Parable of the Prodigal Son

The story of the prodigal son is well know, even among people who haven’t read the Bible. The parable in found in the 15th chapter in the book of Luke. The conventional telling of the parable is about a young man who leaves home and squanders his inheritance. When he hits rock bottom, he returns home hoping to be permitted to benefit from his father’s kindness. His father exceeds the son’s hopes, and throws lavish party to celebrate his son’s homecoming.

Some churches use this parable to talk about how “sinful” people can repent and God will forgive and fully accept them. While it’s true that God will forgive people living a “sinful” life this is missing much of what this passage teaches. If this is how a church teaches this passage I am not be very interested in attending that church. I would expect the church to be overly “religious”, with a tendency to judge others as sinful and fail to recognize their own problems which include pride and self-righteousness.

People who read the passage carefully will note that there are two sons, and recognize that the older, “good” son has his own issues. The older son is ungrateful and entitled. He is angry that his father has welcomed his younger brother home. He feels slighted and that his brother is getting things which should be the older brothers. The older brother is taking his relationship with his father for granted just like the younger son.

Ken Bailey’s understanding of the culture Jesus lived in deepens how this passage can be understood. Much of his insights can be found in the book Finding the Lost: Culture Keys to Luke 15. There are several other books which have been inspired by Bailey’s keen insight including Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son and Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God.

Bailey notes this parable was being told to the Pharisees, a very devoted, religious group of people who were upset that Jesus was associated himself with “sinful” people. The parable illustrated God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the younger, sinful son. Then the parable talks about the problem with the older son and ends with the question “Will you please come join the celebration for your younger brother.” We don’t know what the older brother choose. The parable is left hanging. Jesus was asking the Pharisees what they were going to do. Continue being judgement and self righteous… breaking their Father’s heart, or come and rejoice that others have returned to God.

The parable does talk about the both sons, but the real message is about the father’s heart, his scandalous love of his two sons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *