What Does It Mean to Be a Prodigal Son?

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One of Jesus’s most well-known parables is the Parable of the Prodigal Son-a story about a father and his two sons. Even folks who know very little about Jesus are often familiar with this parable.

The term “prodigal son” has become synonymous with someone who behaves recklessly, damaging their relationship with family and friends.

But what is this famous parable about? What was Jesus trying to teach His audience? How does God feel about prodigals? And is the prodigal son intended to be the focus of Jesus’s story? Let’s dig into this parable and find out.

What prompts this parable?

The Parable of the Prodigal Son only appears in Luke’s Gospel. The writer places it among a couple of parables about “lost” items. The first is a parable about a lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), and the second is a story about a misplaced coin (Luke 15:8-10). After telling these two short stories, Jesus launches into a longer story about a lost son.

Luke intends for us to see these parables as a suite of teachings that drive home specific points. And He frames these parables very strategically:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2).

This is the context for these stories. Luke wants us to understand that there was something about Jesus that drew sinners to Him. And when the religious authorities saw these crowds, they didn’t see broken people longing to be reconciled with God. They only saw societal riff-raff who they felt discredited Jesus.

Knowing their hearts, Jesus tells this series of parables.

Lost sheep and coins

The two stories that preface the prodigal story are very similar. And if we want to wrap our minds around Jesus’s most famous parable, we must brush up on them, too.

In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, He tells us about a shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to look for a single one that has wandered off. When he finds it, he tenderly carries it home and, in his excitement about finding the wayward sheep, calls all his friends and neighbors to rejoice (Luke 15:3-7).

Similarly, the second parable tells of a woman who loses one of her ten silver coins. When she finds it after tearing her home apart, she calls her friends to rejoice with her (Luke 15:8-10).

These two parables share some similar features:

  • They’re about someone who has lost something significant.
  • The item they lost wasn’t the only one they had.
  • They both pour all their energy into finding what was lost.
  • When they find what they lost, they both call for others to celebrate with them.
  • In both instances, Jesus likens that celebration to what happens in heaven when a single sinner repents.

But Jesus isn’t finished here. He rounds out this trifecta with one more story that takes the series in a different direction.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

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).

Jesus’s story is already shocking. A son-especially a younger son-asking for his share of the estate while the father still lived would be a huge insult. The listeners would have expected the father to send his son away for such an offense. The last thing they’d expect is for the father to comply.

The prodigal’s fall

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country, and 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).

Here’s where the story veers away with the “lost” parables that Jesus just told. In the first, the sheep wanders off as dumb sheep tend to do. In the second, the coin is simply lost. Here we see the son add insult to injury. He takes his portion and simply leaves. He ends up lost like the coin and the sheep, but he’s lost because of his choices.

The son squanders his inheritance, and when a famine hits, he has nothing to live off of. He ends up feeding a farmer’s pigs for him. For the Jews in Jesus’s audience, feeding these unclean animals would have represented a horrifying turn of events, let alone the idea that he’d long to eat the pigs’ food.

Listeners would have expected Jesus’s story to end here. The son had experienced the due consequences for his terrible decisions. This seems like the perfect ending to a story about working hard and treating your elders with respect.

But Jesus continues.

The prodigal hatches a plan

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 15:17-20a).

Notice that Jesus says that the son “came to his senses.” He doesn’t necessarily have a moment of great sorrow or regret; he simply realizes that the field hands on his father’s farm are faring better than he is.

The young man hatches a plan to go home and get a job on his father’s farm. He rehearses what he will say, accepting responsibility for his behavior. In his mind, the best-case scenario is that his father will employ him.

At this point, Jesus’s listeners have to be holding their breath. What will the father do? Will he give the son the beating he deserves? Will he excommunicate his child, or will he allow him to work the farm?

The merciful 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 (Luke 15:20b-24).

By now, it’s clear that the father in the story represents God. And right off the bat, the father behaves in a most undignified manner. Respected men did not run. But for the father, reconciliation was more important than etiquette.

The father’s immediate reaction is to throw his arms around his lost son and kiss him. The son launches into his rehearsed statement, but the father doesn’t even seem to hear him. Instead, he’s yelling to his servants to fetch a ring (a symbol of returned family authority) and sandals.

Typically, a family might throw a gathering with a young goat. Fattened calves were killed for the most special occasions; the extra meat on a calf meant that neighbors and friends would be invited to the feast. Like the shepherd or the woman who lost her coin, the father wanted everyone to know that his lost son had returned.

The angry brother

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’ (Luke 15:25-31).

Here’s where the parable strongly veers away from the previous two. Jesus wants to make an obvious point to the Pharisees who sit on the periphery and judge the Lord’s audience.

The older son doesn’t know what’s going on because he’s out in the field, fulfilling his responsibilities. When he finds out what’s happening, he gets angry and refuses to take part in the festivities. This would have brought public shame on the father and caused gossip in the village. But the father (who is always the initiator of reconciliation) goes out to the son and pleads with him.

The way that Jesus expresses the adult son’s frustrations demonstrates an understanding of his feelings, and by extension, the Pharisee’s feelings. While the sinners gathered around and welcomed by the Lord have been doing whatever they wanted, the Pharisees have devoted themselves to following God’s law. The focus and acceptance Jesus shows them doesn’t seem fair in light of all the Pharisees have sacrificed to fulfill their office.

But like the father in the parable, Jesus pleads with them to see things differently. The kingdom that He’s inaugurating is about seeking the lost and reconciling with the wayward. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “My children, the kingdom of heaven has been yours since I called Abraham out of Ur. But I’m now at work reconciling this lost world, and you should be rejoicing at that.”The interesting thing about this parable is that it’s left unresolved. We don’t know how the older brother responds because that’s the part of the story that the Pharisees needed to write. Jesus was issuing an invitation. Some Pharisees (like Nicodemus) would respond to the Lord’s plea, but most of them wouldn’t.

Identifying with each character

The universal nature of this parable is one of its most endearing qualities. As readers, there’s something valuable to learn from putting ourselves in the shoes of each character.

What does it mean to be a prodigal?

Traditionally, we read this parable and see ourselves as the prodigal son. We all know what it means to be lost and to throw ourselves on God’s mercy. It’s an appropriate vantage point for examining this tale.

To be a prodigal is to recognize that we tend to move away from God when left to our own devices. But the moment we choose to come back, we find He’s running out to meet us. And everything we enjoy as kingdom people comes to us because of our Father’s generosity.

But we need to dig deeper.

What does it mean to be the older brother?

Jesus was trying to communicate something specific to the Pharisees, and as people responsible for the Great Commission, that lesson is vital for us.

Throughout the Old Testament, the Jews played the part of the prodigal son. They would wander off on their own, and it wasn’t until they experienced the consequences of their actions that they decided to seek God. So when we recognize the Pharisees in the older brother, we need to remember that they were once prodigals, too.

If we forget the mercy that’s been extended to us, we all can go from prodigals to judgmental older brothers. We begin believing that our place in the kingdom is because of our goodness and faithfulness, and not because of Jesus’s unmerited grace. When we think that way, we start to resent seeing others receive mercy instead of celebrating it.

What does it mean to be the father?

Paul understood what it means to make peace. He told the Corinthians, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:16-19).

Like the father in this story, we’re not to look at others from a worldly perspective. We’re not to question whether they deserve to be reconciled to God or whether they merit mercy. Instead, we are ministers of reconciliation, running to meet every prodigal we find.

The more we can see ourselves in every role of this story, the more likely we are to live in a way that glorifies Jesus and grows God’s kingdom.