The Prodigal Son and What It Means (the best story Jesus told)

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 “It is the finest short story ever written.” – Charles Dickens on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Arguably the most famous parable Jesus ever told. And rightfully so, this short story packs a punch. But maybe not in the way we think it does. Many modern teachings miss a significant part of the story. 

So let’s look at this famous story and see what we’ve been missing. 

Who Was Listening 

This story stemmed from a snide comment made by the Pharisees. 

This man {Jesus} welcomes sinners and eats with them. 

Which is a true statement, but said in a derogatory fashion, insinuating Jesus is one of them. The truth is Jesus did eat with sinners, in fact, it seems he preferred their company over the religiously elite. But he wasn’t drawn to them so he could participate in sin. Rather he offers them a better way to do life. In short, he heals them. Which ironically is exactly what the Pharisees needed too, they just refused to admit their sin. 

Of course Jesus knows what’s going on, so he strikes up a story. 

Luke 15:1-2 describes the crowd as full of sinners, tax collectors, and Pharisees. In other words people of two different worlds.

So Jesus is standing there in the middle of this diverse crowd and launches into a brilliant story that addresses those on both ends of the spectrum. 

The Story of The Prodigal Son

This parable is actually part of a series of three that Jesus told back to back. They all point to the same thing, but the last one carries the biggest punch. 

The story opens up by setting up the characters (Luke 15:11). There’s three in total, a father and two sons. Each will play a key role as the story unfolds. 

Jesus doesn’t wait very long until he delivers the first gut punch. In Luke 15:12, the young brother demands his portion of the inheritance. Surely a shock to the audience listening. This was as big of a slap in the face as a son could give his father. 

 A few things we need to understand about how inheritances worked in Jewish culture. First, the older son would get a double portion. So in this case, the older son would get 2/3’s of the inheritance and the younger son would get 1/3. These amounts would have been divided upon the father’s death. 

In essence, what the younger son is saying is I wish you were dead. The audience surely would have gasped and expected a swift judicious beat down coming the son’s way. 

Shockingly, the father obliges. He divides up the inherence among BOTH brothers. Not just giving the younger brother what he demanded, but also the older brother. An important detail. 

The younger son takes his father’s money, grabs his things, and heads off to live “recklessly” as Luke describes it (Luke 15:13). 

The Logical Conclusion 

Remember you have two groups of people hearing this story. You have the sinners and tax collectors. Right now they are identifying with the younger brother. They too have lived recklessly. 

 On the other end of the spectrum are the religious leaders. They’ve played by the rules and are hoping the younger brother gets what he deserves. 

So the younger brother sets out seeking all the excess the world has to offer. But, as often happens, what he was after ended up getting him. Luke 15:14-16 details the fall and demise of the younger brother, to grins of the religious and the cringes of the sinners. 

And fall he does. Hard. Worse than anyone expected. He ends up with nothing. Not even a bite of food. He resorts to eating pigs scraps. Which in Jewish culture was the lowest of the low. He is in dire need. 

The religious leaders had to be pretty happy with how the story was progressing. Finally a story of justice. 

But Jesus isn’t done yet. 

Eventually, the younger brother comes to his senses. (Luke 15:17) He reasons it would be better to be the lowest of the low in as a servant in his father’s household than be in the place he is now. 

The Twist

This is where the story gets good. 

The younger son gets up and heads back home. All the while rehearsing what he will say to his father to convince him to take him back (Luke 15:18-19). He’s not expecting to be welcomed back as a son, he knows he’s screwed up too much. He is only going to ask to be a servant. 

Nobody expects what happens next (Luke 15:20)… While the son is still a long way off the father spots him. In other words, the father was watching and waiting for the return of his son. He hadn’t given up hope. That’s shocking, and what follows is even more surprising. The father gets up and RUNS to greet his son. It was considered undignified for a man to run, but the father doesn’t care. He’s too excited to see his son. 

The son immediately starts his speech he had been rehearsing on his trip home. But before he can even get half of it out of his mouth his father interrupts him. The father starts barking out orders to throw an extravagant party and adorn the son with robs, rings, and new sandals. In a few short minutes, the father restores him to the place of an honored son. (Luke 15:21-24) 

Now comes the big surprise. 

All along Jesus’ listeners thought this was just the story of the prodigal son. Which is how must of us read it today. But in reality, this is the story of the two prodigal sons. The first son gets lost in a land far away, but the second son gets lost at home. 

The Second Prodigal Son

The older brother returns to a party… And not just any party, but a huge party. And to his shock and horror, it’s for his younger brother. Instantly he becomes furious and refuses to go in. It’s important to note that the older brother is justified in his anger, both legally and logically. However, in his pursuit of the law, he missed the spirit of the law. He’s missed the compassion and forgiveness of the father’s heart. (Luke 15:25-28)

So his father comes to him. For a second time the father goes out to restore a relationship with a lost son. But this interaction goes much differently. The older brother would rather wallow in self-pity than join in the party. He seems to fabricate the accusation of his brother hiring prostitutes, something the story never mentions. He’s trying to make his brother seem worse than he was, presumably to make himself look better. (Luke 15:30) 

The father remains gentle and show grace towards his son. Reminding him that he got his inheritance, what was due to him. But he also challenges him to celebrate the lost son coming home. The older brother is more concerned with justice for something that doesn’t concern him than he is glad to have what was once lost. 

The party is happening inside celebrating the lost being found. Standing outside the party is the older brother deciding whether to go in or stay in his self-pity. 

That’s how the story ends. Did the brother go in, or did he stay outside? We don’t know…

The Significance 

Remember who Jesus is telling the story to. The Pharisees had hoped that the father is going to dish justice to the younger son who rebelled. Just as they hoped that God would come down and declare them righteous and serve justice to those that weren’t as “holy” as they were. 

Instead, Jesus throws a party for the lost, the ones that didn’t play by the rules, and celebrates them coming home. In doing so he reveals the bigger truth… The Pharisees, the religious, are lost too. They need forgiveness just as much as those sinners. In fact, they are no better than them. They’ve both screwed up. Their sin might look different, but it’s present in both their lives. 

Jesus ends this story without a conclusion because it was up to the Pharisees to write the ending. Will the Pharisees go into the party or stay outside? Will they get the mission of Jesus and celebrate the lost being found? Or will they stay outside pretending they have it all together? 

The choice is theirs.

This is often the imagery Jesus uses of hell. Everyone is invited to the party. But some choose to remain outside. Read more here: What Jesus Said About Hell

For Us 

The application for us today depends on where we see ourselves in the story. Are you the younger brother that ran off and did whatever he wanted? Or are you the older brother that played by the rules, but with the wrong heart? 

For the younger brothers, you might expect to find an angry God that wants to punish you. But if you choose to return you will find quite the opposite. Instead, you will find a father that missed you and wants nothing more than to be with you. Rather than punishment, you will find a party. So return to Him. 

For the older brothers, you’ve done all the right things which can lead to self-righteousness. It can be hard to celebrate the person that has screwed up their whole life and is now welcomed back in. You’ve done the right thing your whole life and received no party. But the reality is you aren’t as good as you think you are. You need forgiveness as much as they do. So return to Him. Go into the party. 

Tim Keller does an incredible job unpacking this parable in his book The Prodigal God.

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