Parable of the Prodigal Son


This is Part 12 in a series about reclaiming the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings (Part 11 here). Today I’ll cover The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

The Parable

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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
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.
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.”
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!”
“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.”

The Meaning

In the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, Jesus illustrated the joy that God has in saving lost souls, and the implication was that the Pharisees did not understand or share God’s heart. In this parable, Jesus drives that point home by putting the Pharisees into the story.

The main idea of this parable is this: God will forgive even the worst sinner as long as they come to Him in humble repentance, but God will not forgive even the holiest person as long as they believe that they’ve earned their own salvation.

First, let’s explain who the main characters are:

  • The younger son – He represents people who sin outwardly. These are people who want to get as far away from God’s rules as possible and really dive into the sins of the flesh, people like the prostitutes and tax collectors that Jesus hung around with.
  • The older son – He represents people who sin inwardly. These are religious hypocrites like the Pharisees, people who carefully follow all the rules and therefore think that God somehow owes them something.
  • The father – This is God through the person of Jesus Christ. He patiently endures disrespect from both types of sinners, lovingly pleads for them to humble themselves, and graciously welcomes them with open arms when they seek Him in penitent faith.

The parable opens with the younger son making an outrageous demand: “Father, give me my share of the estate.” In First Century Jewish culture, the father as patriarch and head of the household would control all family assets until his death. Therefore, the younger son was basically saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.”

Also, the Greek word that’s typically used for inheritance implies not only the material assets, but also the burden of responsibility for managing those assets for the good of the household. However, in this case the younger son chooses a different word that refers only to the material assets. In other words the younger son is basically saying that he wants no relationship with his father at all; he just wants to get what’s coming to him so he can get out from under his father’s yoke of authority and get on with living his own life.

The Pharisees listening to this story would have been really outraged at the younger son’s insolence. Keep in mind that in Jewish culture at this time, dishonoring your father or mother was a capital offense (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Therefore, a son who made this kind of bold demand could expect to be executed by stoning.

That’s when Jesus inserts the first shocking twist to the story. Rather than the father slapping his son for being rebellious and disrespectful, the father actually divides up the estate. According to Deuteronomy 21:17, the younger son receives what would amount to a one-third share in the family property. The Greek word translated as property literally means livelihood. So in other words, the father divided up not just money, but also all the livestock, the fields, the barns, and the slaves.

Now remember that according to Jewish custom at that time, the father still maintained ownership of all the household assets until his death. However, in very rare circumstances the father could divide up the inheritance early and assign each son to manage his own portion of the inheritance. Of course the younger son wanted no part in managing the estate, he just wanted the money. The text says, “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had.” What that means is, he found someone willing to pay him for his share of the estate, and that person wouldn’t be able to take ownership of that share until the father’s death. The younger son didn’t want to wait that long, so he would have sold his share at pennies on the dollar to a wise and patient investor.

After the younger son cashed out everything he had, he took the money and ran as far away from his father’s authority as possible, to “a distant country.” This was probably a Gentile nation where no one would condemn him for dishonoring his father. That’s where the younger son “squandered his wealth in wild living” and earned the nickname The Prodigal Son. Prodigal is a word that’s seldom used nowadays, but what it means is that he was extravagantly wasteful and self-indulgent; he was living in a debauched, profligate lifestyle. Verse 30 tells us that he spent all he had on prostitutes.

The younger son is the prototypical wild child: someone who’s eager to engage in every kind of sin as soon he’s old enough to leave home. People like that know better than to practice a lifestyle of unrepentant sin. They have only to look around at the miracles of God’s creation to know that there must be a Creator (Romans 1:20), and their conscience also bears witness, warning them when they’re not doing the right thing (Romans 2:15).

Meanwhile, the father’s response gives us a wonderful picture of the kindness of God. He puts up with an incredible amount of disrespect from humans, despite all of the wonderful gifts that He gives us. Just like the father didn’t try to force a relationship with his son, God also gives us the freedom to wander off into sin (Romans 1:28).

When the son had spent all he had, there was a severe famine in the land. Although the famine was not his fault, he was absolutely to blame for not saving some money for a rainy day. As a result of his wasteful spending, he took what could have been merely a difficult situation and turned it into a dire situation.

The son decides to try to solve the problem on his own by enslaving himself to one of the citizens of this foreign nation. Typically a citizen was somewhat wealthy (Acts 22:28), so the text implies that this citizen had sufficient financial means to weather the famine. The text also says that the son “hired himself out” to this wealthy citizen, but the Greek word implies that the son was desperately latching onto the wealthy citizen, who didn’t actually want the to hire him at all.

