmers and even client-kings –in a sort of pyramidal scheme– the best way was to set tributes and rents, from top to bottom, in such a way that subjects would be indebted and come begging for relief, which could then be granted (or not).
Remittance of debt was therefore part of the evaluation of the tax or rent basis. It was expressed in a religious language of debts and release which was part of a larger set of values centered on the temple.
So, for instance, one reads about Herod the Great, in the generation immediately before Jesus, remitting part of the annual taxes on three occasions. His behavior appears to be extremely generous, likewise, during the great drought of 25 BC. But his benevolence fits exactly the (ideal) behavior pattern of landowners in antiquity. In an agricultural handbook for large landowners, for example, the 1st c. AD Roman author Columella reasoned that the landowner had to walk a fine line, between being strict in exacting debt payments from tenants—which could make them despair, perhaps even flee—and being generous and encourage a better investment of labor in the land, which he thought more profitable in the long run. From the landowner’s point of view, work, as well as smoothness of the agricultural operations, is what mattered, because it meant better yields. And better yields, in turn, made it impossible for tenants or subjects to ask for reductions in rent or taxes at a later time. Furthermore, piling up revenues of money and goods, enough to last several years, was imperative in ancient times precisely to be helpful—and in turn be acknowledged as benefactor or savior, which therefore reinforced the demands for future reciprocity, i.e. labor—in times of crisis. At the bottom of the social ladder, however, this translated as an impossibility to store and save and was felt as constant fragility and need.
For Jews in Galilee, Judaea and elsewhere, how did the Temple contribute to the system of debt? Because certain kinds of archives and an enormous mass of wealth were kept at the temple and, more generally, because the temple and its sacrificial system provided the sacred guarantee for contracts in economic matters. In the end, this security really rested on something quite simple, namely on the love that the whole people had for the “house of God,” another name for the temple.
What is striking is that the Aramaic vocabulary makes it clear that bonds and debts could also be seen as sins. The same word and root was used for both. People felt constrained to pay as their debts were also sins, i.e. debts to God, in their perception. This system was open to abuse on the part of the authorities in charge of the temple. But the divine guarantee normally put some pressure also on the wealthy not to push their advantage, since the whole of the biblical tradition puts the stress on the idea of a merciful God, who must be imitated. The Romans tried to control the Temple directly, but couldn’t. They had to resort to indirect control by naming kings and high priests and encouraging marriage ties between both
We know that Herod the Great spent fortunes on the Temple and turned it into one of the most magnificent structures in the East. But he was at the same time increasing his control of the land and diverting wealth towards his Roman masters (whether as rents, taxes, or gifts).
The duty of priests, elders and leaders was to prevent, in a variety of ways, the transformation of Jerusalem into a common Greco-Roman city. To prevent this from happening was to afford direct protection to the Jewish producers against Greco-Roman greed. Physically speaking (knowledge of the quantity of harvest, watching over threshing floors), Romans needed the local aristocracy and priesthood, and furthermore needed to tap the religious authority they exercised, since tithes owed were also sins. The priestly aristocracy was torn: go with the Romans and become Roman-like landowners (perhaps with some official capacity), or resist the encroachments and therefore radicalize the position of Jerusalem and the temple.
Kingdom of God
In their resistance to the changes in control of the land, Jews could appeal to the scriptural notion that God was king and sole owner of the land: hence the formulas “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heavens.” The laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are based on this notion, for instance in their development of the Jubilee laws (Lev 25.9-13; Dt 15.2). But under Hellenistic kings, and under Rome, one can see much of the land not only owned by the king and his friends, but also by non-Jews. This had consequences for the application of several traditional laws, for instance the Jubilee law, which in turn became an element of the eschatological language calling for a return to God’s exclusive dominion.
Many people, including John the Baptist, Jesus, the rabbis later, shared this fundamental notion.
Repentance and forgiveness of sins
The debt-system in the society of Jesus’ time locked everyone in their position and made impossible a more extensive debt-forgiveness, because in practice, debt-forgiveness, as part of a forgiveness of sins framed in more general terms could or would not be recognized necessarily by the beneficiary or even others as an act of goodness, but as foolishness, and even rebelliousness.
