The Prodigal Son Meaning (the powerful meaning of Luke 15:11-32)

Arguably the most famous parable Jesus ever told, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is an incredible story. Charles Dickens said, “It is the finest short story ever written.” Yet despite its popularity many of us have missed the prodigal son meaning for us today.

The meaning of Luke 15:11-32 is often missed because we don’t know the full story or the context in which Jesus said these words. But with a closer look this story will come to life for you and encourage you in your life and faith.

The prodigal son deserves a closer look. And I think if you spend a few minutes looking deeper into this story you will be shocked at what you see. 

Let’s dive into this famous story in Luke 15:11-32.

The Context Of Luke 15:11-32

It’s important to start with the context; this will tell us what lead to Jesus telling this story and help us better understand the prodigal son meaning. 

This story is found in Luke 15, and at the beginning of this chapter we see a crowd of tax collectors and sinners gathering around Jesus. 

The religious leaders see this and are not afraid to share their thoughts. This man {Jesus} welcomes sinners and eats with them. (Luke 15:2) 

This comment was said in a derogatory fashion that insinuated that Jesus was just like them. But what the religious missed was that Jesus wasn’t there to participate in their sin, but to show them a better way of living. He had compassion on them. 

Ironically even though the religious leaders thought they were better than those sinners, they weren’t. Jesus spends much of his time with the religious trying to convince them that they too are sick and in need of a doctor. 

So you have Jesus standing in the middle of this crowd. Sinners, tax collectors, and religious leaders. Two distinct groups of people. And Jesus strikes up a story that addresses both ends of the spectrum brilliantly. Let’s dive into the Luke 15:11-32 meaning and see what we can learn.

The Prodigal Son Meaning 

To help the religious see their error Jesus tells a story, three stories actually. But we are going to focus on the last one because it carries the biggest punch. The parable of the prodigal son. 

By definition a prodigal is a person who spends money freely and recklessly, wastefully extravagant. So, by the title we already can kind of see where this is going. 

Since it’s a longer story I’ve broken this section into three acts that will show us the prodigal son meaning. 

The Prodigal Son Act 1: The Set Up

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. 

In Luke 15:12 we see the younger brother go to his father to demand his portion of the inheritance. This would have likely elicited a few gasps from the audience; this was a shocking and disrespectful request. 

In Jewish culture the older son would get a double portion of the inheritance. 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 and given out upon the father’s death.

In essence, what the younger son is saying is I wish you were dead. He valued the money more than his own father. The audience surely would have expected a swift judicious beat down coming the son’s way. 

But the father does something equally shocking, he obliges. He divides up the inherence among BOTH brothers. Not just giving the younger brother what he demanded, but also the older brother.

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 Prodigal Son Act 2: The Logical Conclusion 

The young brother is the prodigal son. He’s breaking the rules and ignoring the customs. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. He’s acting foolishly and maliciously. 

On the other hand, you have the older brother who, as we will see, plays by the rules and does the right thing. 

Remember you have two groups of people hearing this story. You have the sinners/tax collectors and 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, much like the older brother. They are hoping the younger brother gets what he deserves. They want justice to be served.

Jesus is drawing his audience into the story. 

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. He loses all his money and ends up with nothing but pig scraps for food. 

The religious leaders had to be pretty happy with how the story was progressing. Finally a story of justice. He got what was coming to him. 

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 as a servant in his father’s household than be in the place he is now. He starts the shameful walk back home. 

The Prodigal Son Act 3: The Twist

So the younger brother is walking back home. As the miles go by he rehearses 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. Immediately he takes off running to greet his son. 

The father had been waiting and praying for his son to return, scanning the horizon day after day. And if that’s not shocking enough he runs, which was considered undignified for a man to run in Jewish culture. 

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) 

The crowd listening to this have to be shocked; no one was expecting this. But the biggest surprise hasn’t happened yet. 

The older brother eventually notices that there’s a party happening. 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. And he’s justified both logically and legally. He did what was right while his brother screwed everything up. 

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 instead of entering into the party he stews on the outside, harboring anger toward his brother and the actions of his father.

So his father comes to him. For a second time in the parable of the prodigal son the father goes out to restore a relationship. But this interaction goes much differently. The older brother is angry and refuses to come into the party.

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 reality is the older brother is lost too.

All along Jesus’ listeners thought this was just the story of the prodigal son. 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. 

What’s incredible is that the father is gentle and grace-filled with BOTH his sons. He reminds him that he got his inheritance, what was due to him. And he challenges him to celebrate the lost being found. 

But the older brother clearly doesn’t have the father’s heart. 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 of the prodigal son ends. Did the brother go in, or did he stay outside? We don’t know…

What Does The Parable Of The Prodigal Son Mean For Us Today?

So what does the parable of the prodigal son mean for us today? 

Think back to who Jesus is talking to. The religious elite and sinners/tax collectors. The reality is both were lost, just in different ways. Jesus is inviting both parties to come home. 

Put yourself in their shoes. Who do you identify with more? 

The Pharisees are represented by the older brother in the story. They were hoping that the father was going to dish out 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. 

On the other side you have the sinners and tax collectors. They are represented by the prodigal son. They were hoping that there was still a place for them at the table. That they hadn’t screwed up too much or gone too far. 

The reality is we are all lost. Some of us get lost in a land far away; we do whatever we want hoping to find satisfaction. But instead of finding happiness we find ourselves more and more empty. 

Others of us we got lost at home. We’ve played by the rules our whole lives. We did it better than everyone else and we know it. And that lead to self-righteousness. 

Different stories, but the same result. Both are lost. 

Whoever you relate to more the meaning of the prodigal son is the same. Come home. God is anxiously waiting for you to return. Not to punish you, but to throw a party

The point of this story is that we are all lost and in need of a Savior. And for all who accept the invitation (who repent) are brought into the party. But some will choose to remain on the outside. 

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

The choice is theirs. And the choice is ours today. Will we accept the invitation or stay on the outside? 

If you want to dive into this passage further Tim Keller does an incredible job unpacking this parable in his book: The Prodigal God (HIGHLY recommend)

I’d love to hear from you! What do you learn from the prodigal son in the Bible?

Jeffery Curtis Poor
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