The wealthy citizen dismisses the son by sending him off into the fields to feed pigs without pay. The son is so desperate, that even the carob seed pods he feeds to the pigs look appetizing. According to Leviticus 11:7, the Jews considered pigs to be unclean animals, so this part of the story would have signaled rock bottom in the minds of the Pharisees. It is at this lowest point that the son suddenly remembers how generous his father is to the hired servants.

In those days, slaves were considered part of the family, and the master of the household had to provide for their basic needs, including food, shelter, and clothing. Hired servants on the other hand were poor people who had no one to care for them. They just waited around hoping to get hired for temporary work, such as at harvest time, and since they were desperate and there was no such thing as minimum wage, they would accept whatever their employer was willing to pay. Hired servants could also be dismissed at a moment’s notice; there was no obligation for an employer to keep them around. However, there were several warnings in the Old Testament not to defraud hired workers or withhold their wages overnight (Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, and Malachi 3:5).

In his misery, the son has a sudden moment of clarity and remembers that even the hired servants on his father’s estate are given more than enough to eat, which indicates the extraordinary kindness and generosity of the father. He decides to return home, apologize to his father, and beg to be made a hired servant. Notice that he’s not planning to give excuses or justify his dishonorable behavior, but he’s demonstrating true repentance, the kind Jesus referred to in the preceding parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin.

The son admits that he has sinned against Heaven, but in the Greek it literally says into Heaven. In other words, he realizes that his sins are so egregious and so numerous that they’re like a towering dunghill that reaches up to Heaven. The idea here may be similar to Ezra’s penitent prayer: “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” (Ezra 9:6) The younger son is admitting that he’s the most wretched sinner there is, and the point is that if God can forgive in this extreme case, then that should give hope to lesser sinners.

Don’t miss the fact that the son couldn’t see his father’s love until he was facing a hopeless situation. Often it’s not until we’ve completely wrecked our lives that we’re finally humble enough to admit that we need help. When someone is blinded by pride, they refuse to listen to wisdom (Proverbs 11:2). Therefore, God must first plow down the proud heart before He plants the seed of the Gospel in a receptive and humble heart (Proverbs 3:34).

The Pharisees were probably smiling as they listened to Jesus describe the rebellious son’s misery, and they probably thought that the ending of the story would go something like this:

  • The son walked through town on the way to his father’s house, and all the townspeople shouted insults and ridiculed him for dishonoring his father.
  • The father initially refused to meet with his son and instead let him wait outside in disgrace while the townspeople threw stones at him and spat on him in disgust. The son waited patiently and took his lumps until his father finally sent a servant to bring him in.
  • The son came crawling in on his belly like a worm and kissed his father’s feet, begging for mercy. After watching his son grovel for a while, the father slapped him and then assigned a steep set of requirements for his son to pay back everything he owed.

That’s when Jesus inserts the next shocking twist to the story: the father sees the son in the distance and runs out to meet him. First, the fact that the father sees the son while he’s still a long way off, implies that the father had been looking for him. We can imagine the father eagerly anticipating his son’s return and walking out every day to the edge of his property, peering hopefully toward the horizon.

In much the same way, God, “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), is patiently waiting for sinners to turn from their sins and run back to Him (2 Peter 3:9).

Second, the father doesn’t just jog out, but the Greek verb implies that he was sprinting like it was an athletic competition. That type of running would have been near impossible in the long robes that men typically wore in those days. Either the father had girded up his loins (tucked his robes into his belt), which would have exposed his legs, or he would have been tripping constantly. Either way, running was something that wealthy men simply didn’t do, so the father would have looked completely ridiculous as he ran through town. However, the father isn’t just running because he’s happy to see his son, but he also wants to protect his son from the townspeople’s scorn and abuse. The father would rather be ridiculed for his odd behavior than allow his son to endure that shame.

In much the same way, Jesus willingly subjected Himself to pain and humiliation for our sake (Philippians 2:8 and 1 Peter 2:23). Even today people still mock the crucifixion, calling it cosmic child abuse, because “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Third, the father kisses his son, and the Greek verb implies that he was kissing him repeatedly all over. Not only was this unusual behavior for a Jewish man in that culture, especially considering the son’s disgraceful departure, but keep in mind that the son had just walked for miles after living in a pig sty. His clothes would have been tattered, he would have been filthy, and his stench would have brought tears to your eyes.