This is the idea in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18.21-35), in which a king wishes to review his servants or slaves’ accounts. The first one, a minister, i.e. the king’s most important tax-farmer or highest bidder, cannot pay the huge sum he owes him, so the king orders him to be sold, along with his family, and payment to be exacted. But the servant falls on his knees, and implores the king to be patient. The king not only is patient but is so moved by compassion that he forgives the debt. The servant, however, perhaps thinking he has played a good trick on his master, doesn’t hesitate to exact payment on a much smaller debt from a fellow servant , threatening him, showing no pity, and eventually throwing him into jail to enforce payment. The minister/servant is eventually called back by the king who condemns him to jailers or torturers until complete remittance.
Or consider the parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16 (see my other post). His master is coming and he has lost his position. But he still has his master’s symbols of authority at his disposal for a few hours. So, hurriedly and illegally, he uses them to write off part of the debts of a village of sharecroppers, in the hope that the tenants will reciprocate later in food and shelter. He knows that when his master will arrive, the sharecroppers will thank the master profusely and bless him, making it impossible for the landlord to go back on what has been done in his name. The story implies that God as master may actually accept to be tricked into the forgiveness of sins. It also implies that the highly acclaimed benevolence and debt-forgiveness practiced in hellenized Palestine are unauthorized tricks which do not erase the original dishonesty.
Jesus’ solution to the problem of a debt system in which no one could make the first move appears to be no different, on the surface, from that proposed by John the Baptist and others. His main metaphor was also that of the kingdom of God (50 times in Mt alone and many times also in Lk). He also shared the notion of repentance and forgiveness of sins of those around him.
But Jesus proposed these notions, which were held by all those interested in justice, with a new twist, because when he appears on the scene, according to the synoptic gospels, he forgives sins directly (in several stories of healing physical and mental diseases). How could he dare do this, on what authority? The answer to this question appears most clearly in the story of the lost son.
The lost or prodigal son
The parable of the lost son, or prodigal son, gives an inkling of how Jesus (or the storyteller after Jesus) sees himself in relation to these basic metaphors, the kingdom of God and God as father. This parable, which has been seen by tradition as being at the heart of the gospel, one of 31 parables actually, looks like a version of the story of two brothers, elder and younger: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Jacob’s ten older sons and Joseph, even Moses in relation to Aaron, the seven sons of Jesse and little David… In this kind of story, the second son is often a shepherd. Here too, he becomes a sort of shepherd, but his herd will consist of pigs, animals whose consumption was forbidden to Jews. But the two sons are not the only characters: there are two more actors in this story, the father and the village around, including his own household of house-servants and the workers in the field (sharecroppers?).
The father, who seems to be a wealthy landowner, is a figure of patriarchal authority, over land, wife(s), sons and daughters, servants, sharecroppers. One would expect him to be part of the village or town council of elders, that is to say, deciding in all matters threatening the peace in the village. There is no apparent reason why he should formally divide his estate at this point, since he has sons. Custom would dictate that division be done as follows: 2 shares to the elder son, 1 to the younger one. In any case, the father would retain usufruct.
The request by the younger son for his share of the inheritance is a shocking demand to which the answer normally expected in this patriarchal society is extreme anger, followed by some form of judgment and ostracism or exile, even death in some extreme cases. For instance, Herod the Great accused his own son Antipater of parricide and eventually had him killed right before his own death, because he was too quick to claim the throne (Jewish Antiquities 17.52–53; 61–77; 93–99).
But the father “divides his substance among them” (τὸν βίον, i.e. material possessions indistinguishable from life). There is already compassion, or we the listeners at least can read it into it because we know the end, but do the sons and the village (with its other fathers and sons) and the original audience see it as compassion, rather than weakness, feeble spirit, even irrational, mad behavior?
What is the role of the elder brother at the beginning? Has he remained indifferent? Has he directly encouraged the younger son to ask for the inheritance, or indirectly, by making cohabitation difficult?
The village, perhaps on a hillside or an outcropping over a valley, knows everything or is at least interested in everything, and one may imagine servants and hired workers talking and not necessarily reporting the exact truth. They would be astounded by the father’s lack of severity, and wonder about his authority and the threat to their own.
