Bible Story of the Prodigal Son
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the greatest love stories ever told - a story filled with mercy and grace. It is a parable of how God views us and how we can choose to repent and turn to God or reject him. You will read in the Bible verses below about a father and two sons. While the older son stayed home and worked hard for his father, the younger son ran away with his inheritance and spend it on foolish things. Finding himself alone, working like a slave for food, and having to live with pigs, the younger son returns home begging to work for his father. The father welcomes home his son with open arms and great compassion. The oldest son becomes very angry with his brother for coming back home and with his father for accepting him home.
What Happens in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?
The parable known as the Prodigal Son is one of the most famous of all the parables Jesus told. It is the last of three parables found in Luke 15 which highlight how God seeks sinners. An overzealous emphasis has been placed on the prodigal son, which has led to the cultural naming of the parable, but as we will see, Jesus’ intended climax of the parable lies with the second son. First, let’s recount what happened in this parable.
In the beginning, the main characters of the story are introduced, a father and his two sons. Jesus then focused on the youngest son who asked the father for his share of the estate. Without protest, the father divided his estate and gave the youngest son his share. In turn, the youngest son then gathered everything together, which means he liquidated his entire share into money (Luke 15:11-12). Based on the Mosaic Law the oldest son would be set to inherit two-thirds of the father’s estate, so the youngest would have received one-third (Deuteronomy 21:17). It’s difficult for us to fathom the full impact of the youngest son’s actions because we are far removed from the Jewish culture of those days. It’s worth taking time to understand so we can get the full effect of what Jesus taught. When we read this passage, we may think the youngest son merely asked his parent for some money for his own personal use. No big deal, right? After all, kids these days often ask their parents for money to use for their selfish purposes. Sure, it can be presumptuous, but it’s not the end of the world. There’s actually a lot more to it than you might expect.
During that time, people held family honor in the highest esteem. Every son was expected to honor his father and carry his name in a respectable way. The son was not merely seen as an individual, but an extension of his father and his entire family. In a sense, the family’s honor rested on the son’s shoulders; he had an obligation to continue the family legacy in a respectable way. The inheritance of the father would normally be distributed to his sons after he died. In the parable, when the youngest son asked the father for his share, he essentially told his father, “I wish you were dead.”
Next, the son brought further dishonor when he cashed in his share of the inheritance. In those days, the father had rights to the entire inheritance, which consisted of much more than money. The inheritance was all the land, livestock, and other assets which belonged to the family. It was possible for a son to be given responsibility for his share of the inheritance; however, the father still received the profits while he was alive. What the youngest son did would be unthinkable in the eyes of the Jews. When he cashed in his share, he destroyed one-third of the father’s profits for his own selfish gain.
Even worse, this was more than a rejection of the father; it was also a rejection of the entire family lineage and its generational care of the inheritance. The son was expected to use his share of the inheritance to build for the family’s future. Such dishonor would have enraged Jesus’ audience and would have been a blatant violation of the third commandment (Exodus 20:12).
After the son received his money, he went to a foreign country and used his money for sinful, self-indulgent living. The money ran out, and famine overtook the foreign country. In a desperate attempt to survive, the son offered his services to one of the citizens who commissioned him to feed his pigs (Luke 15:13-15). This would be another shock for Jesus’ audience. Jews did not eat pork because pigs were declared unclean according to the Law (Deuteronomy 14:8). As a result, the average Jew would want nothing to do with pigs. While he fed the pigs, the son desired to eat their food because “no one was giving him anything” (Luke 15:16). At this point, in the eyes of a Jew (especially the Pharisees and Scribes), the son would have become the most defiled human being imaginable. He destroyed his relationship with God, his people, and his family. There was no hope for redemption in the mind of the legalist.
In his desolate state, the son came to his senses and realized his father had enough food for him to survive. The son journeyed back home with the plan of asking his father to be hired as a servant thinking he no longer had the right to be recognized as a son due to his reckless rebellion. When the father saw the son, he did the unthinkable—he received the son back with ecstatic joy and celebration, and he ran to meet his son while he was still at a distance (Luke 17:17-20).
In that culture, people considered it indignant for older men to run, but the father demonstrated no regard for the cultural norm. The father kissed his son and gave him three items of significance: The best robe, which was only given to honored guests. A ring, which symbolized authority (Genesis 41:42; Esther 3:10). Sons were given authority by their fathers, and the ring signified the youngest son had been restored to his place in the family. The father also placed sandals on the son’s feet. This was significant because servants did not wear sandals, only people of honor. In addition to these items, the father commanded the fattened calf be killed, which was reserved for special occasions.
Jesus then moved to the crux of the parable, which was the oldest son’s reaction to his brother’s return. The father invited the oldest son to join the celebration, but the oldest son refused. He felt cheated because he had lived in obedience to the father, but never received any reward like his youngest brother. The father then replied with tender words which conclude the parable, “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:31-32).
Who Was the Prodigal Son in the Story?
The prodigal son was an allegory for people who had given themselves to a corrupt way of life. In the immediate context, the prodigal son represented the tax collectors and sinners Jesus associated with. In modern terms, the prodigal son represents all sinners who squander and reject the blessings offered by God and the opportunities He provides to repent and believe the Gospel.
What Is the Message of This Parable?
As with many of Jesus’ teachings, there are multiple layers to this parable. It’s crucial to first take note of the audience Jesus addressed. It was a mix of the societal outcasts and religious elites. On the one hand, Jesus was eating with sinners and tax collectors. The sinners were those in the Jewish society who did not adhere to the Mosaic Law. The tax collectors were also regarded as sinners because they often used their position to rob their own people. In the eyes of the Jews, the fault of the tax collector was twofold: first, when they collected the taxes, they often overcharged the Jews and kept the excess for themselves. Second, they were servants of the Roman Empire, whom the Jews detested.
On the other hand, the Pharisees and Scribes, who were meticulous adherents to the Law, had come on the scene. They began to scoff at Jesus’ choice of company because these people were counted as unworthy. They are the ones Jesus addressed when He told the three parables recorded in Luke 15. The reaction of the father confronted their understanding of what should happen. He did precisely what the Pharisees and scribes rebuked Jesus for when they said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).
This parable reveals our heavenly Father’s mercy, grace, and desire for a relationship, but it also shows two sons who were each lost in their own way. The youngest son was lost in his sin; the oldest son was lost in his self-righteousness. The oldest son represented the Pharisees and Scribes. They viewed the Law as a cold-hearted transaction where God would deem them righteous in exchange for their obedience. There was no genuine love for the Lord. The Pharisees and Scribes understood the workings of the Law, but they failed to grasp its purpose. At its core, the Law was about relationships and love. It revolved around loving God and loving people. That is why Jesus said all the law and the prophets hung on two commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). The main purpose of this parable was to rebuke legalism. It does not matter how well someone obeys the Law. If they do it from a self-righteous attitude, it is sin. Our love for the Lord should be what motivates our obedience.
Why Is it Such a Popular Parable Today?
All people can easily relate to each character. Like the youngest son, we’ve all let our arrogance and sinful nature get the better of us. We’ve wasted opportunities and indulged in self-destructive behaviors that left us a broken mess. The desire for redemption and acceptance mark some of the deepest longings in our souls. The father embodies the fulfillment of each of these longings. Also, we can all relate to the oldest son; one way or another, we’ve all felt short-changed for our efforts. This masterful parable strikes the heart of human nature in a profound way. May we seek to live in the balance between the two extremes represented by the two sons: having a relationship with God in loving obedience.
Be encouraged as you read the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. Below the Scripture, you will find helpful articles, videos, and audio to aid your Bible study of this popular passage.