The father’s unexpectedly compassionate greeting is not lost on the son. Notice that when he delivers his prepared speech to his father, he leaves out the last bit about being made like one of the hired servants. The son had been planning to work off his debts, because that seemed like the right thing to do to try and right his wrongs. However, he could tell from his father’s reaction that he had already been forgiven, and there was no longer any need to try to earn his way back into the family. He realized that his father didn’t care about the wasted money; it was the son’s rejection of him that had been the biggest source of pain for the father.

This is a beautiful picture of how God chose to save us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). We stand before God with the stain of sin covering us from head to toe, and we are like poor beggars with nothing to offer Him. Thankfully, God doesn’t expect us to clean ourselves up or pay back our debts before He’ll save us.

Fourth, the father orders his servants to dress the younger son in the finest robe, with a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. With these three gifts, the father makes it clear that the son is fully restored to the family:

  • The finest robe would have been the most ornate and finely crafted garment that the father owned, only brought out for special occasions and only worn by the head of the household. The oldest son was next in line to inherit the finest robe, so it would have been highly unorthodox to give it to the younger son. This was the father’s way of saying to the younger son, “The best of what I have is yours.”
  • The ring would have been a signet ring with the family crest, used to seal legal documents. This was the father’s way of granting the son access to all his resources and granting him authority to manage his affairs.
  • The sandals would have been worn by the master of the estate and his sons. The slaves and hired servants would have gone barefoot.

The father’s extraordinary act of love gives us a beautiful illustration of the difference between justicemercy and grace.

  • Justice means getting what we deserve. All of us are born dead in trespasses and sin, and we are by nature deserving of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). If God dealt with us according to His justice, then He would wipe all of us out immediately and send us straight to Hell forever. An eternity in Hell is just because crimes committed against an infinite God require an infinite punishment. Likewise, it would have been just for the father in the parable to execute his son for disobedience, since that is what the Mosaic Covenant required.
  • Mercy means NOT getting what we deserve. Every second that God delays sending us to Hell is another act of mercy. The mercy of the Gospel is that God will forgive our sins instead of punishing us forever like we deserve. Likewise, it was merciful of the father in the parable not to apply capital punishment as the Law required.
  • Grace means getting what we DON’T deserve. The grace of the Gospel is that not only does God remove the filthy garments of our sins, but He also dresses us in the pristine robes of His righteousness (Zechariah 3:1-7, Isaiah 61:10, and Revelation 7:13-14). Not only does God save us from an eternity in Hell, but He also gives us an eternity in Heaven with Him (Revelation 22:14). Likewise, the father in the parable showed remarkable grace when he restored his rebellious son back to the family.

Fifth, the father instructs his servants to slaughter the fattened calf as part of a celebratory feast. The Greek phrase for fattened calf literally means prime, grain fed veal, which would be prepared only for the most special of occasions. A single calf could have fed a couple hundred people, so the servants would have spent a couple of months preparing the biggest party of their lifetime, and they would have invited the whole town to celebrate with them.

The father is correct when he says, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive.” Remember that the younger son’s rebellious departure was a capital offense, and any Jewish man at that time would have disowned his son at a minimum. Therefore, the feast is not actually a celebration of the younger son’s return, but rather it’s a celebration of the father’s amazing love.

In much the same way, the apostle Paul tells us that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) In other words, we have all committed grievous crimes against God and are as good as dead, but God graciously forgives us and restores us to life (Romans 8:11).

Therefore, the celebration in the parable is an allusion to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9), as we covered previously in The Parable of the Great Banquet. Notice in verse 24 that it says “they began to celebrate,” but it never says that their celebration ended. Similarly, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb will be the ultimate celebration that begins at the Second Coming of Christ and continues forever. All the angels in Heaven and the resurrected saints of all the ages will worship and praise Jesus forever for sacrificing Himself to save the lost.

Now the focus of the story switches to the older brother, who’s been out in the field, probably overseeing the hired servants. He obviously has no idea that his younger brother has returned home because he stops to ask one of the young servants what the music and dancing is all about. This is odd behavior considering that the servants would have spent months preparing to throw such a lavish feast for the entire village. It’s also strange that he would have stopped to ask one of the young servants what was going on rather than just running into the house to ask his father directly. It seems that even though the older son remained physically close to his father, he was just as emotionally distant as his younger brother had once been.

Furthermore, it’s interesting that the father didn’t put his oldest son in charge of planning and coordinating the festivities, which would have been typical in that culture. In fact, it doesn’t look like the father even bothered to invite the older brother to attend. Perhaps he noticed how aloof the oldest son had been this whole time.

For example, why didn’t he do his duty as the oldest brother and defend his father’s honor when the younger brother demanded his inheritance? He should have been the first one to chastise his younger brother for his impertinence. And how could stand by while his father searched the horizon every day, hoping to see the younger son’s silhouette in the distance? He should have noticed his father’s deep longing to be reunited with his son and gone after his younger brother. It seems that the father was well aware that his oldest son could care less about his father or his younger brother.