What happens to the younger son is an inexorable fall, socially speaking. “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had…” Did the division of property involve renewed arguments? In any case, it took a while to insist again, do the actual sharing and figure out “all he had”, under the disapproving eyes of everyone. His capital now consisted of sheep, goats, money, equivalent to his share of land. Perhaps he lost in the division, but doesn’t care. After that, he cannot stay in the village or anywhere near, because what he has done strikes at the heart of the patriarchal control of land and the inhabitants of the village may become very threatening to him. He has lost any claim to friendship, as well as any possibility of marriage (?) in the whole area, since news travel fast.
“He went into a far country.” Did the listeners imagine the Transjordanian plateau or the coast, Phoenician / Aramaic / and Greek speaking, but dominated by Greek cities (unless Luke’s gospel refers to the Syrian coast). There, he is a foreigner, a *metoikos*, in self-exile, without a protector or safety net, unable to establish a home, and at risk of falling prey to wrong friends. He has to spend his capital (animals, clothing, money, jewels), without any reciprocity, and at the unfavorable rate proposed to foreigners whose relatives can’t retaliate or reciprocate. So, the ἀσώτως of the text is to be understood as “spending carelessly”, but doesn’t necessarily carries the meaning of moral dissolution.
When famine comes, all his capital vanishes, he has no one from whom to borrow, nothing left to pledge as surety, and he can’t rely on bonds of kinship. The point of patriarchal strategies in land transfer, marriage, and the harsh exploitation of sharecroppers and workers was precisely to accumulate reserves in case of drought and famines (as well as to accumulate power).
He becomes a servant, “glued,” says the Greek, to a citizen of the locality. In order to survive, he has lost his freedom, he is at the call and beckoning of this person. Perhaps there is a hint of forced sexual misconduct also? His master may even have taken some vicious pleasure in sending his Jewish servant to keep a herd of pigs.
His dereliction is not yet complete, however: he is not fed by his master and so attempts to eat what the pigs eat (carob pods?), a temporary solution, not for long, and not filling (as in Lazarus’ story, where the same Greek word is used). No one is ready to give him anything, because charity was normally directed to one’s group, usually narrowly defined. He is alone, and facing possible death.
“He came to himself:” He remembers his father’s willingness, which he doesn’t see yet as compassion. His prepared speech still sounds like a prudently phrased calculation. He plans to ask to be treated as one of his father’s hired servants, meaning that he sees himself as living outside of the village, working in the fields, away from possible taunts and cruelties. He is preparing his repentance, and perhaps ready to take some abuse from other servants?
“He arose and came to his father.” But the father sees him before anyone else: has he been waiting anxiously, always with an eye in the direction in which he left (months ago?). He has compassion, meaning the sort of love a mother has for her baby (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, 15.20). He runs, like Abraham, the paradigm of hospitality in the Genesis story of the three mysterious visitors, but unlike any dignified adult. And he is repeatedly holding him and kissing him.
In response to this outpouring, the son does not repeat the last part of his little speech (“treat me as one of your hired servants”), but lets his father take over. Is it because he doesn’t dare say it, or does he now suddenly understand the depth of the father’s compassion and the risk that he is taking? The rapidity with which the father acts is critical: Quick, says he, give him back the signs of freedom and authority. There is no resistance on the part of house-slaves, naturally, but the village inhabitants or other relatives have no time to react and question the action, because everyone is swept away into a general reconciliation. The feast, around the fattened calf as center-piece, i.e. something kept in reserve for a wedding perhaps, and which must be consumed immediately, would involve many people, all the relatives and neighbors, preparing, talking, dancing and playing music while waiting for the food to be ready and for everyone to come.
The elder son is busy in the field, doing what sons of landowners are supposed to do in like stories, i.e. watching the hired hands or sharecroppers. When he comes back and asks the young servant (παίς) what is happening, the servant misinterprets (“your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.”). Perhaps there is an underlying idea again that the father is weak, and doing very puzzling things?
The son is angry and does a terrible insult, not unlike that in v. 12 above, refusing to go in, and doing so publicly, since the whole scene after the return of the younger son is a public affair. The father responds as before, entreating him repeatedly. The elder son starts hurling terribly insulting accusations: he has been like a slave in his father’s house, and his obedience has never been rewarded. He was never given a young goat to have a festive meal with his friends: another insulting comment, since meals should be inclusive and not the occasion of separation. The rage continues: “This son of yours:” does the phrase imply that the father is like him, or is it questioning whether he is even his?? He adds that the son lost all his capital with harlots (which commentators wrongly read back into verse 13: “loose or dissolute living”). Is that what the elder son wished to do with his friends? With the fatted calf instead of a young goat? The rage might lead to another question: Why don’t you die and let me truly be master?
