What Is the Meaning of the Prodigal Son Story in Luke ?
- Aaron D'Anthony Brown Contributing Author
- 2021 16 Feb
The story of the Bible can be read as a tale of redemption. The beginning of sin in the Garden of Eden culminated into forgiveness in the form of Jesus Christ, both of which we still experience today. The definition of redemption is “atoning for a fault or mistake.” Jesus atoned for the sins of humanity, as ordained by God. This act of sacrifice was an act of love. God did not redeem mankind because He had to, but instead made that choice.
The Bible talks explicitly at length about love and in His ministry, Jesus also preached on the subject. He expressed that our greatest commandment was to love God, and the second greatest was to love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). One parable where this notion of God’s love and redemption is highlighted is in the parable of the prodigal son. This story occurs in the Book of Luke in chapter 15, verses 11 to 32.
Summary of the Parable of the Prodigal Son
An affluent man had two sons, one who could be described as dutiful and responsible. The other son was seemingly negligent and irresponsible. Between the two, the father divided up the estate. This came after the younger son asked for his share. With their estates split between the two, the older son stayed at home with his father, while the younger son moved away.
Scripture quickly says that he “squandered his estate in foolish living” (Luke 15:13). Making matters worse, a famine occurred where this son was, and the wealth he once had was gone. He started working a job where he fed pigs. From there his disposition in life fell so far from where he once was that the Bible describes him as being in despair. “He longed to eat his fill from the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one would give him anything" (Luke 15:16).
He was away from family and seemingly all alone. Jesus then says that the man realized he could go back home and ask for his father’s help, even work for his father. This was a genuine plea that the son planned and executed. As God forgives and redeems his children, so too did this father in Jesus’ parable.
“But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son'” (Luke 15:20-21).
The distance between the two was quickly closed, ending in personal affection, forgiveness, and ultimately redemption. Not only is this son physically embraced, but the father restores him of his previous comforts, shown with his robe. His status as a loved son was again realized. This happy ending did not occur without the older son noticing the sudden uproar of celebration. He was displeased when he discovered the father’s treatment of the younger son and felt slighted.
Why? Ostensibly, the older son never made the same mistakes as the younger, but seemingly had no reward. The father then told him what he may have forgotten due to comparing himself to his younger brother. The father explained that what is his, also belongs to the older brother.
In the end, both brothers were loved, one simply lost his way before coming back home. With an understanding of the parable’s synopsis, we can now analyze the implications of the parable to the audience then and the Christian believers now.
What Would Have Been Surprising about This Parable to the Original Audience?
The original audience of this parable was described as tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:1). Both groups were despised in this Jewish society. Luke records that someone among the Pharisees and scribes saw this and commented, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).
This sort of language reflects a societal hierarchy where certain people avoid association with others who don’t fit particular criteria. In Jesus’ desire to love others, He never held such a status quo for Himself. This countercultural approach was thus frowned upon, but Jesus in His wisdom delivered the aforementioned parable as a way of helping people understand. His lesson was that of redemption, not just for the people who recognized themselves as lowly or sinful in society, but for those like the Pharisees who did not.
Meaning of the Prodigal Son Parable in Luke
The two sons in the story are indicative of two types of people, but both represent humanity. Some of us have been close to God longer and more intensely than others. Some of these same people possess an attitude of expectancy or favoritism from God because they have always chosen God. Due to their continued faith, they look down on others who experience doubt and open sinfulness.
Some of these same people in sin have chosen to dispose of God’s blessings and move away from faith. And yet, when they are ready to return, God offers forgiveness. Both of the sons in the parable are reflective of Christians. Realistically, we act as both sons at different points in time. Sometimes we are close to God and expect His favor, and sometimes we separate ourselves from God and realize we are undeserving of His favor. In both cases, God acts as the father did.
“‘Son,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours" (Luke 15:31). God shows love to His children and that love never stops. There are moments when we separate ourselves from God in sin, and “squander” in our own unique ways. However, God’s love is not contingent on our behaviors and His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).
3 Lessons from the Parable of the Prodigal Son
God Forgives (And We Should Too)
Part of the conflict in the parable is not just the younger son’s sinful behavior. The older son experienced jealousy at the sight of the younger son being celebrated. We know that covetousness is an experience God considers sin and commands we not do (Exodus 20:17). We also know that if we are to experience God’s forgiveness then we are required to forgive also (Matthew 6:14-15). The father did not love either son any more or any less. His love was everlasting.
Everyone Makes Mistakes
Scripture makes clear that everyone sins (Romans 3:23). The only one who has never sinned is Jesus. This means that for the rest of us, there have been or may be moments where we live our lives in sin apart from God. The time frame we experience sin and the sins themselves may differ between us, but we all make the mistake of sin.
We Should Love Too
Love is in the first and second greatest commandments (Matthew 22:37-40). This parable too showcases the power of love within a family. Jesus presents this story in part as an admonishment for believers to practice love in our own relationships with one another. This includes siblings, fellow believers, or anyone. When we recognize that everyone falls short and sins, we can extend grace to one another.
With these three lessons in mind from the parable, we can each do our part to self-reflect and grow within our relationships with God and others. Whether we are currently stuck in sinful lifestyles or find ourselves closer to God than ever before, we can always thank Him for His redemptive love.
Doctrine.org, 'The Lost Son'
Photo credit: Pexels/Ethan Jones
Aaron D'Anthony Brown is a freelance writer, hip-hop dance teacher, and visual artist, living in Virginia. He currently contributes work to iBelieve, Crosswalk, and supports various clients through the platform Upwork. He's an outside-the-box thinker with a penchant for challenging the status quo. Check out his short story “Serenity.”
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible parables. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of parables within Scripture. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.