Here is the famous parable of the prodigal son who returned to his father with sincere contrition. His father received him unconditionally. This son is symbolic of all who commit sin and willing to reconcile with God. The first part of the parable shows God’s earnest desire for our contrition and His great mercy awaiting us. The tax-collectors and sinners experienced this warm welcome from Jesus. As a double-edged parable, the second part is more relevant. The Pharisees and Scribes’ approach toward the Publicans and sinners was like the elder son’s unwillingness to accept his returned brother. Jesus wants us to remain faithful to him and to imitate God’s generosity, to forgive and to welcome those who displease us.
The Parable of the Lost Son
(Luke 15:11) Jesus continued, “There was a man with two sons. (12) The younger said to his father: ‘Give me my share of the estate.’ So the father divided his property between his two sons. (13) Some days later, the younger son gathered all his belongings and started off for a distant land where he squandered his wealth in loose living. (14) Having spent everything, he was hard pressed when a severe famine broke out in that land. (15) So he hired himself out to a well-to-do citizen of that place and was sent to work on a pig farm. (16) So famished was he that he longed to fill his stomach even with pig’s food, but no one offered him anything. (17) Finally coming to his senses, he said: ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! (18) I will get up and go back to my father and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. (19) I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me then as one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and set off for his father’s house. (20) He was still a long way off when his father caught sight of him. His father was so deeply moved with compassion that he ran out to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. (21) The son said: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ (22) But the father turned to his servants: ‘Quick! Bring out the finest robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. (23) Take the fattened calf and kill it. We shall celebrate and have a feast, (24) for this son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found.’ And the celebration began. (25) Meanwhile, the elder son who had been working in the fields was now on his way home. As he neared the house he heard the sound of music and dancing. (26) He called one of the servants and asked what it was all about. (27) The servant answered: ‘Your brother has come home safe, and your father is so happy about it that he has ordered this celebration and killed the fattened calf.’ (28) The elder son was so angry that he refused to go in. His father came out and pleaded with him. (29) But he answered his father: ‘Look, I have slaved for you all these years. Never have I disobeyed your orders. Yet you have never given me even a young goat to celebrate with my friends. (30) Then when this son of yours returned after squandering your property with loose women, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ (31) The father said: ‘My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. (32) But this brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost and is found. And for that we had to celebrate and rejoice.’”
Out of the four evangelists, only Luke recorded this parable. A parable is a story with a spiritual message. However, some stories are allegorical. This story is almost allegorical because the situation and characters are like the people and circumstances of the time.
There are differences of opinion in naming this story. Some named this, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” giving importance to the first part of the younger son’s behavior. We can also call this the parable of the repentant son because his repentance is the turning point in the story. Others note that the focus is on the father who forgave the repented son and consoled the elder son’s resentment. Since the father is the central character of the story, they consider this as “The Parable of the Forgiving Father.” However, the focus is also on the elder son’s unwillingness to receive his repentant brother. So some call this “The Parable of the Two Sons.”
(Luke 15:11) Jesus continued, “There was a man with two sons.”
In an allegorical sense, the father stands for God the Father. The elder son represents the people of higher strata like the Pharisees and the Scribes. The younger son signifies the tax-collectors and sinners. All of them are God’s children. However, the Pharisees and Scribes considered themselves as God’s obedient children who always remain faithful to Him. They considered the Publicans and the sinners as God’s disobedient and immoral children.
(12) The younger said to his father: ‘Give me my share of the estate.’ So the father divided his property between his two sons.
The younger son demanded his share of the father’s property that would normally come only at the father’s death. His demand was insulting because it was equivalent to his wish for his father’s death so he could be free from the father’s discipline and inherit the property for which he never labored. His only reason for demanding the property was his birthright. He did not care about his responsibility to his father or his fellowship with his elder brother. He had ignored the law, “Honor your father and your mother as the LORD your God has commanded, so that you may live long and may prosper in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 5:16).
The younger son’s behavior was like that of the first parents who earned nothing but inherited everything from God, their father. There is no mention of a mother in both stories of Adam and the prodigal son. The first parents tried for independency under the influence of Satan. So also, the younger son demanded his freedom under the pressure of his juvenile friends.
The Jews would divide the property only at the end stage of the father’s life. Sirach 33:24 instructed: “Wait until the end of your days, until death is near, to distribute your inheritance.” (v. 24). However, this father showed the generosity to give the younger son’s inheritance because of his stubbornness. God tolerates determined sinners who want to stay away from Him.
