Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son
The parable of the prodigal son is perhaps the most touching of Jesus’ parables. It’s the story of a wayward son and his reconciliation with his father. Jesus told it to illustrate how a sinful person is reconciled to God. But it just rebellious and irresponsible people that need to hear this? Or does the story relate to everyone?
This is the last of Jesus’ “lost” parables of Luke chapter 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and now the lost son.
The prodigal son’s decision
In many of his parables, Jesus uses stark contrasts to illustrate his points. This story contrasts a younger wayward son with an older hard-working son:
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. (Luke 15:11-12)
Often, the decisions younger people make are short-sighted—they haven’t lived long enough to see the long-term results of their actions. Youth coupled with pride and over-confidence make a bad combination and this was obviously the case with the younger son in Jesus’ story.
Demanding an early inheritance would’ve caused a major disruption in any first century Hebrew family. And it’s clear the younger son just wanted the money and not the property. To divide the estate at his age would’ve been difficult. Possibly he worked a deal out with his brother to keep land within the family. But if family members didn’t have the cash, land had to be sold to an outsider. In any case, this was messy, and the older brother didn’t appreciate it, to say the least.
The distant country
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. (Luke 5:13)
We should see this as not just a young man wanting to see more of the outside world, but a disrespect and even a rejection of the values, traditions, and life that his parents offered at home. He cut them off completely.
The father couldn’t force his son to stay, so in his sorrow, he let him go, never doubting his love for him.
We all know of people who have made horrible decisions in life. Maybe you have made them yourself, and I certainly have. We lived for the moment and didn’t think of the future. Possible consequences didn’t enter our minds, and when they surfaced, we suppressed them. And when friends or family warned us, we ignored them.
Consequences of the prodigal’s choices
The results of our poor choices will always come, sooner or later.
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. (Luke 15:14-16)
People who live on the edge are rarely prepared when disaster strikes. They have no buffer to take up the slack. When poverty and destitution come upon them, they’re helpless. People who live this way “sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7).
The painful truth
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15: 17-20)
The prodigal son eventually realized the painful truth. He had given up a secure and fruitful life for a foolish and reckless path and was now reaping the consequences. When he started out, he had friends because he had money. But now that he was out of money, his “friends” abandoned him.
He had originally left his father’s house in prideful confidence and flush with cash. But now he returned with nothing—no money, honor, friends, reputation, or self-respect. In his mind, even his sonship was in question.
The foolish son couldn’t undo his mistake, but he still had a father—a father who now was his only hope. He realized he wasn’t even worthy to be called his son anymore, but he would go back to him, take the risk of rejection, and hope for the best.
The prodigal son reconciles with the father
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)
As he returns the father’s grief turns to joy and, in his excitement, throws off all dignity and runs to embrace his son. He had loved him all the time he was gone and wanted with all his heart to see him again, safe and sound. Totally at the mercy of his father, the son humbly repents and recites the confession he rehearsed while he was on his way back:
The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ (Luke 15:21)
The father would’ve been justified in condemning his wayward son. Any forgiveness would not be merited or deserved. But here, the father’s compassionate heart is revealed. Instead of condemnation, he has mercy on him and forgives him. Instead of rejection, he welcomes him back with open arms.
Celebrating the prodigal’s return
The father then throws a party to celebrate.
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So, they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:22-24)
In the father’s mind his son had been dead—estranged and his whereabouts completely unknown. He may have lost hope of ever seeing him again. What a happy day to see him back safe and sound! He spares nothing to celebrate his son’s return! The robe, ring, and sandals weren’t just gifts—they reaffirmed the prodigal’s true sonship and place in the family.
The older son
The party had already begun before the older son comes back from working in the fields.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ (Luke 15:25-27)
It wasn’t long before he finds out that a lavish party was under way for his wayward brother. And the prize calf, undoubtedly raised in part by the older son’s hard work, was killed for the main course.
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:28-30)
In spite of his father’s pleading, the older son becomes angry, bitter, jealous, and resentful. He remembered well his brother’s foolish decision and had prided himself of staying at the farm and doing the right thing by supporting the father’s business. So, he recounts to the father all his hard work and obedience compared to the foolishness of “this son of yours.”
The father’s wise counsel
The father doesn’t disagree with him but in humility and love reasons with him.
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ (Luke 15:31-32)
The father’s wise counsel reminds his older son that he too was fortunate to be a part of the family. He had enjoyed a rich life all the time his brother was gone. He wasn’t a slave as he had suggested, but a son with full rights and benefits. And his part of the estate was still intact—he hadn’t lost a thing. In ancient Jewish tradition, the firstborn son inherited a double portion of the father’s estate (Deuteronomy 21:17), so the older son should’ve been happy. But instead, he was angry at his father and now estranged from him. Ironically, he also needed to be reconciled with the father.
