The Parable of the Prodigal Son

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

The Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Please read Luke 15:11-31.

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near Jesus to listen to him teach. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them.’ So Jesus told them these parables…” (Luke 15:1-2).

Jesus loved to tell stories. In Luke, you’ll find perhaps his most famous and best-loved story, the parable of the Prodigal Son. At first glance, it looks fairly simple and straightforward. But it is a rich story, and it packs a whallop.

There’s lots to think about with the Prodigal Son story, and there doesn’t seem to be one main point. But maybe that’s up to the hearers and readers to try to figure out. We do know that the Prodigal Son parable was definitely a firecracker told by Jesus and directed to the Pharisees in response to their religious grumbling and judging. Jesus meant for the grousing Pharisees to see themselves in the story. He wants them to take this parable personally.

A lot of research was done in commentaries to try to find out if we could see this story through the eyes of a first century Jew. How would a first century Jew have understand it after hearing Jesus tell it? Will these insights help us live inside the parable, squeezing every last drop of meaning from the story? May these thoughts spark your mind and inspire your faith in the Father, the true hero of the story.

My thoughts on the Prodigal Son story will be divided into three parts. Throughout this article, remember that the main character is the father. Keep in mind that Jesus is telling all of us what the Father in heaven is like, His character, His personality. The first will be thoughts on the younger brother as the prodigal son; the second part will be thoughts on the elder brother as the actual prodigal son; the third part will be the section “Going Further,” various reflections regarding the parenting of young people, thoughts that were stimulated by this parable. Impressions of the amazing father in the story are woven into all three parts. By the end, I’m hoping we will agree with Charles Dickens, who said that this parable is “the finest short story ever written.”

On the Younger Brother as the Prodigal Son.

  1. For a son to ask for his inheritance while the father is alive is an unheard of, unthinkable insult to the father. It says that money is more important than the father, and amounts to wishing for his father’s death.
  2. The typical response from a wealthy father of this time and place, if it would have happened at all, would be to beat the son and disown him, to literally kick him out of the house. This father’s response to this profound humiliation was to say yes, to respond in love, to absorb the insult and set him free to learn the hard way on his own (the son’s) terms.
  3. He divided his property between them. (v. 12). The father had impartial love to both sons right from the start, and split the inheritance between both sons. Generally, the inheritance would have been split this way: the first born would receive two-thirds, and the younger son one-third. The father would been allowed to live on the property until his death.
  4. To waste an inheritance is seen as a great sin in the eyes of a village community and extended family, as this setting surely was. Once again, it is a great humiliation and sorrow for a father to see his hard-earned money go down the drain. Also, the son now has no money to care for and support his father in his old age. In this story, what made matters even worse was that the money was wasted among the Gentiles, the distant country, which would have greatly offended the family and village. The fact he was feeding pigs, a forbidden animal in Jewish law, the lowest of the low, only added insult to injury. The father’s public humiliation should have been devastating.
  5. The prodigal didn’t really “repent,” since a weaker word was used in the story. He came to his senses, he changed his mind, which implies that the rather weak repentance was due more to his hunger and poverty and having few options left, than to his heart-felt sense of personal sin and guilt. It was a half-baked repentance, which makes his father’s merciful response even more amazing.
  6. This type of youthful sin could have resulted in, upon his return home, everything from being disowned, to public taunts in an official village gauntlet on both sides of the road back home, to serious physical abuse in the gauntlet (hitting, stoning, etc.), to possible capital punishment (stoning or clubbing in the gauntlet to the death).
  7. The father was waiting for the prodigal, and was on a continual lookout for his son’s return. After suffering through one profound rejection and humiliation after another from his renegade son, the father nonetheless kept looking for his son’s return and was continually filled with compassion for him. Pure grace.
  8. The father ran to his son.In the typical Middle Eastern village during this time, important and wealthy men never ran. They always walked, with pomp and self-importance. It was considered undignified, degrading to be seen running anywhere. They all followed the same philosophy as Aristotle: Great men never run in public. The father was willing to degrade himself publically for a rebellious, disrespectful, wasteful son.
  9. The father’s sprint was a part of his calculated plan on how to keep his son from suffering the hostility of the villagers. He wanted to protect the prodigal son from their often cruel, if not fatal gauntlet on the road home. The father still loved his son, and didn’t want to see him abused, or suffer the consequences of his decisions, even if he “deserved” it.
  10. The father threw his arms around him.This is another tangible way to protect his son from the verbal and physical abuse he was no doubt going to suffer, if not in the process of suffering already. This was not merely a tender embrace, this was a protective covering. If the gauntlet had formed, the father himself risked getting hit in the crossfire initially. But once the father embraced the son, the gauntlet would have stopped, since the father was no doubt an important man in the village. Once again, the father humiliated himself, this time coming to the aid of a renegade son who has been publically rejected and judged. This protection was supposed to have been beneath him.
  11. The father aggressively kissed his son again and again, which is a total reversal of what was supposed to happen in this time and place. Usually, a repentant son kissed his father’s feet or hands, as a sign of respect and sorrow. But the father rushed to kiss the son instead, to keep the son from being further humiliated. The father continues to pour out grace and love and acceptance, publically and unapologetically, for a son who rejected him.
  12. The son’s heart has no doubt melted at this point, and his half-baked repentance, based on misery and fear, has turned into a repentance of love in response to sheer mercy.
  13. With great joy the father starts ordering his servants around, publically giving the message that his son, far from being disowned or judged, is restored in full to the family. Love has led to joy.
  14. The best robe was no doubt the father’s own robe reserved for special occasions and feast days. This action confirms that father and son are fully reconciled, that the father is thrilled to be identified with his son, that his son is restored to the honor of full family membership. Normally, no one wears the father’s feast robe but the father. Forgiveness and restoration is complete, in public.
  15. The ring was most likely the signet ring, which contains the family seal. The signet represents the power and authority of the family name. The family rebel has become a family representative. Grace.
  16. Shoes or sandals on the feet distinguished a servant from a free man. Servants generally went barefoot. The father underscores to the son, and to the entire village, that the prodigal is family, free, not a hired servant.
  17. The fatted calf is only offered to honor a most highly respected guest or in a major event, for example a marriage ceremony or a high feast day. Most feasts had sheep or goats. The feast calf is huge, and was meant to feed an entire village of at least 100 people. The father’s feast with the fatted calf was an extraordinary and unexpected gesture of love for the son, and the father intended the banquet to be enjoyed by everyone in the surrounding area. The father’s joy and compassion was great, and all for someone close to his heart who had rejected him profoundly. There is a Middle Eastern saying about banquets: the more confusion, the more enthusiasm; the more enthusiasm, the more of a blessing. This feast was one huge, raucous party, complete with music and dancing and lots of food and very loud fellowship. So they began to celebrate. (v. 24)

