By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most famous parables from the New Testament. But what is less well-known is that it concludes a trio of similar parables which can be found in chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke. What does the parable of the Prodigal Son symbolise? And what happened to these other two parables?
Let’s take a closer look at the relevant chapter from Luke’s Gospel. But before we launch into the analysis of the Prodigal Son story, here’s a brief summary of the parable.
The Prodigal Son: summary
The Prodigal Son is recounted in Luke 15:11-32.
A man had two sons. The younger son asked his father to give him the money that his father has promised him, and his father obliged. The younger son then left home and went to live in a ‘far country’. He soon went through all of the money his father had given him, through living in a ‘riotous’ and careless manner.
When all his money had gone, a famine spread across the land, and he found himself starving. To support himself, he went and found work in the fields, feeding the pigs. He was so hungry he would gladly have eaten the food the pigs ate.
One day he realised that his father’s servants had bread enough to eat, and yet he had none. So he resolved to go home and beg for his father’s forgiveness, and ask his father to take him in under his roof as one of his hired servants.
When the son returned home, his father saw him in the distance, and ran to him and kissed him. The son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son’ (King James Version: Luke 15:21). But his father ordered his servants to fetch his best robe, and put it on his son, and to put a ring on his hand and shoes on his son’s feet.
He then ordered them to prepare a fatted calf for their meal, so they can eat and celebrate the prodigal son’s return, ‘For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’ (15:24).
While all this merriment was going on indoors, the elder son was outside working in the field. He could hear the music and dancing and asked one of the servants what was going on. When he discovered his brother, who had run off, had returned, he grew angry and refused to go in and greet him.
His father came out and asked his son to come in and join them. But the elder son was still annoyed. He told his father that he had served him loyally and obeyed him all these years, yet he has never had a fatted calf, or a feast laid on for him and his friends to enjoy themselves. Yet as soon as the prodigal son returned, who had wasted his inheritance on carousing with women, his father had killed the fatted calf and, as it were, pulled out all the stops.
The father replies that he is glad to share everything he owns with his son, but on this day he had to rejoice and celebrate, because ‘this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found’ (15:32).
The Prodigal Son: analysis
The Prodigal Son might be viewed as an expansion of one of the proverbs of the Old Testament: Proverbs 29:3 states, ‘Whoever loves wisdom gives joy to his father, but whoever consorts with harlots squanders his wealth.’ As so often, Jesus is fulfilling or completing the tenets set out in the Old Testament, although the parable he tells throws the emphasis on love and redemption rather than harsh judgment.
The parable is, in effect, the last instalment in a ‘trilogy’ of parables which Jesus tells to the assembled Pharisees, who have accused him of dining with ‘sinners’: it’s the third part of a cycle of parables treating the subject of redemption, the first two being the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin.
The parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin are very similar: in the first, Jesus uses the example of a man with a hundred sheep. If he lost one of them, he would leave the other ninety-nine to go and find the lost one, and rejoice when he found it. Having given this brief example, Jesus states: ‘likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance’ (Luke 15:7).
Jesus then goes on to use an example relating to a woman who has ten pieces of silver, loses one, and lights a candle and sweeps the house in order to find the missing coin. And she, too, rejoices when she finds the lost coin. Once again, he draws a parallel with heaven and repentance, before launching into the parable of the Prodigal Son.
In other words, the emphasis is on not giving up on those things – or people – which are feared lost, and regaining something which was thought to be lost for good is always a reason to rejoice.
And this third and final parable makes the allegory crystal-clear. We have a father (like God the Father) and two sons (we are all, the Bible tells us, children of God), and one wayward son who strays from the path of righteousness before realising how, through living a dissolute life, he has insulted his father’s honour and wronged the love his father bears him.
So those who sin and forget God (the prodigal son’s haste to leave home for some ‘far country’ is surely emblematic of the sinner’s desire to make God a distant memory in his life) must humble themselves and realise how much they need God after all, and are willing to serve him in any way so that they might be forgiven (once again, symbolically, the prodigal son wishes to return to his father’s house as his servant).
And what does the father do when his son returns? Note the clever details of Jesus’ account: the father sees his son returning from some distance away, as if he knew and trusted he would return. He instantly forgives him and welcomes him back into the fold, celebrating his return. The prodigal son was ‘dead’ before, not because he had literally passed into the next world but that his soul was dead to God; now, through returning to God’s love he has ensured his soul is brought back to life and will survive forever.
And what of the elder son’s behaviour? We can forgive him for being cheesed off. He has been a loyal and steadfast son, honouring and obeying his father as the Ten Commandments tell him he should. Yet he has never been treated to a fatted calf! (This parable is the origin of the phrase ‘fatted calf’, which derives from the ancient practice of keeping a piece of livestock fed on a special diet so as to fatten it up so there would be lots of juicy meat when it was slaughtered and served at a feast.)
But the message is clear: just as the father tells his elder son that ‘thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine’ (15:31), so God the father respects and values those who are always close to him and follow his commandments.
But Jesus is highlighting the fact that sinners who were feared lost but come back to the fold are to be specially honoured because it is so hard to come back to the righteous path having left it, and winning such people back to the heavenly side is something to be celebrated.