The New Testament in the Bible teaches us some important lessons of life that Jesus mostly conveyed in the form of parables. This SpiritualRay post explains the meaning and interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Did You Know?
In the Bible, there are three parables that talk about loss and redemption including the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is the last of the three. The first two are: Parable of the Lost Sheep and Parable of the Lost Coin.
It is amazing how Jesus Christ imparted life’s most crucial lessons to us through these wonderful stories, stories that were easy to associate with, not only then, but even today, 2,000 years after they were told! One such story is that of the Prodigal Son. This parable is also known as Two Sons, Lost Son, The Running Father, and The Loving Father.
The word ‘prodigal’ means “recklessly wasteful”. This story is about a son who lived by these words. He was enslaved by the shallow desires of the world and wanted his father to give him his rightful share of wealth while he was still alive; he didn’t have the patience to wait until his demise, which is the actual time when property and wealth are inherited. The father saddened by this desire of his sinful son, grants him his wish, only to wait eagerly till the time his lost son reunites with him after repenting for his wrongdoings. This parable has three main characters―the younger son who is lost, the merciful father, and the resentful older son. The following sections will explain the thought process of each of these main characters, thereby clarifying it further what Jesus meant to imply by citing their examples in the story.
Meaning and Symbolism of the Parable of the Prodigal Son
Jesus narrates this story when he was accused by the Pharisees of keeping the company of the sinners. This is written in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, verses 1-2: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds to their accusation by giving out three parables of loss and redemption. The last of these three, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is mentioned as follows, as written in the Gospel of Saint Luke, chapter 15, verses 11 to 32, in the English Standard Version of the Bible.
And He 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.’
The Literal Meaning of the Parable
If you reckon the literal meaning behind this parable, it undoubtedly imparts the message of repentance, forgiveness, and unconditional love of a father towards his lost son. Even though the son was taken over by sinfulness, wanting to detach from his loving family and most importantly, his father, the father grants his wish with a hope that his lost son will realize his mistakes and come back to him. This can be seen in the parable, where it says, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” This signifies that while the son was gone, the father kept his eyes on the way, hoping for him to be back. Let us take a closer look at each of the three main characters of this story.
The Younger Son
The younger son is selfish, indifferent, extravagant, and totally driven by the sinful pleasures of life. To begin with, he disrespectfully demands his share of the property (which was clearly an abomination as the father was still alive), without thinking of how this action of his would hurt his father and put a disgrace on the family’s name. He collects his share and goes away from his family to a faraway country. This depicts that although he clearly stated his distant attitude towards the father by asking his share, he also physically goes away from them with the money, so as to live life according to his will. But once he spends all his wealth in loathsome activities―as the older brother mentions later to his father, “But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes …“―and becomes poor. When the situation grew worse, he is forced to work for a man as a swine feeder, something that was loathsome and undignified for a person to do; imagine the desperation! His misery came to a point that he even began envying the pigs for the food they had, implying that his condition was far more worse than the pigs. Clearly he wasn’t paid well, or maybe, not paid at all, as the parable says that “he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” This parable clarifies that sins do seem adventurous, promising, and apparently mask as a way to eternal freedom; however, in truth, they enslave its followers, robbing them of not only the materialistic possessions they accumulate, but forevermore the moral values, self-confidence, clarity, and dignity that every human needs to live an honorable and content life.
This low point of his life makes him realize of his irrecoverable mistakes. The darkness helps him see his father in a new light, reminding him that not only is his father a good parent, but also a good master whose servants are kept so well that even they have more than enough bread to spare. Burdened with guilt and filled with repentance, he decides to go back to his father, asking for forgiveness and begging for his mercy, without the intention of announcing any claim on his property, but rather to be accepted as a hired servant. He realizes that he has been punished for his wrongdoings, that he has lost the right to be called the son of an honorable and kind man, and that the only hope he has at the moment is the shelter of his father.