According to the Jewish tradition, the younger son would receive only half of what the elder one was eligible to receive (Deut. 21:17). Father would have divided the property according to the custom. So, the younger son received one third of the whole assets. The elder son kept the two third, which the father continued to manage with him.
(13) Some days later, the younger son gathered all his belongings and started off for a distant land where he squandered his wealth in loose living.
The younger son went with his inheritance to a far country like Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, or Corinth to be out of reach of his father. As a result, he abandoned the Holy Land, the Temple of Jerusalem, the synagogues, and the fellow Jews. Thus, he ended up keeping away from God and the Jewish observances. Since he was seeking a Gentile and sinful city, he might have engaged in pagan festivals and their sinful practices. Prodigal means thriftless. Since he did not work for money, he did not know the value of the hard-earned money. So, he misused the money he inherited and did not bother about his future.
(14) Having spent everything, he was hard pressed when a severe famine broke out in that land.
Severe famines were natural during those days. The younger son freely spent everything he had with no caution. He became homeless and friendless. His dire need was for his survival and necessities of life. In a spiritual sense, his poverty was setting the backdrop for his conversion. Unfavorable circumstances might help a person to return to God.
(15) So he hired himself out to a well-to-do citizen of that place and was sent to work on a pig farm.
Out of poverty and unemployment in the region, the prodigal son ended up in serving a gentile with feeding swine. Both working for a gentile and feeding the unclean pigs were humiliating for a Jew. Besides his physical hunger, this would cause him mental agony. He, who was like a prince before and never worked, became less than a slave. He did not consider returning to his father because he had received all he could inherit from the father, and he had broken up his relationship with the father. However, he was unaware that his father was eagerly awaiting his homecoming. Father expected that once the prodigal son slandered everything, he would learn his lesson and return to him for help.
(16) So famished was he that he longed to fill his stomach even with pig’s food, but no one offered him anything.
This illustrates the pathetic situation of the prodigal son. The unclean pigs were in a better situation than him. They had food to eat. The employer was exploiting him. Though doing a menial job, he had no food, no money, and no one gave him anything. The friends who had enjoyed costly food and fun at his expense before had already disappeared. He felt alone with no human connection. He longed to eat the animal food competing with the pigs to satisfy his hunger. The employer might have restricted him in sharing the food with the pigs. Once he lived in his father’s mansion and later in costly inns. He ended up sleeping in the filthy and rotten pigs’ cage, taking care of them.
(17) Finally coming to his senses, he said: ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!’
The prodigal son reflected on his past glorious condition at his father’s house. He remembered the surplus food that the hired men get at his home while he was starving to death. No human, but God, might have given him the insight to reconcile with his father. His goal for returning to the father was to ask for a job so he could at least have some human food for survival. He had never worked when he was with his father. The prodigal son knew that he was not worthy to ask for sonship and its privileges. He was fortunate that such a thought came to his mind.
It was a recovery stage that Judas who betrayed Jesus missed. If Judas had repented before his death, Jesus would have saved him. The first parents Adam and Eve, Cain and many others in the Holy Bible were justifying themselves for their faults instead of repenting and confessing their sins. This is the critical stage of transformation that we need in our lives. Without our repentance, Jesus cannot save us.
(18) I will get up and go back to my father and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
The son devised a step-by-step action plan for his reconciliation with the father. His first step was to get up and abandon the life with the unclean animals. That should be the primary step for any sinner who lives in a sinful addiction or friendship. Second step was his return to his father in haste. He coined the words for his confession. This son was not asking any favor; but was planning to acknowledge his sin against God and his father. He knew that he wronged against God’s design for family and the commandment to honor the parents. Thus, he became a transformed person when he reached his father. His proud mentality turned into humility and repentance. That is what God expects from us sinners.
The prodigal son’s only hope was in the mercy of his father. He knew that only his father, and no one else like his employer, former friends, or his elder brother would help him in that dire need. He might have seen the forgiving and loving approach of his father from his experience in the family. Whether a sinner or a misunderstood innocent, there might be situations when no judge or even a family member might understand or pardon us. Still, we have hope in God through Jesus Christ.
(19) ’I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me then as one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and set off for his father’s house.
The prodigal son decided to acknowledge to his father his unworthiness to reconsider him as a son. He had lost his sonship by claiming and receiving his inheritance that he could get only at the father’s death. So, he longed to ask the father to hire him as an employee.
(20) He was still a long way off when his father caught sight of him. His father was so deeply moved with compassion that he ran out to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.
The prodigal son did as he planned. However, things turned around unexpectedly. The father saw him from a distance because he was eagerly awaiting the return of this dear son. Before the son could confess with his pre-planned script, the father expressed his compassion and love by embracing and kissing him. This was far beyond the son’s expectation. He had expected that his father might first reject him, disregard him, scold him, humiliate him, question him, or at least set conditions for his employment. None of these happened. It was the father who was more joyful in the reconciliation than the repentant son.
(21) The son said: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
After the embrace and the kiss, the son got the courage to make his confession before the father with a since expression of his regret. He said the same script that he had prepared. However, he could not complete its full version. Before he could say, “Treat me then as one of your hired servants,” the father interrupted the confession because he could not tolerate his son humbling more than that. A son is always a son and a father always a father regardless of any broken relationship between them. The father had already accepted the lost son with full rights as expressed in his embrace and kiss. We must express our repentance more in our attitude than in the words we recite.
(22) But the father turned to his servants: ‘Quick! Bring out the finest robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.’
The father did not reply to the son’s confession and did not demand any condition. He expressed his unconditional forgiveness in his attitude towards the son and the directions he gave to the servants. The son received far more than what he wished and deserved.
The story gives details of acceptance and recognition the father gave to his returned son. The father did these in haste. He did not wait to assess the changed behavior of this son or delay for the return of his elder son from the field. The father enthusiastically accepted and honored his returned son in front of the servants and slaves.
The finest robe
The son returned with a dirty, stinking, and torn dress like a beggar. His poor dressing was symbolic of his pathetic situation. The father asked his servants to dress the son with the finest robe, which could be a symbol of his position in the family, distinct from the servants and the slaves.
Ring on his finger
Ring was symbolic of sharing the father’s authority. The signet ring was like an official seal or credit card of the modern times. Its use was to sign documents and give assurance for any credit that the father would pay. When Pharaoh made Joseph his prime minister, he gave a ring as the sign of sharing his authority in the palace. “He then took the signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He clothed him in fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck.” (Genesis 41:42). The father honored and empowered the prodigal son likewise.
Sandals on his feet
Sandals were the symbol of family membership and authority. Others like servants and slaves had no sandals.
(23) Take the fattened calf and kill it. We shall celebrate and have a feast.
“The fattened calf” meant a specific calf specially fattened by families for special occasions, like offering a sacrifice in the Temple or to kill for banquets in honor of distinguished guests. So, the slaughtering of the fattened calf showed the great joy and enormous celebration at the return of the son communicating to all gathered that the father had well accepted the lost son with full rights in the family.
The scripture scholars parallel the sacrifice of the calf to recover the prodigal son to the sacrifice of Jesus to redeem the sinful mankind. Just as father sacrificed his favored calf, God the Father let his favored son die on the cross as a ransom to recover humans from their sinful state. Unlike the fattened calf that nourished once, Christ continues to sustain us with his flesh and blood when we gather in his name to enjoy the spiritual banquet of Holy Mass.
(24) … ‘for this son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found.’ And the celebration began.
The father justified to his servants for the unusual joy and celebration. The son’s departure had caused extreme grief for the father and was more painful than the death of a son. His sinful behavior was his spiritual and moral death like that of Adam when he lost the paradise because of his misuse of freedom. This reminds us how much God would have felt when the first parents who were the culmination of God’s creation ruined their freedom and left the paradise. And how much the Father is joyful in the redemption of mankind through the death and resurrection of his Son. Jesus expressed the joy in heaven over the repentance of sinners: “There is rejoicing among the angels of God over one repentant sinner.” (Luke 15:10).
Through his self-repentance and confession, the prodigal son came back to life. That became complete only with the generous and forgiving acceptance of the father. He considered the return of the lost son like a resurrection. Our reconciliation with God becomes complete only when God graciously accepts our confession.
Double edged parable
Scholars consider this as a double-edged parable because it has two parts with a double message. The message of the first part is the magnanimity of God the Father to offer unconditional forgiveness to the repentant and His amazing joy in the sinners’ conversion. Before presenting this parable, Luke presented the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) and the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). Both preceding parables were giving importance to the unusual rejoicing in the lost and found. However, these examples do not have repentance element because they dealt with sheep and coin.
