What was the parable of the Prodigal Son about? Can Christians become prodigals?
Who or what is a prodigal? A prodigal is often characterized by someone who lives in an extravagant and wasteful lifestyle and lives with no responsibility. It can also be considered someone who loves lavish living but not actually having the right to that living. In the case of the Prodigal Son, the son had nothing to leave home with, so he desired to have his inheritance ahead of time, before his father died. That was similar to wishing his father were dead, so the father gives the son what would be 1/3rd of the father’s total estate, while the elder son would inherit the remaining 2/3rds. Even though the word “parable” doesn’t appear in the text, and neither does the title, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, most call it that anyway because of the story. The word “prodigal” comes from the Middle French word “prodigal,” but is directly taken from the Late Latin “prodigalis,” meaning “wasteful,” and comes from the word “prodigere” which can also mean, “drive away, waste.” This is why the word “prodigal” is used in referring to this story.
Jesus gives the Parable of the Prodigal Son right after “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him” (Luke 15:1), so they are His intended audience, but so too are the Jewish religious leaders, who were also present, and most believe that the older brother in the story refers to the established Jewish leadership who are the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and those who have the power and authority. They see themselves as the rightful heirs of Abraham, whereas the tax collectors and sinners are unworthy of such rights, so the prodigal apparently represents the tax collectors and sinners (us!), and who the “religious elite” believe have no rights to the inheritance promised to the children or descendants of Abraham. The “prodigals” of Jesus’ day certainly had no power within the Jewish hierarchy. In fact, the tax collectors and sinners wouldn’t even be allowed in the temple because of their status. That’s why the context and historical setting are important in this parable and why the Jewish leaders must have felt the sting of Jesus’ parable. Guilt has a way of doing that. The truth sets you free…or it makes you really mad.
We’re All Prodigals
The prodigal’s father represents God, but it also represents the calling if each person who trusts in Christ. When the younger brother squandered all he had in wasteful living, as prodigals do, “he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:15-16). What could be worse for a Jew than to be a keeper of pigs? Plus, “no one gave him anything,” meaning all his fair weather friends had left him when the money ran out. The young man had to hit the pigpen before he realized he had sinned, so “when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger” (Luke 15:17), but I don’t think he came to himself, by himself (John 6:44, 70; 15:16), because God is the One Who grants repentance (2nd Tim 2:24-26). Hitting rock bottom compelled the younger brother to think, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Luke 15:18), and tell him, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:19). To be associated with sinful living and being a keeper of pigs, considered to make someone unclean to the Jews, would have made him even less worthy to go back home. What the man didn’t expect was “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The father, representing God the Father, runs out to embrace us because He had been looking for us, as it were, “while [we were] still a long way off.” The fact that the father had been watching and waiting also indicates that the father knew the exact time of his return. Even so, the prodigal admits that he had no right to the inheritance, and says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21).
Lost and Found
When the younger brother is embraced and kissed by his father, he rejoices and orders a big feast to celebrate and says, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:22-24). The son didn’t deserve to be called his son because he had insulted the father by demanding his inheritance and then squandered it all on loose living, but that’s just the point. None of us deserve to be called the children of God, but “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The Jewish religious leaders heard that the common people (tax collectors and sinners) could become the children of God, which is what the gospel was all about, and that’s why they reacted in anger, much like the older brother who “was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him” (Luke 15:28-30). The “angry” Jewish leaders also refused to “go in” to the great feast in the coming kingdom because they didn’t consider themselves sinners and would never humble themselves, and if they never humbled themselves, they would never come to the end of themselves or to repentance. That’s when the father, representing God, said to the “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours (so) it was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31-32). God was trying to tell them that they could also “go in,” but like their ancient fathers, they were stiff-necked, meaning they wouldn’t lower their heads in humility or look up to heaven and confess their sins. They couldn’t confess what they didn’t think they had!
Can we become prodigals? Yes, I believe we can, but that’s not what this parable is really about. We can get in the pigpen, but we don’t stay in the pigpen.For everyone who has been brought to repentance and trust in Christ, we must remember to have compassion on those who are still lost, because we too were once lost but now are found, so the Parable of the Prodigal Son is also about our own salvation. It wasn’t that we found God. He wasn’t missing. It was God Who found us. We were the lost ones, and why it is said that “God made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1st Cor 1:20), since “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1st Cor 1:21). The Apostle Paul knew that we were all prodigals at one time, and had no rights of inheritance in the kingdom, and in order to keep us humble, we realize that God’s Word says, “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1st Cor 1:26-29). The Parable of the Prodigal Son is also about our own salvation.
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.