In much the same way, Christians ought to feel a burden to defend the faith by condemning false teaching, and we ought to feel a burden to go after the unsaved and share with them the good news of the Gospel.

The young servant tells the older brother that they were throwing a party because the father has received his younger son back “safe and sound.” The Greek word literally means in good health, but it could also mean in peace, similar to the Hebrew word shalom. In other words, the young servant was saying that the father had fully restored his younger son to the family, and that news infuriates the older son.

Amazingly, the father comes outside to beg his older son to join the family and enjoy the festivities. No Jewish father in that culture would plead with his son to do anything; he would just give a command and expect it to be obeyed. And what kind of person refuses to take part in such a lavish family celebration anyway? The older son’s harsh answer tells us exactly the kind of person he is:

  • His tirade begins without any formalities or honorifics, just a terse command.
  • He claims that he’s never disobeyed his father, which would make him the first person in history to keep that law perfectly (besides Jesus of course).
  • He complains that he’s been slaving away for years without any gratitude, essentially comparing his father to a cruel slave driver.
  • He makes it clear that if he had a party, he wouldn’t invite his family, just his friends.
  • He essentially disowns his family by referring to his younger brother as “this son of yours.”

This angry outburst exposes how the older son truly feels about his father. It turns out that all along he wasn’t staying close to home out of love for his father; he just wanted to keep an eye on his future inheritance. He was just going through the motions begrudgingly and counting the hours until his father was dead and he could finally start living for himself.

What’s more, his rant exposes a sense of entitlement and a judgmental attitude toward his father. Not only does he feel like his father owes him something just for existing, but he even accuses his father of being unfair. He’s essentially saying, “You owe me an apology for not thanking me for my years of service and also for wasting my share of the inheritance on a stupid party.”

In much the same way, the external holiness of religious hypocrites belies their hard hearts. While they might follow all the rules, they only do it out of a sense of duty and obligation rather than a genuine love for Christ. While they might attend church regularly, they don’t make any effort to save others from eternal damnation. They believe that they’ve earned God’s love through obedience, and they single out certain sins as being beyond the scope of God’s forgiveness.

Once again, the father’s tender response displays a superhuman level of restraint in dealing with two sons who both deserve a good kick in the pants. But we’re left to wonder how the older son responds to his father’s inexhaustible patience. Does he respond to the father’s loving invitation with humility and repentance, or does he gather up his belongings and storm off, never to return?

Jesus ends the parable on a cliffhanger as a way of letting this question hang in the air: “Are you going to let your pride keep you out of the Kingdom of Heaven forever, or are you willing to humble yourself and join in the endless celebration at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb?”

The Pharisees ultimately wrote their own ending to the parable, and they were condemned because of it. In the words of John MacArthur, here’s the ending they wrote: “And the older son, being outraged at his father, picked up a piece of wood and beat him to death in front of everyone.” Just a few months later, the Pharisees did that very thing when they had Jesus publicly flogged and crucified for challenging their authority.

Where People Go Wrong

The biggest mistake that I see people make with this parable is assuming that both sons represent Christians. For example, in Steven Furtick’s sermon “Take Your Turn” from the series “Times and Seasons,” he claims that the older son represents Christians who overlook God’s blessings in their lives because they’re too busy worrying about what they don’t have, while the younger son represents Christians who want God to answer their prayers immediately instead of waiting and trusting in God’s perfect timing.

This is a ridiculous interpretation, because it ignores the context. Furtick is essentially claiming that Jesus was telling the Pharisees to appreciate God’s blessings in their lives and trust in God’s perfect timing, which is absurd.

I’ve also heard people misinterpret this parable when they claim that the two sons represent two ways that Christians distance themselves from God. According to this interpretation, the younger son represents an immature Christian who’s fallen back into his old sinful lifestyle, while the older son represents a mature Christian who’s being selfish.

Again, the problem with this interpretation is that it’s based on the wrong assumption that both sons are Christians. How can the younger son represent an immature Christian who’s resuming a sinful lifestyle when the Bible makes it clear that a true Christian would never do that (see Gospel Objection #6)? How can the older son represent a mature Christian who’s being selfish when the Bible makes it clear that a true Christian puts the needs of others ahead of their own needs (Galatians 5:19-23 and Philippians 2:3-4)?

Any interpretation which claims that the younger son’s rebellion or the older son’s bad attitude portray Christian behavior is missing the whole point.