Parable of the Prodigal Son: Luke 15:11-32
Jesus tells this parable of the prodigal son in response to the complaining of the Pharisees and scribes about Jesus' welcoming sinners, with the purpose of teaching about redemption and forgiveness.
In the context of this parable of the prodigal son, tax collectors and sinners have been listening to Jesus, and he has been gladly welcoming them and eating with them. However, the Pharisees and the scribes don't like that Jesus is eating with sinners, complaining to themselves saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." (Luke 15:2)
Jesus then responds to them with a series of parables to illustrate God's view on forgiveness and redemption:
Jesus then finishes his explanation with the parable of the prodigal son, which contains several counter-cultural and unexpected themes in it that highlight God's seriousness about forgiveness and redemption.
Jesus begins the parable of the prodigal son by telling of a father who has two sons. The younger son tells his father to give him his inheritance. The father agrees and splits the inheritance between his two sons.
Shortly later, the younger son collects all of his inheritance and goes to a far away country to squander his wealth. After the younger son had finally spent all that he had, a severe famine occurs, and he becomes very poor. Finally, the son decides that working for his father as a servant would be better than starving, so he returns home.
The father discovers that his son is on his way, seeing him in the distance. The Father runs out to meet his son, welcoming him back and wanting to celebrate.
The son is repentant and humbled, saying, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." (Luke 15:21) However, the father tells his servants to get his son the best robe, and to prepare the best calf to celebrate.
Jesus then makes the point of the parable here, and again at the end: "'For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate." (Luke 15:24)
The older son who had stayed home, and done what was expected of him, was upset that the father was so welcoming of the younger son, and the father responds: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." (Luke 15:31-32)
Some suggest that this parable should really be called The Loving Father rather than the Prodigal Son, because the most striking elements of the story revolve around the characteristics of the father, such as how forgiving and merciful he is.
When the son asks for his inheritance, he is essentially saying 'I want you dead,' because generally the inheritance would not be split until the father had died. Thus, not only would it be odd and unexpected for a father to forgive his son so easily, but it would also have been unexpected that the father would celebrate his return.
Additionally, it would be unexpected that an older man would run. To Jesus' listeners, the fact that this man ran to greet his son most likely caused surprise and awe. The father is seen as being desperate to forgive his repentant son.
Jesus makes his point, through the words of the father, at the end of the parable in Luke 15:32, "But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
In the Old Testament, the son's behavior would be deemed as worthy of death: "If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother...Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst..." (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Therefore, the son would have been viewed as being dead to them, hence the father says he "was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." The once rebellious son has become repentant and humble, seeking forgiveness and a lowly position as his father's servant. What the son receives instead is complete forgiveness and reestablishment of his position as son.
The older brother in this parable refers to the Pharisees and scribes who have been complaining that Jesus eats with sinners, and the younger brother represents the sinners who Jesus is eating with. However, the parable is also meant to explain God's view towards repentance and forgiveness in general. Jesus teaches of God's attitude toward the sinful, explaining that God is desperate for sinners to repent and return to him.
Jesus makes this same point in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which he tells prior to this parable of the prodigal son.
For more information on this subject of repentance, read about the Meaning of Repentance and Salvation.
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