Who is the Prodigal?

The Parable of the Prodigal Son occurs in Luke 15:11-32 (ESV)1.

What is a parable?

Jesus told parables to prompt thinking and stimulate response in relation to God. They demonstrate what God is like and what humans are to become. Parables often use both explicit and implicit questions, forcing listeners to decide about the circumstances of the parable and apply the conclusions to their own lives. Sometimes this results in self-condemnation (cf. David’s response to the story of the ewe lamb, 2 Sam. 12:1–92), but more often it entails a new understanding of the character of life with God. Nearly all Jesus’ parables in some way urge reception of the gospel message and obedience to the Father’s will, for his parables are primarily about the kingdom of God and discipleship.3

What does prodigal mean?

The word prodigal can be used as an adjective or a noun. These two definitions use the word recklessly, which clearly has negative connotations.

  • Adjective (definition 1): Spending money or using resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.4
  • Noun (definition 1): A person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way.5

The prodigal sons?

The story is called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”, but which son is it referring to? The younger son clearly fits both of these definitions for prodigal, since he took his inheritance and squandered it. But is money the point of the story? Both of the sons were wasteful of the father’s love.

He went through his inheritance, wasting everything his father had given him. Few things in this world are more futile than waste—to take a good, beautiful gift, and waste it. Think of the ways we have wasted gifts that God has given to us. This young man was the epitome of that kind of living. That’s why he’s called the prodigal.6

The younger son eventually realized what he had deliberately thrown away, and decided to return to his father’s house, but he was expecting to be a servant.

The young man came to himself, and said, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you’ ” (v. 18). This is what happens when a sinner is awakened by grace. Every sinner who’s ever been awakened by grace has said, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and I’ve sinned against you. Make me one of your servants. Father, I was a son in your house, and I left, but now all I want is to be a slave in your house.’ ” That’s the heart of a converted person.7

The older son represents the Pharisees, who were self-righteous and didn’t even recognize their own wastefulness of the father’s love. They believed God’s grace was deserved for those who strictly followed the Law. What they didn’t understand is that grace is a gift freely given to anyone who trusts in Jesus.

The older brother was angry because he had never been honored with a feast even though, as he said, All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders (v. 29). Those words betrayed the fact that the older brother thought he had a relationship with his father because of his work. He served his father not out of love but out of a desire for reward. He even thought of himself as being in bondage to his father.8

The prodigal father?

There’s another definition for prodigal, although this one may not be as familiar to most people:

  • Adjective (definition 2): Having or giving something on a lavish scale.9

Using this definition, the father in the story could be considered the prodigal father. When his son came home, he threw a party to welcome his son home. He didn’t punish his son, he forgave his son. This was not reckless extravagance, but a lavish celebration thrown by the father.

He covers the repentant renegade’s rags with the best robe available; gives his son a signet ring, a symbol of his restored position in the family; puts sandals on his feet to distinguish him from the barefoot servants; and throws a welcome-home party, at which he even serves meat (not a regular part of meals in ancient Palestine)—the calf he has been fattening up for a special occasion! Such is the father’s overwhelming joy on reunion with the son he presumed gone for good….10

The prodigal God?

God is the father in the parable. God wants us to come to him, and and he eagerly reaches out to us, just like the father in the story, if we let him. We have to be willing to trust God.

…while he [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20 ESV)

I can guarantee that there will be more happiness in heaven over one person who turns to God and changes the way he thinks and acts than over 99 people who already have turned to God and have his approval. (Luke 15:7 GW)

The prodigal Christians?

We’re all prodigals, like the two sons. Some people are like the younger son, who openly rebelled and went through a rough time before being broken and acknowledging his need for a savior. Not everyone rebels, but everyone goes through tough experiences in life. Will these people trust in God during those times?

Other people are like the older son, who took for granted what his father had done for him. In Matthew 20:1-16 (ESV)11, Jesus tells the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Several times throughout the day the vinyard owner hired more laborers. At the end of the day, the people who were hired first complained, because the people who were hired last were paid the same amount. The older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son also complained that his father was rejoicing because his younger son returned home. The older son didn’t understand his father’s grace and selfishly felt his father owed him more.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4–7 ESV)

If someone understands the graciousness of grace, how can he do anything but rejoice when someone else receives that grace from God—even if it’s his worst enemy?12

Resources

  • Sproul, R. C. What Do Jesus’ Parables Mean? (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 1997) Chapter 10. (Logos)

Footnotes

  1. And he [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So 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. “But 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! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘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. “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he 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!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'” (Luke 15:11-32 ESV)
  2. And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. (2 Samuel 12:1-9 ESV)
  3. Fee, Gordon D. and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., editors. The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011) 534. Emphasis in original. (Logos)
  4. Prodigal (Oxford Dictionaries)
  5. Prodigal (Oxford Dictionaries)
  6. Sproul, R. C. What Do Jesus’ Parables Mean? (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 1997) 66.
  7. Sproul, R. C. What Do Jesus’ Parables Mean? (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 1997) 67.
  8. Walvoord, John F. and Roy B. Zuck, editors. The Bible Knowledge Commentary (USA: SP Publications, 1983) Luke 15:25–32. (Logos)
  9. Prodigal (Oxford Dictionaries)
  10. Fee, Gordon D. and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., editors. The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011) 570. (Logos)
  11. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16 ESV)
  12. Sproul, R. C. What Do Jesus’ Parables Mean? (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 1997)

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