What Is the Meaning of the Prodigal Son Story in Luke?
- Clarence L. Haynes Jr. Contributing Writer
- 2022 18 Feb
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. 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. – Luke 15:11-13
Bible Story of the Prodigal Son
You have just read the opening lines to one of the most famous parables in all of Scripture—the story of the Prodigal Son. I would guess that many people without even reading the story have used or at least understand what the term 'prodigal' means.
Sometimes when people are very familiar with a story, they can read it and gloss over some things. My goal today is to not gloss over but to help you understand just a little bit better what is the meaning of the prodigal son story in Luke 15:11-32:
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. “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. “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. “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. “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.’ ”
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Two Important Biblical Stories before the Prodigal Son
As you look at this story, you must look at the stories Jesus told just before. These two stories can shed light as to the meaning of the Prodigal Son story. In Luke 15:1-10 Jesus shares parables about lost things. One was a lost sheep, the other was a lost coin. If you read those verses, the Pharisees were muttering because Jesus was eating with sinners. Here is what they said:
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
In response to their muttering (I love that word because it really paints the picture of the Pharisees and teachers of the law) Jesus tells them the two stories mentioned above. When he finishes each one, he mentions a similar thought or “moral” to the story.
…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
When you understand these two stories, you will be on your way to understanding the meaning of the parable of the prodigal son. I love the way the New Living Translation of Luke 15:11 positions Jesus telling this story. It says, “to illustrate the point further...”
This means the story of the Prodigal Son is a continuation of the theme established in the previous parables.
3 Key Truths in the Prodigal Son Parable
As we look at this story, I want to highlight 3 key points. I am not going to recap the story in order but just pull out some key points. I trust you will go back and read the whole story.
1. It’s about Two Sons, Not One
Jesus begins telling the story by saying a father had two sons. In telling this story, we see the mastery and wisdom of Jesus. Consider this for a moment. Who was in the room when Jesus was telling this story? Tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and teachers of the law. Whether the people in the room recognized it or not, the two sons represented everyone who was in the room.
The younger son (the prodigal) represented the tax collectors and sinners. The older son represented the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. There was one son who was lost outside the house and one son lost inside the house.
Let’s jump to the end of the story just to show my point about the son lost inside the house.
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!’ – Luke 15:25-30 (emphasis added)
When you read this, does that remind you of anyone? Sounds a lot like those muttering Pharisees and teachers of the law complaining because Jesus is eating with sinners and tax collectors. I don’t know if they saw themselves in the story, but Jesus was talking directly to them.
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2. The Father Loved Both Sons
When the story is told, this is the image we often remember,
…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. – Luke 15:20
We see this loving father who runs with compassion and great love towards his son because he has returned. The father didn’t just have compassion for that son, he had compassion for the other son as well.
Remember, the older son was angry and refused to celebrate the return of his brother. But notice the father’s response:
… So his father went out and pleaded with him. – Luke 15:28
In these two pictures, we see how great the father’s love is. Here is another way of looking at it. God doesn’t just love the church, he loves the unchurched. He doesn’t just love those who have fallen away, he loves those who have never come in. He loves the ones who have heard the gospel just as much as the ones who haven’t, and he pursues both of them with the same amount of love. So, when you read this story, remember the great love of the Father. He loved both sons.
3. The Father Had to Redeem Both Sons
So much of the story focuses on the redemption of the prodigal. However, the truth is that both sons had to be redeemed. The difference is the prodigal’s sins were obvious and evident. The older son’s sins were not obvious. Again, very similar to what we said before about the sinners and the Pharisees.
The sinners and tax collectors knew they were sinners and were probably fully aware of their need for repentance and redemption. In case they ever forgot, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were there to remind them.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law on the other hand were lost in their own self-righteousness. They didn’t want Jesus welcoming “these types” of people and saw no redeeming value in them. Much like the older son.
Their attitude caused them to miss their need for redemption because their opinion of themselves was like the older son. Remember he said, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” (sounds like something a Pharisee would say).
One of the things very apparent in the older son is though he spent all the time in the father’s house, he never acquired the father’s heart, very much like these religious leaders. They may have been experts in the law, but they knew absolutely nothing about the love of God or the heart of God. Even though they were in the house, they were just as prodigal as the Prodigal Son.
Sometimes in churches when we have been “in the house” for so long we can lose the father’s heart. It’s so easy to get distracted by programs, services, and doing the work of the ministry that we forget what the heart of ministry is all about. I pray that we would not just become Bible experts or worship experts, but that we would always have the love of the Father pouring out to those around us, because this is what they need.
If I could challenge you with one thing today…don’t lose the Father’s heart.
Conclusion from the Prodigal Son
I have tried to give you some insight into the meaning of the prodigal son story in Luke. Whenever you read this story again don’t forget how Jesus starts the story...a man had two sons.
The beauty of the story is that eventually, both sons end up rejoicing with the father. This is the father's heart.
As 2 Peter 3:9 reminds us, God is patient, not wanting anyone to perish. The same love and compassion he showed with the two sons, he shows to you and me today. What a wonderful God we serve. I hope you enjoyed my take on the prodigal son story and I would love to hear your thoughts on it as well so reach out and let me know.
Until then, keep reaching out to people with the love of the Father never forgetting how much he truly loves the people of this world.
Recommended for You:
A Prayer for the Lost and the Prodigal
4 Top Takeaways from the Parable of the Talents
5 Ways Christians Can Apply the Parable of the Good Samaritan Today
5 Ways God Loves a Prodigal
10 Affirmations for the Parent of a Prodigal Child
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Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.