On the Elder Brother as the Actual Prodigal Son.

  1. The parables of the “lost things” in Luke 15 spiral down to the final figure who is truly lost. In the first parable there is the lost sheep, 1 out of 100; then there is the lost coin, 1 out of 10; then there is the lost younger son, 1 out of 2; finally, there is the lost older son, 1 out of 1. Everything that Jesus had told with his cluster of “lost” parables seem to point to the really lost one, the self-righteous, self-absorbed, externally religious and dutiful one. The first three parables were told for the benefit of this fourth story. Jesus told these parables to the Pharisees, in response to their judging and grumbling, the story that will, if they are humbly listening, cut to their hearts like a knife, will command their attention like a big firecracker. Jesus meant for the grousing Pharisees to see themselves in the older brother. They are to take this part of the story personally.
  2. The older brother was a lousy excuse for an elder son. The role of the older brother in a family was to serve as a reconciler when disputes arose between parent and children, and to be the moral support for the father. This guy, though, was silent throughout the early scenes; he didn’t try to reconcile the younger brother with the father; he didn’t try to show the brother his foolishness and disrespect. Not only did he allow this terrible humiliation to continue without any attempt to help his father, but the elder actually accepted his portion of the inheritance as well. As the elder son, he inherited twice that of his younger brother. Before we even know much else about him, this guy is already a silent loser, a quiet embarrassment to the family and the village, without a doubt.
  3. The final lost person is outside the banquet, isolated from the celebration, cut off from the joyfulness of the father. He has probably never done anything overtly evil, just doing his duty, and all the while committing sins of omission, and harboring his prideful rebellion in more subtle and respectable ways.
  4. The role of the eldest son at an important function was to serve as the official host. To not do so was a major insult to the father.
  5. Once again, the father does the unexpected. Absorbing another public insult, he actually leaves the feast to search for the older son. Instead of a serious punishment, the father exhibits mercy and active forgiveness to another rebel son, though a more inward one.
  6. The eldest does not respectfully address the father in the formal way expected. He does not show the attitude of a proper son in another important way: He says, I have slaved for you all these years… He is talking like a slave over a wage dispute, not like a son of a loving father. The eldest has clearly not been taking advantage of the relationship offered to him by his father all these years. The sonship has been based, in his mind, on merely keeping the rules and doing his duties, like a slave. His obedience was essentially self-centered. So, the eldest son ended up being just as far from his father as the younger prodigal son, only he never left home. He had been a prodigal of the heart for years. Pharisees, take note.
  7. The eldest does not have much of a relationship with the younger brother either, since he called him your son instead of “my brother.” He also accused his brother of being with prostitutes, when that was not a part of the story earlier. Some have said that this was deliberate distorting of the facts to get his brother into big trouble, since whoring often resulted in capital punishment under the Law.
  8. The eldest accuses his father of favoritism as well, which is another slap in the father’s face. In these patriarchal homes, any attack on the father’s integrity, any questioning of his judgment, was treated seriously and punished.
  9. … could celebrate with my friends. His love for his father and family seems minimal, since all feasts were enjoyed with family first and foremost. All banquets and parties were family-centered, and then spread outward to the village community, depending on the occasion. The eldest wanted to party-down, all right, but only with his friends in the town, away from home. His devotion and loyalty to family is nil, and still the father beckons and pleads out of love.
  10.  There is no ending to this story. Jesus leaves it unfinished for his hearers. He wants each Pharisee, and each of us, to write our ending. Jesus wants the religious, self-righteous ones, who merely do their duties, who seem to think they know everything, to discover their lostness and join the party of love and acceptance. The  elder brother’s heart of smug piety and spiritual arrogance has kept him from the whole point of a faithful life… full participation in the fathers’ love and joy, and deep familial relationship.

