Arguably the most famous parable Jesus ever told, the prodigal son is an incredible story. Charles Dickens said, “It is the finest short story ever written.” Yet despite its popularity many of us might have missed the timeless meaning in this parable for us today.
The Context Of The Prodigal Son
To understand the meaning of the story of the prodigal son we first need to look at what caused Jesus to tell this story.
The prodigal son is found in Luke 15. Luke starts off by tellings us that tax collects and sinners were gathered around Jesus wanting to hear him teach. The pharisees see these deplorable people around Jesus and make a snide comment. They say,
“This man [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
We might see this as a compliment of sorts today … that Jesus would hang out with those who are outcasts, living on the fringe of society; but the pharisees said this 2000 year old statement in a derogatory fashion, insinuating Jesus is one of the sinners. As we know, the truth is Jesus did eat with sinners, in fact, at times it seems he preferred their company over the religious elite. But he wasn’t drawn to the sinners so he could participate in sin with them. Rather he offers sinners a better way to live; and he has compassion on those whom the religious leaders shun.
Ironically even though the religious leaders thought they were better than those sinners. They weren’t. Jesus spends much of his time with the religious leaders trying to convince them that they too, like all humans, are sick, and in need of a doctor … are sinners, and in need of a savior.
So you have Jesus standing in the middle of this crowd. Sinners, tax collectors on one side, and the religious elite on the other. Two distinct groups of people. And Jesus strikes up a story that addresses both ends of the spectrum brilliantly:
The Story Of The Prodigal Son In The Bible
The parable of the prodigal son in the Bible is actually part of a series of three stories that Jesus told back to back. They all point to the same thing, but the last one carries the biggest punch.
Since it’s a longer story I divided the story into three acts that will hopefully show us the meaning of the prodigal son story.
The Prodigal Son Act 1: The Set Up
The story begins by setting-up the characters. There are three characters in total, a father and two sons. Each will play a key role as the story unfolds.
Jesus doesn’t wait very long to deliver the first gut punch. In the Gospel of Luke, the younger brother goes to his father to demand his portion of the inheritance. An insult and a shocking request.
In essence, what the younger son is saying is I wish you were already dead. The younger son valued the money more than his own father. The audience surely would have gasped and expected a swift judicious beat-down coming the son’s way.
But the father does something equally shocking, he obliges. He divides up the inherence among BOTH brothers. Not just giving the younger brother what he demanded, but also the older brother his portion too. An important detail often missed.
The younger son takes his father’s money, grabs his things, and heads off to live “recklessly” as Luke describes it.
The Prodigal Son Act 2: The Logical Conclusion
This story starts off with the younger bother (the prodigal son) breaking all the rules and customs. He’s acting foolishly and maliciously with no regard for anyone but himself. On the other hand you have the older brother who, as we will see, plays by the rules and seems to do the right thing.
Remember you have two groups of people hearing this story. You have the sinners/tax collectors and right now they are identifying with the younger brother. They too have lived recklessly.
On the other end of the spectrum are the religious leaders. They’ve played by the rules, much like the older brother. They are hoping the younger brother gets what he deserves. They want justice to be served.
So, the younger brother sets out seeking all the excesses the world has to offer. But, as often happens, what he went after ended up getting him. Luke details the fall and demise of the younger brother, to the grins of the religious and the cringes of the sinners and tax collectors.
Fall the son does. And hard. Worse than anyone expected. He ends up with nothing. Not even a bite of food. He resorts to eating pig scraps. Which in Jewish culture was the lowest of the low. He is in dire need.
The religious leaders had to be pretty happy with how the story was unfolding. Finally a story of justice. They thought: that younger son got what he deserved.
But Jesus isn’t done yet.
Eventually, the younger brother comes to his senses. He reasons it would be better to be the lowest of the low as a servant in his father’s household than be in the place he is now. He starts the shameful walk back home.
The Prodigal Son Act 3: The Twist
This is where the story gets good.
While taking the low walk back home he is rehearsing what he will say to his father to convince his father to take him back. He’s not expecting to be welcomed back as a son, he knows he’s screwed that up too much. He is only going to ask to be a servant.
Nobody expects what happens next …
While the son is still a long way off the father spots him. The father had not given up hope that one day his son would return. The father was waiting and longing for that day, scanning the horizon day after day hoping – and praying – that a one day his son would return. Those listening to the story did not see that part of the story coming. What follows is even more surprising.
When he finally spots his son, the father gets up and RUNS to greet him. Running was considered undignified in Jewish culture, but the father doesn’t care. HE RAN! He doesn’t care what anyone else might think, he can’t wait to get to his son.
