The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
What Is “The Prodigal Son”?
Webster’s dictionary gives us two definitions for the word “Prodigal.”
One who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly, and
One who has returned after an absence.
The word “Prodigal” comes from the Latin word prodigere, meaning (pro-) “forth” and (agere) “to drive,” (i.e., to drive away). Indicating a foolish person who drives forth his money, spending it with reckless abandonment. Some of the synonyms for the word prodigal include – extravagant, squanderer, unthrifty, hi-rolling, and wasteful. Most of us have heard of the Bible story about the prodigal son, but may not be familiar with all the details. What is it? who wrote it? to whom and why was it told? and what was the intended outcome?
“The Prodigal Son” is the last of 3 parables told by Jesus regarding loss and redemption in the Gospel of Luke. But what was this famous parable about? Who was Jesus speaking to? How does God feel about prodigals? Is the prodigal son intended to be the main focus of the story? And, what can you and I learn from this parable? Underneath the opening title of this blog post is the question;
What’s behind the Message?
What that means is, on the surface, it seems to be a story about a rebellious son, a self-righteous and jealous brother, with a happy ending thanks to a loving and very forgiving father. But, as you will soon discover, there is a much deeper meaning behind the message. And that is what we are about to find out. But before we begin, let’s get re-acquainted with the story first by reading these 21 verses in Luke chapter 15 (it takes less than 3 minutes). Just click the link below, read it, and then click the back button in the top left-hand corner to return to this post.
What Was the Parable about?
So, now that you’ve read the whole story of the prodigal son, in this section, I will give a brief overview of what it was about. It begins by introducing us to 3 characters: a wealthy father and his two sons. To summarize, the younger son prematurely asks his father for his portion of the inheritance (the estate). Surprisingly, out of love, his father granted his request by dividing up his estate between the two sons and giving the younger son his portion. However, this younger son was “prodigal” (i.e., wasteful and extravagant), so he gathered together all of his belongings, left his father’s home, moved to a distant country, and squandered all of his fortunes on wild living (v. 13). Finally, after running out of money, and trying to survive through a famine, he is forced to hire himself out as a swineherd where he eventually hits rock bottom and realizes that he’s poor, hungry, and helpless. He then hatches a plan to return home to his father, beg for his forgiveness and ask to be a hired servant instead of his son, just so he can be fed and clothed as good as his father’s hired servants were.
When he returned to his father’s house, his excited father seen him from afar and came running to accept him back home. And although the prodigal son gave his rehearsed speech, his father did not listen, and instead welcomed him back into the family as his loving son. He then began a celebration for the return of his lost son. When the older brother heard all the commotion and found out what was happening, he refused to join in on the celebration. However, because the father deeply loved the older son also, he went out to plead with him to join in on the celebration and said “My son, 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).
What Was the Purpose behind This Parable and Who Was Jesus Speaking to?
The answer to these questions can be found at the beginning of Luke chapter 15 where it says:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathered around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered, “This Man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
As we can see here, Jesus was speaking to a mixed audience of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees (religious leaders), and teachers of the law. That’s when Jesus tells them the 3 different parables:
The parable of the lost sheep
The parable of the lost coin, and
The parable of the lost son (or, as we know it, the prodigal son)
All 3 parables are on the subject of finding the lost, which explains exactly why Jesus receives and eats with sinners, because they are lost and they need to be found. Also, in all 3 parables, whether it was a lost sheep, a lost coin, or a lost son, afterward there was rejoicing over that which was found. Jesus ends the first 2 parables with the same important message he was trying to convey.
…’ Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 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 15:6-7)
…’ Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:9-10)
Well, I’m not the sharpest knife in the block, but even I can see the overwhelming message of repentance and redemption. You would think that after the first two parables, the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were accusing Jesus would have understood the message, but they viewed themselves as righteous and the other half of the crowd as sinners. They didn’t want Jesus welcoming “these types” and found no value in their redemption. Much like the prodigal son’s older brother. So the purpose behind all 3 parables Jesus told was to clear up the matter of who was truly “lost.” Jesus wanted them to know that the lost need to be redeemed. And when that happens, and repentance takes place, there’s a celebration in heaven with God and the angels, because there is nothing more important to God than for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
An In-Depth Review
Okay, now that you’ve had the appetizer, I’ll give you some meat and potatoes! To get a better understanding of “The Prodigal Son,” I will take the 21 verses of this parable and break it down in sections with more detail so that we can absorb more of the life-changing principles it has to offer. And the next time you hear the story of the prodigal son, or you have a chance to share it with someone, you will truly know “What’s behind the Message.”
The Prodigal’s Fall
Jesus continued: “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)
In Jewish society, there were laws governing how inheritances were typically divided. According to Deuteronomy 21:17, the eldest son got a double share of his father’s entire estate, while the rest of the brothers got a single share. Since there were only two brothers in the story, the older brother got 2/3’s while the younger prodigal got only 1/3rd… That means the prodigal was asking for 1/3rd of everything his father owned “right now”.
For a younger son who was not the firstborn, to request his portion of his father’s inheritance before his father died would have been extremely selfish and considered a huge insult (especially according to the Pharisees and teachers of the law that Jesus was speaking to). He was essentially saying to his father, “I have future plans for my life and you are standing in my way. It would be better off if you were dead.” A father honoring a defiant youth was unheard of in those days which shows the deep love of a father who would rather be ridiculed by everyone in public than disown his own son.
The Prodigal’s Departure
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. (Luke 15:13-16)
When a Jewish boy lost his inheritance to a Gentile, they would be greeted with a ceremony called “The Kezazah Shaming” upon their return. The people in the village would get pots and fill them with burnt corn and nuts which they would break, while repeatedly shouting “you are cut off” ( Kezazah = Cutting Off ). This ceremony signified that he was no longer welcomed back into the community. It was also a deterrent for others to be extra careful with their family’s estate. Being part of a wealthy Jewish family and living in a predominantly Jewish community definitely tells us that the prodigal son was aware of the shame that he would bring to himself and his family if he returned without his inheritance.
Moving to a distant Gentile country would allow him to be a Jewish boy spending all his money on wild living (prostitutes etc..) without being noticed. Also, as a Jewish boy born under the law of Moses, pigs were considered ceremonially unclean and spiritually desecrating. Lucky for him, being a Jewish boy and working as a swineherd (lowest possible job) in a distant Gentile country would also go unnoticed. However, desperation finally strikes him and he is forced to face the consequences and return. Our sins will only go unnoticed for so long before they are found out. The Bible tells us in Numbers 32:23, “be sure your sin will find you out.”
The Turning Point
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)
After hitting rock bottom, Jesus tells us that the prodigal son came to his senses. He was starving from lack of food and tired of longing for pig slop. He accepts responsibility for his behavior and practices his rehearsed speech. I’m sure in his mind the best-case-scenario would be that his father forgives him enough to at least employ him. God often waits until we are completely broken so that we will have no one left to turn to for help but Him. The son acknowledges that he is unworthy to be called a son (aren’t we all?). “I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
Wow! When I hear the prodigal son say those words, it takes me back to 2 Samuel 12:1-13. After King David had Uriah the Hittite killed, and stole his wife Bathsheba to be his own, he was confronted by his advisor Nathan. Realizing he was found out and facing possible death, he replied by saying “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). However, similar to the prodigal son’s father’s response (as we will see next), King David’s advisor Nathan replied by saying “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.”
An Unexpected Response
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 begin to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24)
It’s amazing to see that after waiting day after day for a rebellious son who shamed him, the father sees him from far off and runs to him. It was obviously daytime since he saw him from far away, meaning the village was busy with people buying, selling, and watching. In the Jewish culture of that day, it was undignified for any prominent father to run since they wore long robes. He would have had to tuck the robe into his belt, therefore exposing his legs. Also, perhaps he ran to his son so he can get to him before the villagers, therefore preventing the “kezazah shaming.” Regardless of the true reason, the father had sandals put on his feet as a sign of acceptance. Servants and slaves customarily went barefoot, while only masters and their sons wore footwear.
The robe was considered formal wear and therefore even a higher honor than the sandals. The word “robe” in Luke 15:22 literally means “first-ranking garment.” The father clothed his son in fine linen to honor him who was covered in filth from working with pigs. The ring placed on his finger was a “signet ring” – having the family crest or seal displayed on it which signifies returned family authority. Finally, fattened calves were usually only killed for special occasions. Fattened calves in those days were purposely under-exercised and fed grain only. The extra meat on them meant that friends and neighbors were invited to the celebration. The father was not ashamed of his son and instead wanted everyone to know of his safe return.
The Angry Brother
Meanwhile, the older brother 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!’ (Luke 15: 25-30)
When the servant told the older brother what the celebration was about, he spoke of the younger brother’s return, and that he was back safe and sound. The Greek expression of “safe and sound” actually speaks of “wholeness,” and metaphorically, it speaks of an uncorrupt sound mind, or “repentance.” The interesting part is that the older brother was angry with his father, not the younger son. Because the father did not make the younger son pay for his rebellious squandering, and instead, completely forgave him and even threw a celebration for his return. “You never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” A young goat was of less value than a fattened calf, so what the older brother was saying to the father was; “you never even gave me something of less value for me and my friends.
Once Lost, Now Found!
“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 prodigal son left the safety and security of the life he had back home, to pursue his own worldly desires. Like so many of us, he thought the grass was greener on the other side. Only to find out how easy it is to become completely lost in our trespasses and sins. Lost to the point of starving to death physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Praise God that this parable has a happy ending, because after hitting rock bottom (it’s a shame it had to take that long ), the prodigal son realized his transgressions, acknowledged he was wrong in his heart, understood what he had to do, and found his way back home as a different person (i.e., a new creation). There was a celebration upon his return because just like the lost sheep and the lost coin in the 2 previous parables, the lost son was finally found. He was redeemed. And like Jesus said to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:9-10)
3 Characters and Their Symbolic Representation
The parable of the prodigal son is a story about God’s redeeming grace and mercy. It’s a story of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, and His sole desire to save the lost. Jesus purposely told this parable with each of the 3 characters in the story being a symbolic representation of someone else. Below, is a list of all 3 characters in the story and who they represent.
The Prodigal Son
The prodigal son ultimately made some bad choices and got himself caught up in a life of sin. he represents a person lost in darkness and living in rebellion without God. When God chastens those He has redeemed, He brings them to their knees until they recognize their need for repentance and they return to Him. Later in the parable, we find out that sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we come to our senses and recognize our sin. Therefore, the prodigal son in this parable represents the lost. The tax collectors, and sinners of that day (Luke 15:1).
The Older Brother
The older brother in this parable represents the Pharisees and teachers of the law who accused Jesus (Luke 15:2). They wore religion and righteousness on the outside, but never in their hearts. They did not believe in Christ or the forgiveness of sins. Similarly, the older brother worked hard for his father and never disobeyed him. Yet, when the younger son returned, the older son replied; “This son of yours,” refusing to even acknowledge his own brother. Like the religious leaders, the older son made himself out to be blameless, and his younger brother as the evil sinner who should be punished (see Matthew 7:3-5). He appeals to his father by proudly proclaiming his own self-righteousness in comparison to his brother’s sinfulness.
The Forgiving Father
Hopefully, by now, we can clearly see who the main character of the parable is. His character remains constant throughout the story as a powerful yet forgiving, merciful, and loving father. When his rebellious son who squandered 1/3rd of his estate finally returns home, as a sign of repentance, he cries out “father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” and just like our heavenly Father, instantly his father forgave him and the celebration began. Just like the celebration that Jesus was talking about in the first 2 parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, that takes place in heaven before God and the angels, when every sinner repents (Luke 15:10). The father in this parable represents God !
As we can see in the parable of “The Prodigal Son,” we can know the truth and be living in comfort one moment, and soon get caught up by the cares of this world (Matthew 13:22), and our own worldly desires – to control our own destiny. To choose our own way, and make our own decisions, and not have to answer to no one. It’s a dangerous path to go down, and it’s a dangerous decision to make. If Christ is not in the driver’s seat, then He’s not in the car! And navigating through this treacherous life on your own without Him is the same thing as telling God, “I don’t need You in my life while I’m here on earth, I got this. I will call on You if I need You,”
If you know someone who is a prodigal son, or if you yourself have strayed from the truth, and are going through life your own way, without seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33), without the strength and encouragement of fellow believers (1 Thes. 5:11), without the loving guidance from the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), and without an intimate relationship with Jesus (Matthew 22: 36- 38), then just like the forgiving father in the parable of the prodigal son, God is earnestly waiting for your return. So He can once again have fellowship with you and prepare your place in heaven.
All you prodigal’s, the Lord is asking you,
“Please Come Home!”