And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:11-32).
This story told by Jesus is as familiar to us as any Bible story. It’s safe to say that many who have never read the Bible have encountered references to it. In this week’s #WordForWednesday post, we’ll dive into this passage to see what Jesus intended to teach by it. First, though…
As with all of Scripture, we must first start by considering the context. This parable is told along with two others (traditionally titled “Parable of the Lost Sheep” and “Parable of the Lost Coin”). All three of three of them came in answer to a complaint by the Pharisees. Luke tells us,
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them. So He told them this parable (vv. 1-3).
The tax collectors and sinners were wanting to be close to Jesus. Why? Because, in the words of the Pharisees, He received them and even ate with them! The parables, then, become Jesus’ answer to the question, “Why do you do that, Jesus?”
In interpreting the parable of the Prodigal (literally Wasteful) Son, we should notice the similarities in the stories:
- Each involved something or someone that was lost (sheep, coin, son).
- In two cases, that which as lost wandered away (sheep and son).
- In two cases, the owner of that which was lost searched diligently until it was found (sheep, coin).
- In two of the cases (sheep, coin), Jesus makes almost the same statement: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7, a shortened version appears in v. 10).
- In all three cases, there was a great celebration when that which was lost was found by the owner.
If we focus on those things that are common to all three stories (statements 1 and 4), we will begin to see the purpose of the stories and avoid using the passages to teach something that was not intended. And if we look at the commonalities that appear in two of the three passages, we find truths that help us in interpreting the third. In fact, reading the first two parables will give us some good ‘lenses’ through which to interpret the third.
The Setup–Lost Sheep and Lost Coin
What do we learn from the first two parables, found in Luke 15:4-10? In each case, a person loses something. Since one is a man and one is a woman, the identity of that person is not an important detail. The point is, they lost something.
The next major point to remember is that they diligently searched for that which was lost. In each case, the owner of the lost item searched diligently. The man left the 99 sheep to find the one lost sheep. The woman swept her house clean. Again, since the details of the search varies from story to story, we can conclude that how they searched is not important. The important point is that they searched.
Third, in both cases the owner of the lost item celebrated when the item was found. They called their friends and neighbors and said, “Rejoice with me! I lost a sheep/coin and I’ve found it!”
Finally, in both cases, Jesus closes with a statement meant to bring home the point. What’s the point of those two parables? The point is There is joy in heaven when a sinner repents. The 99 sheep were already found, and thus a celebration is not necessary. Perhaps they too had been lost and found. Likewise, the nine coins were still in the possession of the woman, so she had no need to celebrate that. The reason for the celebrations is that which was lost has been found and restored.
The Son Who Ran Away
Having gotten a framework in which to look at this parable, let’s now begin. First, we should notice that it was the younger son who left his father (v. 12). Is this important? When we look at the parable of the lost sheep as well as Jesus’ comments at the end of the story regarding the older son, it seems to have a bearing. The point is the older son stayed with the father and followed his rules–just as the Pharisees had done.
For whatever reason (we won’t speculate), the younger son decided it was time to be on his own. He knew he had an inheritance coming and he wanted it NOW. He wanted to enjoy pleasure in this life now. He therefore said to Dad, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.”
In the same way, we all were created for an inheritance–an eternal inheritance. Our inheritance is the very presence of God and a relationship with Him. And we, like that son, have turned away from Him, seeking our pleasure in this world instead.
So, he took his inheritance, gathered all his stuff and left. Things were great for awhile (there is, after all, pleasure in sin). The Bible calls his lifestyle “reckless” (v. 13). The Greek is asōtōs, which literally means “wasteful or riotous” (hence the title of the parable in many western versions; we’ll come back to this emphasis in a bit).
Then the money ran out. He was broke. He had nothing, no one, and no place to stay. He found himself in desperate need. So he ended up working as a pig farmer. Now, keep in mind that pigs were unclean to the Jews, which is probably why Jesus put this in there, as He often does. The young man would have been, in his father’s eyes, unclean from contact with pigs.
He got so hungry that he “was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything” (v. 16). All his friends disappeared when the money ran out and the party was over. He had finally reached bottom.
The text says, “He came to himself” (v. 17). He realized where he was, what he had done, and more importantly whose he was. Notice that he thought he knew his father. He expected to be treated as a hired servant. His father was likely a successful man, given the overall picture the story paints.
Notice also his prepared statement of repentance: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants” (v. 18). He confessed his sin. There’s no “I’m sorry,” only “I sinned, it was wrong.” There’s no doubt he was sorry for his sin–at least to the extent that it didn’t work out for him, though. So, he went home, expecting nothing more than servitude–if he would even be received at all.
In the meantime, his father has been watching and waiting. The sense of the text is that the father was actively watching and looking for the son. Notice that the father saw his son “while he was still a long way off” (v. 20). He ran–not walked–to his son. You can almost picture it as a movie, with two people running toward each other in an open field (but now that’s being a bit dramatic).
His father ran to him because he had compassion. He loved his son. He grabbed him up and embraced him. We can imagine the tears that must have flowed. The son only gets out half his prepared statement: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). The father accepts the statement but then stops him right there. A servant? Never. He would always be ‘son’ to his father.
The son gets three things: a robe, a ring, and shoes (v. 22). And not just any old robe will do–the text says the best robe was placed upon him. And there’s no reason to believe that the ring and shoes would be anything less as well. The son got much more than he expected or deserved. The father received him, not as a servant, but as he was before–the son (v. 24)
Then they began to throw a party. They killed a calf. No. Not just ‘a calf,’ but the fattened calf (v. 23). The calf that was being prepared for a special occasion. But what occasion could be more special than this? In the words of the father, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
The Older Brother
Now we come to the part of the story that’s often overlooked. The older brother is outside, working in the field as he had doubtless always done. He asks the servants about the commotion and they (joyfully) tell him the news. His reaction? Less than pleased. In fact, the text says he was “angry and refused to go in” (v. 28). So, dad goes out to talk to him. “Come celebrate with us!”
The older son’s anger is directed more at his father, we see, than the younger brother. Notice that his complaint is this:
Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him (vv. 29-30).
The older son says, “You wouldn’t let me throw a mediocre party, yet you gave him the best, who doesn’t even deserve mediocre!!” The father acknowledged the older son’s continued presence. And he reminded the son that “all I have is yours.” You’ll get your inheritance. Notice that he closes with the same statement he said to the servants–yet with a slight difference: “Your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (v. 32). Not only is the younger brother a son, but he is “your brother.”
Takeaways From This Passage
What do we learn from this? What was Jesus trying to tell us. The story of the prodigal son has been taught in many ways, with many different emphases. In many western contexts, the emphasis is on the sin of the son and the “wasteful” living, then his repentance. To be sure, that is an important part of the story, for if he had not left, there wouldn’t have been a return.
Certainly other truths can be gleaned from this passage. We are to repent when we sin. Sin is an attitude of the heart, not just the outward actions (as seen in both the younger and older brother). Sin, while pleasurable for a season will ultimately end in heartbreak and ruin. We often have to come to the end of ourselves before we can truly repent. All of these and others are valid points from the story.
However, when we take this passage with the other two parables (sheep and coin), we begin to see that the thrust of the passage is the great love that the father has. He loved the son so much he gave the son far more than was deserved or expected. He was so grateful to have his son alive and home again.
Likewise, Jesus was telling the Pharisees and scribes, “Look, I eat with sinners and receive them because they need God. They know they need Him. I am giving them the chance to repent. Because all heaven rejoices when a sinner repents.” That, by the way, is true of both the one who is coming to Christ for the first time in salvation and the one who has wandered from His path, though he is a believer. The point of the passage is that the love of the Father is greater than any sin that drives us away from Him. All we need to do is turn toward Him, because He is already running toward us.