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The Parable of the Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son is a famous story Jesus told of a Father God who loves us completely, and longs to welcome us home.

Read time: 6 minutes, 44 seconds

One of Jesus’ best-known parables is the Parable of the Prodigal Son—one of a group of three parables in chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel that are all about God’s big heart for the lost. They were told in response to a group of highly religious people of his day, known as the Pharisees, who were grumbling that Jesus was mixing with (to their thinking) the “wrong” kind of people—people that God surely wouldn’t be bothered with. Jesus showed them that their thinking was a million miles from the truth.

Although this parable originally had no title, it has become known as “the Parable of the Prodigal Son” because “prodigal” means spending money recklessly, which is exactly what the son in the story does. If you haven’t already done so, take a moment to read the story as Jesus told it in Luke 15:11-31.

The parable has three main characters, each of them reflecting three very different attitudes and each of them challenging our own.

The younger son

This is what the Bible calls “repentance”—not feeling sorry, and even less feeling sorry for ourself, but rather, making a decision that we got it wrong, need to change, and need to start living differently.

His attitude at the start of the story is pretty depressing. He clearly despised his father, reflected in his asking for his share of the family inheritance. For when do you get an inheritance? When the person giving it is dead. So what he was really saying is, “Dad, I wish you were dead so I could get my hands on your money.”

Yet because his father was so incredibly kind and gracious, he agreed, dividing his assets between his two sons. Shortly afterwards, the younger son “got together all he had” (verse 13); but since that Greek expression (the New Testament was written in Greek) can mean “he turned his assets into cash”, it’s clear that he had no intention of hanging around. He took off, cash in hand—free at last. Or so he thought…

Because it wasn’t long before he discovered that life can be tough; and soon he had wasted all his money and ended up penniless. And when a famine came along, his former so-called friends were now nowhere to be found and he was left desperate. The only job he could find was feeding pigs—ceremonially “unclean” animals to Jews. He had hit rock bottom.

But it was at this point that he made the best decision of his life: to admit he had been wrong (such a hard thing to do for most of us). He decided to go back home and ask for his father’s forgiveness and see if he would give him a job as a servant. This is what the Bible calls “repentance”—not feeling sorry, and even less feeling sorry for ourself, but rather, making a decision that we got it wrong, need to change, and need to start living differently.

And as he made that decision and returned home, the focus of Jesus’ story shifts to the second key person:

The Father


We read that “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, through his arms around him and kissed him.” What that tells us is that, if the father saw him while he was still a long way off, then he had been looking and waiting. He had never given up on his son.

“while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, through his arms around him and kissed him.”

As the son acknowledged that he had been stupid, his father didn’t say: “You’re right!” Or “Do you know what your mother and I have been through?” Not even, “What?! You’ve wasted all my hard-earned money?!” He didn’t even let his son get to the end of his pre-prepared speech. Rather he jumped in with command to bring the best robe, a ring and sandals—all symbols of being a son, not a servant. He restored him fully to the place that he had wilfully walked away from—and then threw a party to celebrate.

This is what God is like, Jesus was saying. A God who never gives up on us—no matter how bad or stupid or indifferent we have been. A God who is always ready to forgive and welcome us back home. We may have turned our back on him, walked away from him, lived in disregard of him; but no matter what we have done or been, no matter how far we went away, God never gives up on us. In fact, it’s while we were still far away from him that he sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay the price of our sins, the New Testament tells us. He is always ready to welcome us home, just like the father in this story.

And he’s still the same today.

Continued below...

Christianity The Parable of the Prodigal Son

But the father’s welcome wasn’t quite the end of the story. Because there’s still the third key character –

The older son


This was “the good boy”, the one who had always done everything right and always done what his father had asked; who had stayed home and slogged his guts out in the family business. So when he got home from a hard day working in the fields to find a party going on, and then discovered that it was a party for his younger brother who had come back home, he was outraged, full of indignant self-righteousness, even to the point of refusing to enter the house. So his father came out and pleaded with him to come in–something which, in the middle eastern culture of the day, was very demeaning.

But now the truth came out; for while he had apparently served his father with a good heart all those years, his words reveal his true attitude. “Look! All those 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. When this son of yours has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him!”

God is far bigger-hearted than you ever dared imagine

What do we hear there? Resentment. He hadn’t worked with his father, but felt he had been “slaving” for him; he doesn’t call the returning son “my brother” but “this son of yours”; and he gladly rehearsed his brother’s failures.

Like his younger brother, this older brother had also made a decision; but it was a decision to lock himself up in outrage, bitterness and resentment. He was as lost as his younger brother had been; but he just didn’t know it. He had lived at home and was part of the family and enjoyed its blessings; but over the years he had lost his sense of purpose and his joy and had forgotten his father’s big-heartedness—just like the Pharisees had done with God. That’s why they couldn’t cope with Jesus mixing with what they saw as the dregs of society; why they couldn’t cope with Jesus showing how big-hearted God is.

To those of you exploring faith in Jesus, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a reassurance that God is far bigger-hearted than you ever dared imagine; and that no matter what you have been or done, no matter what has been done to you, no matter how far you feel you may have drifted away from him, your heavenly Father is ready to welcome you home and bring you into his family.

And to those of you who have been Christians for some time, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a challenge not to let “older son syndrome” creep into your life, leaving you like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who looked down on everyone else.