What’s your inheritance? Prodigals and Inheritance

A short thought on prodigals, inheritance and salvation

I’ve been thinking about the impact the words we use in bible translations might have. How they have the potential to mislead us because of our experience of their modern usage.

As a case study I began thinking about the idea of inheritance; a legal and cultural phenomena practised in different ways across cultures and times yet it is used as an important metaphor for what we receive in Christ through our salvation.

Often we find ourselves reading these words without critically reflecting on whether we are reading the same meaning the writers intended.

Modern western inheritance looks mostly like a change in the amount of digits in someone’s online banking profile. If there is property involved, or anything of monetary rather than sentimental value it gets sold to pay taxes, to split the worth amongst siblings or to free the receiver from existing debt.

I’ve made no secret about my favourite (if that is in anyway an appropriate way to relate to bible stories) parable being the story of the Prodigal son. It might be the best way for us to get a glance into the way inheritance was viewed in 1st century Palestine.

Parables in my understanding are stories which depict familiar scenarios with an unexpected twist or hook which makes a point to describe hard to grasp realities of the kingdom of God.

So, lets consider this story and I’ll confess this is guess work here; It was unusual for sons to sell off their inheritance, and the average inheritance was not primarily money but property and animals. Owning and running the family farm.

This already has signifcant implcaitions for our understanding of the concept. In the modern western idea of inheritance we receive a non-physical bump in our net worth. It makes us rich (if the inheritance is significant), it’s free us from responsibility (maybe pays off a mortgage / loans) gives us freedom for new choices. Moving to bigger house, a new car, maybe even give up the second job you’ve been working to makes end meet.

In contrast the ancient world inheritance does almost the opposite. Inheriting a farm gives you increased riches in asset rather than net worth. And it comes with both a new job and new responsibility.

I speak to alot of people who are saved but struggle endlessly with a sense of purpose or vocation. Secondly they struggle with connecting their work-life with their salvation. What are the implications if we think salvation is a one time deposit of so-called freedom but doesn’t contain the resources to live out our lives in God? What if we understood our inheritance as a vocation, a responsibility and great riches in the same soil that our family has been labouring in for generations.

Sometimes our theology has been so guarded against “works based salvation” we have become confused about how work and activity can contribute to the life God intended us to live with Him all along.

As Dallas Willard says;

In most churches we’re not only saved by grace, we’re paralyzed by it.

Rather than view our salvation as a one-time clearing of a negative bank balance, what if we entered into the life of salvation by joining in with the family business. There is something winsome about someone who is engaged in work that gives them purpose greater than themselves. I think a farm is a good metaphor for this kingdom-business Jesus has b(r)ought us into.

  • Farms need collaboration,
  • they need many things to happen to contribute to one main goal,
  • they require care for whats gone before and what will come,
  • they create more than they take and become generous past their borders,
  • they rely on provision from uncontrollable elements (and ultimately God Himself).

Maybe if we returned to this 1st century understanding of inheritance 1 maybe we could be excited both about the embrace the Father gives his prodigal son, but also the gift of vocation and responsibility that comes with returning to the farm and being part of the family again.

  1. at least the one I’m imaginatively proposing here. 

2 Comments on “What’s your inheritance? Prodigals and Inheritance

  1. A fascinating post, Liam. This concept of stewarding our material gifts is close to our hearts too, and reducing the idea of wealth and inheritance to money does strip the concept of the duty to tend to and commit to building up the work of the family – and for believers that’s God’s family!

    We have found some deep wisdom in the thinking of St Benedict – central to his idea of the holistic Christian life is that labour, especially on the land or serving the poor and sick is an act of worship; and the ordinary tools of life are as sacred as the communion vessels.

    He saw looking after the land and the little parcel of creation it contained is a central part of the Christian life, and brings the Kingdom of God to earth in the locality of the believer. Everything we do can be a part of this.

    • Yes Helen, those are such great insights! Glad that folks are beginning to embrace a sacramental realism.

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