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The Prodigal Son – 3 Things You’ve Missed from This Popular Parable

  • Cortney Whiting
The Prodigal Son – 3 Things You’ve Missed from This Popular Parable

Growing up, one of my favorite Bible stories was the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You can read this story in Luke 15:11-32. Children’s curriculums today continue to highlight this passage for its use of colorful characters, dramatic action, and a cliffhanger of an ending. Perhaps, that is why Jesus, a Master storyteller, used this tale to teach his audience a valuable lesson.

What I find most interesting is how my understanding of the parable of the Prodigal Son has deepened over the years. Here are three ways in which God has grown my understanding of this famous story from Scripture.

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1. The Main Character of the Story is not the Prodigal Son.

1. The Main Character of the Story is not the Prodigal Son.

The story begins by introducing the audience to a father who had two sons (Luke 15:11). Immediately after the introduction, the narrator takes the reader on the journey of the younger son, his return to the father, and the response of the brother. For many years, the action carried my interpretation of the story. Then, one day, I slowed down and read the parable, focusing on the father.  I realized that the father was the protagonist. The parable centers on the response of the father rather than the actions of the sons.

When the youngest son demands his inheritance, the father actively responds. He divides the property between the brothers. According to Old Testament law, the younger son would receive one third of the property (Deuteronomy 21:17). The son then leaves his father, only to squander his wealth and succumb to the perils of natural disaster. He reaches his breaking point when he is starving and has to take work feeding pigs, an animal Jewish people regarded as unclean under dietary laws.

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"My former way of reading the parable made me feel the need to choose to be like two imperfect sons..."

"My former way of reading the parable made me feel the need to choose to be like two imperfect sons..."

When the youngest son returns home, the father actively welcomes him. He then prepares a feast in celebration of his returned child to honor his son.

When the older brother grumbles against the situation, the father actively exhorts him. He reminds his eldest of his place within the family and his portion of the inheritance. The father then calls the son to join him in the celebration.

My former way of reading the parable made me feel the need to choose to be like two imperfect sons rather than to strive to be like the father. I believe Jesus was asking his listeners to respond like the father.

Question: In what way do you need to respond to someone in the way the father responded in the story?

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2. The theme of the parable is grace.

2. The theme of the parable is grace.

For a long time, I thought the theme of the story of the Prodigal Son was forgiveness. This message seems apparent from the son’s self-confession in the pigsty and the father’s consequence response when he returns home. However, the more I study he parable, the more I am convinced that the overarching theme is grace. The father gives the son his inheritance, even while he is still alive. 

Asking for an inheritance while the father was still alive was the ultimate act of dishonor. In the face of utter rejection, the father gives a gift that impedes his own livelihood. When the son returns to the father, the patriarch notices him from a distance, runs to him, and embraces him. He does not allow the son to finish his confession because full restoration has already been granted. This act would have been culturally completely unexpected after what the son had done. Before the son goes to the father, he expects to be treated as a hired servant at best. Yet, he is given back his full status as a son. The father holds nothing back to receive or to celebrate his child. 

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"The older brother characterizes the antithesis of grace..."

"The older brother characterizes the antithesis of grace..."

The older brother characterizes the antithesis of grace through his judgment and refusal to celebrate the homecoming of his brother. In his discourse with his father, the older brother declares his faithfulness in his works and discloses the improprieties of his brother. He clings to what he deserves from the father rather than understanding that all that the father has is already his. Yet, the father generously invites him to enter the celebration. Unfortunately, I sometimes find his characterization all too familiar.

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"...I see myself as a daughter of a good and generous God who is ready to accept me..."

"...I see myself as a daughter of a good and generous God who is ready to accept me..."

As my understanding of the theme has transitioned from forgiveness to grace, the way I approach the Heavenly Father has changed as well. I no longer see myself as the poor child who must come to the Father broken and repentant for Him to embrace me. Rather, I see myself as a daughter of a good and generous God who is ready to accept me the way I am.

Question: How can understanding God’s grace impact your personal walk with the Lord?

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3. The parable is a call to reconcile and rejoice.

3. The parable is a call to reconcile and rejoice.

I get so enamored with the drama of the Parable of the Prodigal son, that I sometimes forget about the original audience to whom Jesus was speaking. The background for the parable is found in Luke 11:1-2. Jesus told this parable in response to the grumbling Pharisees and scribes. These religious elite felt the Rabbi had no right to associate with the moral and societal reprobates he accepted. The parable of the prodigal son is the final of three stories Jesus uses to illustrate how to respond to those who were lost and are now found. Not only should the response be acceptance, but it should also encompass complete jubilation for what God has done.

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"Jesus came to earth for the ungodly."

"Jesus came to earth for the ungodly."

While the audience is different today, I believe the message is still the same. Jesus came to earth for the ungodly. He walked with those who were broken and torn. He loved those that society and religion rejected. He did so, not simply out of obedience to the Father, but because that was who He was. Jesus was the image of God. He was love, so He lived out love. Unfortunately, in my own arrogance, I identify with the Pharisees more than Jesus. I grumble when I feel uncomfortable rather than allow God to use my discomfort to mold me to be more like Christ.

Question: Who is God calling you to be reconciled with or rejoice with this week? 

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"The Parable of the Gracious Father."

"The Parable of the Gracious Father."

This small story in the book of Luke tells so much about the human condition and the Father’s great love. It has challenged believers for thousands of years. Perhaps, it is time to look at it again, with a new set of eyes and see what new insight the Lord has for you this time. While many see this story as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I now see it as The Parable of the Gracious Father.

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 A Prayer Based on the Prodigal Son:

A Prayer Based on the Prodigal Son:

Heavenly Father, thank you that you love me unconditionally. Thank you for seeking me out when I go astray. There have been times when I have related to each character in this parable. I have been the prodigal – running as far and as fast from You as my legs will carry me. And yet You wait for me, with open arms. Father, I confess, I have been the eldest entitled son – feeling dejected by You despite my faithfulness. In these moments, help me see how much You love me for who I so I will not be blind and miss out on Your celebration. Lord, help me strive to be more like the father, always responding in love and grace, no matter the cost. In Jesus’ name, Amen

Cortney Whiting earned a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary in New Testament Studies. After spending fifteen years in the local church, she now serves as a lay leader and writes for several Christian ministries. You can connect with Cortney on her blog at www.unveilinggraces.blogspot.com or on Twitter at @CortneyWhiting.

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