Most people today are somewhat familiar with the parable of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15:11-32. Even those who know next to nothing about the Bible know something about this tale. Its themes and its language are deeply ingrained in our spiritual and literary traditions.

Shakespeare, for instance, borrowed plot points and motifs from the parable of the prodigal son and adapted them in The Merchant of Venice and Henry IV. The Bard also alluded to this parable repeatedly in his other dramas. Arthur Sullivan used the exact words of the biblical text as the basis of an oratorio titled The Prodigal Son, Sergei Prokofiev cast the plot in ballet form, and Benjamin Britten turned the story into an opera. At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, country singer Hank Williams recorded a song called "The Prodigal Son," comparing the prodigal's homecoming to the joys of heaven. The world's great art museums are well stocked with works featuring scenes from the prodigal son's experience, including famous drawings and paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Dürer, and many others.

Contemporary language is likewise full of words and imagery borrowed from the familiar parable. It is fairly common to hear a wayward child referred to as "a prodigal son" (or daughter). People also sometimes speak of "killing the fatted calf" (a metaphor for extravagant celebration) or "riotous living" (a dissolute or profligate lifestyle). You may have heard or read those allusions without recognizing their source. They are borrowed directly from the King James version of this best known of Jesus' parables.

A Story to Remember
The parable of the prodigal son is one of several memorable parables recorded only in Luke's Gospel. It stands out as the choicest of these parables for many reasons.

Of all Jesus' parables, this one is the most richly detailed, powerfully dramatic, and intensely personal. It's full of emotion-ranging from sadness, to triumph, to a sense of shock, and finally to an unsettling wish for more closure. The characters are familiar, so it's easy for people to identify with the prodigal, to feel the father's grief, and yet still (in some degree) sympathize with the elder brother-all at the same time.

The story is memorable on many levels, not the least of which is the gritty imagery Jesus invokes. The description of the prodigal as so desperately hungry he was willing to eat husks scavenged from swine food, for instance, graphically depicts his youthful dissolution in a way that was unspeakably revolting to His Jewish audience.

Another thing that makes this tale unforgettable is the poignancy demonstrated in the father's response when his lost son returns. The father's rejoicing was rich with tender compassion. The younger son, who had left heedless and insolent, shattering his father's hopes for him, came back an utterly broken man. Heartbroken and no doubt deeply wounded by his younger son's foolish rebellion, the father nevertheless expressed pure joy, unmingled with any hint of bitterness, when his wayward son came dragging home. Who would not be moved by that kind of love?

Yet the elder son in the parable was not the least bit moved by his father's love. His steely-hearted resentment over the father's mercy to his brother contrasts starkly with the dominant theme of Luke 15, which is the great joy in heaven over the return of the lost. The central message of the parable, then, is an urgent and sobering entreaty to hard-hearted listeners whose attitudes exactly mirrored the elder brother's. The parable of the prodigal son is not a warm and fuzzy feel-good message, but it is a powerful wake-up call with a very earnest warning.

That point must not be lost in our understanding and appreciation of this beloved parable. Unfortunately, the lesson of the elder brother is often overlooked in many of the popular retellings. And yet it is, after all, the main reason Jesus told the parable.

The Central Lesson of the Prodigal Son
The picturesque descriptions in the parable are not provided to add multiple layers of meaning; they are cultural details that help us understand the story in the context of first-century agrarian village life. By understanding the context, the main point of the story comes to light.