The parable’s second part gives importance to the necessity of the “righteous” to join the father’s magnanimity in accepting the repentant sinners. For a double-edged parable, the message of the second part has precedence over the first. That is why Jesus addressed the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son to the Pharisees and Scribes who criticized Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:1-3).
(25) Meanwhile, the elder son who had been working in the fields was now on his way home. As he neared the house he heard the sound of music and dancing.
Music and dancing
The grand celebration with music, dancing, and banquet was like rejoicing with friends and neighbors after finding the missed items in the previous two parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.
Now the older son had been out in the field.
The elder son did not see the return of the younger one. He was out in the field engaging in his father’s work. When he returned home, he noticed the unusual celebration that he did not understand.
(26) He called one of the servants and asked what it was all about. (27) The servant answered: ‘Your brother has come home safe, and your father is so happy about it that he has ordered this celebration and killed the fattened calf.’
The elder son naturally asked what was going on. The father did not inform him of the return of the younger son; nor did the father consult him on the celebration. He might have felt like the father giving too much love and undeserving honor to the younger son while ignoring him. He would have no problem accepting the younger brother as a paid laborer. His objection was because the father gave him more than what he deserved. The elder son felt that he would lose part of what he earned with his father. He was uncharitable and selfish.
The Pharisees and Scribes behaved like the elder son when Jesus favored the “unrighteous.” Like the younger son, the tax-collectors and sinners were in distress. Jesus forgave their transgressions and accepted them as his disciples like Matthew the tax collector and offering salvation to families like that of Zacchaeus. That was unacceptable for the elite Jews.
(28) The elder son was so angry that he refused to go in. His father came out and pleaded with him.
The elder son resisted entering the house and joining the festivities. The loving father noticed the negative reaction of his elder son. He observed that while the one who had abandoned him once was inside the house, the other used to be inside was staying outside in protest. As Jesus taught, “the last will be first, the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16).
The father showed his compassion also to the older son. He went out to meet him and pleaded with him to reconcile with him and the younger son. The elder son’s protest was more to the father than to the younger son. He got upset because the father killed the fatted calf to honor his wretched brother. He felt that the father never acknowledged him in the same way, though he was obedient and submissive to the father throughout his life.
(29) But he answered his father: ‘Look, I have slaved for you all these years. Never have I disobeyed your orders. Yet you have never given me even a young goat to celebrate with my friends.’
Like the Pharisee who went to pray in the Temple, in “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” (Luke 18:9-14) the elder son recited how he had been serving and obeying the father. In contrast, the younger son did never serve the father nor obey him. The father did undue favor to the prodigal son. The elder one complained that the father did not give him even a young goat to celebrate with his friends. He was contrasting himself with his younger brother and complaining on the disparity of the father’s treat to both. He felt jealous of his brother. What hurt the father more was the elder son’s expression that he was working as a slave for the father.
(30) ‘Then when this son of yours returned after squandering your property with loose women, you killed the fattened calf for him.’
It is natural that when we hate someone, we go to the extremes to find fault and accuse that person. The elder son detached himself from his brother and said, “your son” expressing his rejection of the younger one as his brother. He accused the younger one of swallowing father’s property, though the father gave it as free will present to the younger son. The first part of the parable does not mention his next accusation that the younger son was mingling with prostitutes. So, it could be the elder brother’s exaggeration to put down the prodigal son. He also felt that the father arranged the celebration in a hurry without getting assurance of his suitable behavior or finding out what he would demand later. He could not tolerate that the father killed the fattened calf preserved for special celebrations.
(31) “The father said: ‘My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. (32) But this brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost and is found. And for that we had to celebrate and rejoice.’”
The father wanted the elder son to accept his brother as the father did. He justified for his action by repeating what he had told the servants that his spiritually and morally dead son has returned to life. Such was the marvelous feeling of the father.
In the allegorical sense, God was with the Israelites throughout the centuries, being faithful to His covenant with them as His firstborn. When Jesus came, the sinners and ordinary people repented and joined the church, whereas the Jews rejected and persecuted Jesus.
An open-ended story
The story does not end but was to continue in the life of the Scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus did not conclude whether the elder son continued his protest, or left the father and the younger son, or entered the house and joined the celebration, or whether he accepted the younger brother and lived in harmony. The Jewish elites had to decide the future of the story. Later we know that their response was negative. They crucified Jesus; the God incarnate. They expelled Christians from synagogues and persecuted the early church composed of the former Jews and Gentiles.