The son immediately starts the speech he had been rehearsing on his trip home. But before he can even get half of it out of his mouth his father interrupts him. The father starts barking out orders to throw an extravagant party and adorn the son with robes, rings, and new sandals. In a few short minutes, the father restores him to the place of an honored son.
The religious leaders jaws are starting to drop, but the biggest surprise hasn’t hit yet.
All along Jesus’ listeners thought this was just the story of the prodigal son. Which is how most of us read it today. But in reality, this is the story of the two prodigal sons. The first son gets lost in a land far far away, but the second son gets lost while never leaving home.
The older brother returns from working in the fields to the sounds of a party being thrown … and not just any party, but a huge party. And to his shock and horror, it’s for his younger brother.
Instantly the older brother becomes furious and refuses to go in. The older brother is justified in his anger, both legally and logically. He did what was right, while all the while his younger brother was a complete and total train-wreck. However, in the older brother’s pursuit of the law, he missed the spirit of the law. He missed the compassion and forgiveness part of his father’s heart. So instead of entering in the party he stands stewing on the outside. Harboring anger toward his brother and the actions of his father.
So his father comes to him. For a second time in the parable of the prodigal son the father goes out to restore a relationship. But this interaction goes much differently. The older brother is angry and refuses to come into the party.
The older brother would rather wallow in self-pity than join in the party. He seems to fabricate the accusation of his brother hiring prostitutes, something the story never mentions. He’s trying to make his brother seem worse than he was, presumably to make himself look better. He is showing that he too is the prodigal son. Though he never left his father’s house, he too is lost.
The father remains gentle and shows grace towards his son. Reminding him that he got his inheritance, what was due to him. But he also challenges him to celebrate the lost son coming home. The older brother is more concerned with justice for something that doesn’t concern him than he is glad to have what was once lost. He clearly doesn’t have the father’s heart.
The party is happening inside celebrating the lost being found. Standing outside the party is the older brother deciding whether to go in or stay in his self-pity.
That’s how the story of the prodigal son ends. Did the brother go in, or did he stay outside sulking? We don’t know…
So, what does the story of the prodigal son mean for us today?
What Does The Prodigal Son Mean For Us Today?
Think back to who Jesus is talking too. The religious elite on the one side and the sinners & tax collectors on the other. Put yourself in their shoes. Who do you identify with more?
The Pharisees are represented by the older brother in the story. They were hoping that the father was going to dish out justice to the younger son who rebelled. They hoped that God would come down and declare them righteous and serve justice to those that weren’t as “holy” as they were.
Instead, Jesus throws a party for the lost, the ones that didn’t play by the rules, and celebrates them coming home. Not because they deserve it, but because he loves them. In doing so he reveals the bigger truth … The Pharisees, the religious, are lost too. They need forgiveness just as much as those sinners. In fact, as it turns out, they are no better than the sinners and outcasts. Both sides have screwed up and both sides are unworthy. Their sin might look different, but it’s present in both their lives.
On the other side you have the sinners and tax collectors. They are represented by the prodigal son. They were hoping that there was still a place for them at the table. That they had NOT screwed up too much or gone too far that they could never come home.
This story ends with their hopes being answered. The father not only welcomes them back but throws them a party. The news for them is far better than they could have possibly imagined or hoped for.
The point of this story is that we are all lost and in need of a savior. And for all who accept the invitation – all who repent – are brought into the party. But some will choose to remain on the outside.
Jesus ends this story without a conclusion because it was up to the Pharisees to write the ending.
Will the Pharisees go into the party or stay outside?
Will they understand and embrace the heart of Jesus and celebrate the lost being found?
Or will they stay outside pretending they have it all together?
The choice is theirs.
And, get this: the choice is ours today too!
Will we accept the invitation or will we stay on the outside?
The modern day application for us today depends on where we see ourselves in the story. Are we the younger brother that ran off and did whatever he wanted? Or are we the older brother that played by the rules, but with the wrong heart?
For the younger brothers, you might expect to find an angry God that wants to punish you. But if you choose to return to him you will find quite the opposite. Instead, you will find a father that missed you and wants nothing more than to be with you. Rather than punishment, you will find a party. No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, your father is anxiously awaiting your return.
For the older brothers, you’ve done all the right things which can lead to self-righteousness. It can be hard to celebrate the person that has screwed up their whole life and is now welcomed back in. You’ve done the right thing your whole life and received no party. But the reality is you aren’t as good as you think you are. You need forgiveness as much as they do. So return to Him. Go into the party and celebrate what God has done for ALL of us. The party can be for you too.
So, what does the prodigal son story mean? It’s a story about how we are all lost. Some of us of strayed far far from home and some of us are lost even though we never left. And yet, despite our state we serve a God who invites us back to the party. The choice is ours. The choice has always been ours.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog