I used the example of the prodigal son in last week’s post on restoration by God. The son never expected to be restored to his family; his behavior was shocking and horrible for his father. But though the grace and love of his father, restoration was swift and complete. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is such a tender story; I wanted to explore it further.
The Prodigal Son Bible Verses
We find the Prodigal Son verses in Luke 15: 11-32. They come right after two similar Parables- the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. (This parable is sometimes called the Parable of the Lost Son.) Jesus told these three parables in response to comments made by the Pharisees. They were in the crowd as Jesus spoke to the tax collectors and “sinners” who had gathered around to hear Him.
“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (15:2)
You can almost hear the distaste in their comments. Ewww. Sinners. They must be avoided at all costs. The Pharisees were at a complete loss why Jesus would want to associate with them. The Pharisees spent their days making sure they were “clean”, while Jesus seemed unconcerned.
Jesus told these parables about the lost sheep, coin, and son to show the Pharisees who were truly “lost.”
Jesus begins his story:
“There was a man who had two sons.” (v11.)
Who Was the Prodigal Son?
The younger son demands of his Father, “give me my share of the estate.” (v12.)
Custom dictated the family estate would only be divided up after the death of the father, with the older son receiving 2/3 share, and the younger son 1/3.
To ask for his inheritance before his father’s death showed an arrogance and a disregard for the father’s authority. It went against tradition and was insulting to His father. It would have brought shame on himself and his family. Middle Eastern traditions would have the father striking the son across the face and driving him out of the house!¹
But in this parable, Jesus shows us the complete opposite- a loving father who allows this act of rebellion and grants the son’s outrageous request.
Do you know this patient, loving Father? His love and compassion for His children is limitless…
The prodigal son inherited land, animals, slaves, and property. He wanted to sell these things quickly to fund his trip, and this would not have been an easy feat. The villagers would consider this a humiliating breakdown in the family and would not want to be party to the sale.
But verse 13 tells us “not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had.” He had found a buyer and left the village ASAP.
The son breaks off the relationship with his family and his people for money, travel, and the desire to live on his own terms.
How often do we assert our independence and “go our own way”?
Definition of a Prodigal Son
How would you define a prodigal? I think of someone who has left home to go against their family, possibly spiritually lost, and forging their life on their own terms.
The accurate definition, however, means a person who spends money recklessly and extravagantly.²
Verse 13: “And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.” (NKJV)
The Prodigal son wasted all his inheritance on having a good time and eventually ran out of funds.
To compound matters, a severe famine gripped the entire country. Without money or a place to live, he eventually finds work feeding pigs- an offensive, humiliating, and degrading job for a Jewish man. He is so hungry that he contemplates eating the pig’s food.
We would call this “hitting rock bottom.”
Prodigal Son Came to Himself
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!’” v 17 NKJV.
Middle Eastern translations of this phrase are “He thought to himself.” In other words, he needed a plan to get himself out of this terrible situation.³
He thinks of home, and the plentiful food for his father’s hired help. He’s starving! The son comes up with the only plan he can think of- to ask his father to let him return and work for wages to repay his inheritance.
He wants to buy a reconciliation with his father and work his way back into his good graces. There was no remorse in this plan.
The son’s attitude was like the Pharisees. They thought that keeping the law kept them in good standing with God. The son thought he could “keep the law” by working his way back into good standing in his family.
He knows it may not work; he will face humiliation and they would consider him a failure. So, he comes up with the same confession King Pharaoh used in tricking Moses to get the plagues of locusts to stop (Exodus 10:16):
He would plead, “I have sinned against heaven and against you.” V18
The words sound repentant, but we see by his “redemption by works plan” that they only come from a desire to eat once more and avoid the consequences of his behavior.
He heads home.
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The Father of the Prodigal Son
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him…” verse 20.
This loving father was keeping a keen eye out for his son; longing to see him return. Perhaps he watched the road each day, hoping to see him coming from a distance.
Your loving Father does likewise- He longs to see you coming into His presence♥
He also has good reason to want to intercept him.
Jewish custom dictated that the son’s actions were grounds to be cut off from his family and the community. They would perform a “Kezazah” ceremony (“cutting off”) which does not allow him to return. If he should attempt it and approach the city gates, the villagers would smash a clay pot to the ground in front of him; yelling that he was now cut off from his community and bar him from entering.
The Prodigal Son Returns
As soon as the father saw his wayward son, he was “filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son…” v20.
He ran to him out of compassion, but also because he wanted to intercept the son before the villagers could get to him. The father wards off the shame of the kezazah ceremony and shows compassion when he “threw his arms around him and kissed him.” v21.
Jesus shows us the beautiful picture of what unconditional love looks like. The grace exhibited by the father redeemed the lost son; it required no payment.
The father showed the villagers he had forgiven his son and restored him back to the family. Reconciling in public assured that no one would mistreat his son.
Unfortunately, the father had to humiliate himself so that this could happen. First, he ran to his son, which was unheard of- men did not run anywhere in their culture. Second, he had to restore his unclean, pig-herding son in public! (The Pharisees must have really been indignant with this part of the story!)
Before the son could even start his planned speech, the father, filled with compassion, offers grace. He puts his son first, and himself second, to restore their relationship.
Can you imagine the shock the son must have felt? He was unexpectedly and completely restored! His father’s grace and love covered his debt. He doesn’t need to offer to work as a hired man and incredibly, hadn’t been disinherited or banned from the community.
Father, I Have Sinned Against Heaven and Against You
The son realized it wasn’t about the squandered money, but the broken relationship with his father that was most important, and he could never heal it on his own.
All he could say was, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” v21.
He realizes he doesn’t have to work for his father’s love and gives up on the plan to save himself. He puts his pride aside, repents of his actions, and accepts the grace and abundant love of his father.
What a beautiful way to explain the gospel message!♥
A Robe, a Ring, and a Fatted Calf
In response to the son’s declaration, the father turns to his servants and says, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fatted 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.” vv22-24.
The robe was most likely the fathers. When the people arrive for the feast and see the son wearing his father’s robe, it assures the son’s acceptance by the father, and therefore, the community. The ring was a sign of authority- to seal documents and conduct business. The sandals showed he was not considered a servant, who did not wear them. Complete restoration!
The killing of the fatted calf signified great joy and celebration; usually done for a wedding or other grand occasions.
Symbolism in the Prodigal Son
There is great symbolism in this feast. Yes, it honored the returning son. But there is a deeper meaning.
The feast celebrated not only the son’s homecoming and repentance, but the costly sacrifice of the father to save his son. His father had to humiliate himself before his family and community to bring reconciliation.
The father ordered this feast so that by his grace, his “sinful” son could sit and eat with him.
They killed a fatted calf for the feast, which meant blood had been shed for the sins of the son; similar to Jesus’ blood, which was shed for our sins.
Jesus invites us all to take part in the Last Supper communion feast to commemorate His reconciling death for us on the cross.
Jesus was showing the Pharisees that He didn’t eat with sinners to celebrate their sin, but to showcase His grace. He invites all to come and sit at His table, which cost Him His life.
We’ll continue our study next week as we look at the older son’s response, and the meanings and lessons in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
³ Kenneth Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983, pages 169-180.
Photo Credit: Images by StockSnap and Sr. Maria-Magdalena R. from Pixabay
2 thoughts on “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”
This was great! Wonderful cultural insights that make this parable even more meaningful! Thanks Ann!
Thanks! I learned so much! I’m not sure splitting it in two was the best idea, but I just couldn’t stop. 🙂 I even read that it has been called the “inexhaustible” parable because of all the knowledge and wisdom and meaning within it!