The father of these two sons is an epitome of mercy and love. Even in those times, when laws were stricter and there was a punishment set for every wrongdoing, the father chose to forgive, accept, and restore the relationship with his son. To begin with, if we think of it, if a son asks a father of property division while he was still alive, in today’s times, it wouldn’t be without quarrels, legal lawsuits, and ego clashing that a man would let his son take his property to recklessly waste it. But, in the story, the father agrees, not out of will, but to honor is son’s wish. Most of us would not take a second to disown such a son, and slam the doors of our homes and our hearts on him. But the father didn’t do so. In fact, he waited all the while for his son to return. And when he finally sees him return from a distance, he runs towards him. Note that in those times, running was considered to be an undignified act. Men wore long robes at the time, and in order to run, the robe needed to be tucked on the waist, which would eventually expose the legs―an act which was shameful! But the father didn’t care. He even kissed his son who would have possibly been covered with swine filth, considering his past job and situation. The father didn’t even hear the complete apology of the son, and immediately orders his servants to bring a fine robe, ring, and sandals for his son. A robe and a ring represented authority and dignity, while sandals were worn by masters, and not servants. He orders the killing of a fattened calf and celebrates as his lost son has returned.
The father didn’t have only one lost son, but if you think of it, both his sons were lost, in different ways, of course! The father patiently and lovingly convinces the elder son too, to see things in a different light and to be a part of the celebration which is just and called for in every way possible. This is explained further in the next section, where we discuss the role of the elder son.
The Older Son
Although the older son seems to be a good, obedient, and rightful, he too is blinded with resentment and self-righteousness in this story. When he hears about the coming of his younger brother, and that his father has killed a fattened calf to celebrate, instead of being happy and participating in the grand celebration, his heart is ruled by anger and jealousy. Not only is he upset with his brother, but he thinks his father is also unfair to him. When the father goes to him to be a part of the celebration, he replies with the word, “Look”, where ideally he should have used “Father” or “My Lord”. He says, “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!” Note, that he also refuses to address the younger son as his brother, and uses the words, “this son of yours”.
Although many of us would agree with this reaction of his, in truth, he was wrong. The reason why he failed to understand his father’s joy could be because he thought only of himself. Firstly, he could have felt threatened thinking that he would have to share his inherited wealth with the younger son, as he would have blown up his own; and secondly, he would have felt somehow betrayed as his father never appreciated his obedience and dutiful demeanor in a manner that he appreciates the return of his prodigal son.
MORAL OF THE STORY
The moral of the story is that true bonding and honor in a relationship can never be forced. The father could have easily denied inheritance to the younger son since he was still alive, or forcefully compelled him to stay, but he didn’t go against his son’s wishes, who then viewed life from a different perspective. This parable also teaches us that it was only due to the father’s kind and loving nature that the younger son was motivated to go back to him, even though as a servant. It teaches us that the lost can be found, that broken relationships can be mended when true repentance is reciprocated with love, goodness, forgiveness, graciousness, and acceptance.
The Allegorical Interpretation of the Parable
This parable addresses to different groups of society in different ways, as each of the three main characters associate with the demeanor of a certain group. For starters, the prodigal son refers to the sinners who are blinded by the pleasures of this world, thereby disregarding the will of our Father in heaven. In the end, when their lives are scarred by the consequences of their evildoing, the home the Father is the only place where they can find peace and restoration. He is their only hope.
Our merciful Father isn’t the kind to force a person into his kingdom, just like in the story, the father agreed to his son and didn’t compel him to stay. Our Father too, is saddened when a dear child of his walks away from Him, but He waits at the doors of heaven, to welcome the sinner back into his kingdom and forgive him/her of all that is past. He is not resentful, or the kind to punish, but he is a loving and caring Father who will save all those children who come to him with true repentance and will give them more than their heart’s desire. Just how, in the story, the prodigal son desired to be nothing more than his hired servant, but received far more honor and love from Him. A fattened calf was killed for celebration, which means that blood was shed for the sins committed. This could signify the blood that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ shed for our sins so that we may not perish but have an eternal life.
While the father of the story is symbolic of our Father in heaven, the older son is symbolic of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who considered themselves to be superior to the rest of the world, being engrossed in self-righteousness and judging the good and bad, right and wrong. They are blinded by the law to such an extent that they fail to see the essence of the very will of God. Which is to bestow kindness, forgiveness, compassion, and accept those who are willing to receive the grace of God.
This parable was Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees when they questioned Jesus about Him dining with sinners. It was a means to emphasize the need to save the lost, which must be done by allowing them to come near the Father, and accept their repentance so that grace and mercy is bestowed on them. It just implies that the Father is merciful and forgiving, and will gladly accept you with open arms, all you have to do, is to walk towards Him.