But the father reminds him of what was most important, that “this brother of yours” was dead but now alive. His brother was worth much more than the estate, and he needed to know that. He had come back as a repentant broken man and had found salvation, which was by far a greater blessing than any material wealth. So, he lovingly urges the elder to join his younger brother around the table in fellowship, feasting, and celebration of his new life.
It seems for all those years the elder had taken his father’s generous nature for granted and forgot about all the rich blessings he had enjoyed. He hadn’t really known his father and how loving, kind, and merciful he was. In a sense, the elder brother needed to come home also, to the true father, not the one he thought he knew.
The father loved both sons. So, he extends his grace to the elder as well as well as the prodigal son. He pursues both sons to bring them back into his house to rejoice and have fellowship as one family again.
All have sinned
In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus was not primarily instructing us on moral issues. Earlier in his conclusion to the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), Jesus told us what the important message was:
I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:7)
Was Jesus suggesting in this passage that 99 per cent of the people are truly righteous and don’t need to repent? No, his statement was tongue in cheek. Most people don’t think they need to repent. We all fall short of God’s glory—we all have displeased God and broken his commands.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the older son was also a sinner, but his sin was of a different kind. He failed in keeping the greatest of God’s commandments: love. He lacked the compassion and forgiveness which were so evident in his father.
Jesus didn’t tell us how the elder brother responded to his father’s invitation—he deliberately left this out. But in this way, he gave the hearers a choice: how would they end the story? Would they want the elder to forgive and embrace his brother or not? And how would we have responded to the father’s pleading if we were the elder son?
Lessons from the parable of the prodigal son
What lessons do we learn from this parable?
Repentance, mercy, and reconciliation
First, the parable teaches us the essential elements of repentance: turning back, humility, confession, and pleading for God’s mercy.
It also teaches us how reconciliation occurs. Reconciliation is the restoration of a damaged relationship and requires two essential elements: repentance and forgiveness. In the story the father who represents God had a heart of forgiveness all along and was ready to forgive at any time. But the son couldn’t be forgiven until he turned back and repented. Without repentance there would have been no reconciliation.
Finally, this story fits well in to one of Jesus’ most common themes in the gospels. The Jewish leaders of his time were like the older brother in that they were taking care of the father’s estate by maintaining the temple worship and keeping the Mosaic Law. The Gentiles on the other hand were wasting their time on earth with licentiousness and riotous living. When Jesus came, he reached out to the Gentiles, and later commissioned Paul to carry the gospel to them. The Jewish leaders had a difficult time accepting the fact that God loves all people and extends his mercy to both Jews and Gentiles.
Every human life is valuable
More broadly, this parable teaches us the value of every human being. Even though people can be foolish, they are still of great value to God, just as the wise and prudent are. The father loved both of his sons, the productive and the rebellious. The parable affirms God’s love for the lost, the broken, and the sinful. He longs for wayward souls to return to him in faith and humility so he can have mercy on them.
Today’s large cities are filled with the lost, the broken, the addicted, and the mentally unstable. As a result of the countless Christian ministries that serve this population, many of these people have taken the important step of turning around and moving toward the Father in repentance. And their lives are changing for the better each step they take.
Applying this parable to ourselves
It’s a mistake to try to pinpoint the one “correct” personal application of a parable as there can be many. But for this parable there are two obvious ones.
First, if you can describe yourself as a prodigal, then you need to return to your heavenly Father. If you can admit your mistakes, then you are part way to restoration. Confess your sin to God and ask him to forgive you and restore you to a new life. Then take concrete steps to stop your wayward lifestyle and go in the other direction. If you have problems with substance abuse or any other type of addiction or compulsive or destructive behavior, then seek help from people who know how to deal with these issues. And above all, trust in God for deliverance.
Secondly, you may be like the older brother in the story and have lived a relatively productive and stable life. But you live in anger and resentment, comparing yourself to others, obsessed with fairness, and forever complaining about how you’re treated. You may know of the heavenly Father but not really know him—that he’s kind, merciful, and longs to forgive. And if that describes you, realize that you also are lost and need to be found. You need a true love relationship with the Father. And once we have experienced God’s mercy, that will compel us to extend mercy to others.
A party in heaven
God doesn’t rejoice in seeing people suffer from the bad choices they make. He is so pleased when even one person decides to turn to him in repentance, faith, and love —there’s rejoicing in heaven! And he makes it easy for us to find him: he comes running to us when we turn to him.
It’s the same message for prodigals and those who have lived a stable life: accept the grace and mercy the Father offers you. Repent and believe the gospel and begin an eternal relationship with God. There’s a loving heavenly Father waiting for your return.
And when we arrive back home, there will be a party for all those who turn to God. We will all celebrate our salvation and freedom together! I hope to see you at that great event!
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