Going Further.

  1. A major hurdle to jump over as a parent is ego-feeding, ambition-driven pride: in the ability to manage the young one’s behavior; in one’s parenting skills learned through the years; in the achievements and accomplishments of the children; in the relative obedience of the children; in our nomination for Home of the Year. What better antidote to pride is there than humiliation… the recognition that we are frail and imperfect, that we don’t have all the answers, that we don’t have ultimate control of the children or the situation.
  2. Since this version of pride is sin, and since being humbled and made aware of one’s shortcomings is the way to break pride, and is thus good, then teens are a gift to the parents. God seems to have set this up this way. Parents need teens just as much as teens need parents: to continue maturing, growing through our ambitious, prideful, controlling ways.
  3. Parental humiliation, or at least embarrassment, is inevitable, since all parents are imperfect, all kids are imperfect, the world is a seductive and sinful place, and many family difficulties are rather public. The big question is: How can a parent be a grace-giver, like the father in the parable, in this potential process of humiliation?
  4. I’m wondering about this: Based on the two brothers in the parable, there are four kinds of people: the outward rebel who returns; the outward rebel who stays away; the outward goodie who becomes self-righteous; the outward goodie who becomes God-righteous. And perhaps, does every child, every person, experience an on-going interplay between all four kinds?
  5. Can a parent even know if the teen’s rebellion is a temporary stage or the beginning of a habit of the heart?
  6. How can a person grow in goodness, learn to do the right thing, be virtuous, without becoming self-righteous, spiritually arrogant or smug?
  7. The profound impact of healthy parenting on a child is certain, and of course you would rather take the percentages of children coming out of intact and healthy homes. And the dire consequences of poor or absent parenting are also obvious. Nonetheless, one cannot judge a parent by the child. After all, look at the father in the parable. And don’t forget free will and personal responsibility. Perhaps the parents takes too much of the credit when the child is good, and too much of the blame when the child is rebelling?
  8. Parents need faith. The biggest act of faith, in many ways, is to give ultimate care of children to God, to entrust them to God’s care; to become responsible and temporary caretakers, stewards of His vineyard till He returns; to recognize we have no ultimate control over the child. The Father doesn’t violate our, or our children’s, free will. And He is a gentleman who doesn’t force His way. He can lead a child to water, but He can’t make him drink… ultimately, the same with our parenting. A parent’s faith: We trust God for our kids, knowing we are in way over our heads, and cannot determine the outcome, cannot assure anyone that our hard work will bear the kind of fruit we desperately desire for our kids.
  9. Parents need hope. We continue parenting through thick and thin, expecting that God will continue to perfection that which has been committed to His care. We are realistic about the prospects, yet we anticipate God’s best for our kids; we expect God to keep His promises at baptism: Sealed with the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever. With earnest hope, we grab hold of that which we cannot force: the nurture of our kids into salvation. We never give up, it’s never too late, because God is good, and we expect His goodness and steadfast love to last for ever.
  10. Parents need love. … And the greatest of these is love. Even if we have enough faith to move mountains, and enough hope to always prayerfully expect God’s best, if we don’t have genuine love for our children in season and out of season, today, now, then we are as nothing. No matter how disrespectful or humiliated we are, no matter how unresponsive a child is, love. Kids need the parents most when they are at their worst. The most important time to embrace the child is after she or he has done the worst thing. When the kids push a parent away, the parents’ heart stays open, ready for the return hug, again and again. Grace: unconditional love for the rebellious. Look at the father in the parable. And look at what our heavenly Father has done, and continues to do for us? That’s what we need to do with our children, by God’s grace.
  11. Final thought: How did this apparent Father-of-the-Year, a dad so full of grace, forgiveness and compassion, so resilient and strong-hearted, end up with two rebels like that? And how did Love Himself, the Father of glory, end up with wayward children like us? Our only hope is the waiting Father, whose mercy endures forever, who wants us in relationship, to discover our utter lostness without Him. Come one, come all, prodigals or not, be it younger or older. It’s time for a banquet. The door is open, the table is ready. Don’t get stuck outside.


Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father; Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant; Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus; Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; Henry Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible; Eugene Peterson, notes from lecture on the parables in Luke 15.