The father, astonishingly again, shows no anger, which is perhaps misunderstood once more, as in v. 12? In answer to all the constraints of custom and the reference to “obeying commands”, the father says that he didn’t do an irrational thing, but that it was necessary, indeed the only solution.
At the end of the reading, an audience might think: How will the younger son respond to his father’s compassion? with love and devotion, one may imagine. How will he behave towards the “workers in the field”, i.e. the people working and waiting for relief, food, justice? With the same compassion, one imagines again, and the same urgency, risk-taking, and forbearance as those shown by his own father. He will feed the multitudes, heal, and forgive. How will he behave towards his elder brother who is at the door, and in a rage? Here is the greatest risk he can take, because his brother may look at his younger brother as an impostor and hate him rather than trust him.
This tiny beginning in the business of forgiveness, the gospel (after Jesus) sees as potentially expanding to universal dimensions, as a mustard plant growing like a weed to tree-like proportions from a tiny seed, or as leaven acting within a lump of dough.
Further notes on forgiveness and this parable
1. What is forgiveness? the definition of it, or deepening of the notion of divine mercy, entails a redefinition (or rather an infinite broadening) of that of sin.
2. Does forgiveness have a history? One answer to this question is Hannah Arendt’s: Jesus is the inventor of forgiveness (in The human condition) But she seems to think it is an impossible thing, or extremely difficult in practice. Given the impossibility (and unwillingness?) to control the effects of human action, forgiveness, like promise-covenant, are attempts at correction.
3. Another answer to the question: forgiveness is an old notion belonging to the broader one of gift and grace (superabundant grace and gift of life), framed in the Hebrew bible as the main characteristic of the divinity. It was more precisely developed in the vicissitudes of Israelite and Judaean history (yes, but details?). The notion of justice and judgment, as in Job, however, remained overwhelming. See also the apocalyptic texts, still found in the gospels. The notion of debt and forgiveness (release of debt: no more the ancient biblical language of lifting, wiping, removing, transferring, wiping, cleaning) become fundamental in the Hellenistic period and even more under the Roman empire, when it became more clear than ever that all economic actors, no matter their religious pretense or solicitation for cover (paramount example, that of Herod), were in debt and in need of forgiveness or release. On all of this, see Anderson, The history of sin (2009). But note that Anderson doesn’t do an economic analysis, except to suggest that the pervasive metaphor of debt in expressing sin is 1) Aramaic, and 2) perhaps due to the rise of commercial activity within the Aramaic-speaking zone, which cannot be the whole story.
4. The story is throwing light on a most difficult subject, namely the nature of possession or control over land and labor and the seeming aporia that it is given (in fact pure gift, which is formulated as forgiveness). What is at stake? There is a contradiction at the heart of possession. Its hidden nature is of being a gift, and outright possession (that of the older son), or to say it in other words, security in possession (also framed as patriarchal authority in that society) cannot be achieved without recognizing it as gift, and its giver (“donateur”). This can be done only, according to the story, through loss (cf. Aqedah in Genesis 22, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac), and what appears as a more perfect, second giving in which the dimension of the giving appear irrational (climactically so), yet the outcome more rational (“It is fitting”) than the status ante quem, which presented itself as calculation of positions and interests but in fact was hiding bitterness, jealousy, rebellion, and hate.
5. Then, what is sin, what constitutes sin? Is it: not recognizing the nature of the gift and giver? which, given the abundance of the gift (life), means that sin is also of a flexible, potentially infinite nature? The relationship with a unique, personal divinity was the main ground (with power as a way to describe its universality? especially power of creation, which the story in Genesis eventually defined as near absolute: there is a line of development here, from the 6th to the 2d century, with the Maccabees). The logic of economic, religious, and political structures had become more clear and more extensive, its contradictions (especially the religious ones) unavoidable—see already Qumran movement—in the Roman empire. So, the notion of possession and control over resources and labor, including the structure of future control (inheritance), became more clear also, and a fundamental point of debate.