What Is the Meaning of "The Prodigal Son"?

Tamela Turbeville

iBelieve Contributor
Updated Aug 19, 2020
What Is the Meaning of "The Prodigal Son"?

The parable is the story of a prodigal son, a loving, merciful father, and a resentful, truly lost brother. This is a story of rebellion, repentance, restoration, resentment, and rejoicing.

What is the meaning of “prodigal”? Today we use the term to mean someone who chooses a worldly lifestyle indulging in every desire. It could mean a person who falls into addiction or alcoholism. We also use "prodigal" to label a son or daughter who leaves home to pursue an indulgent life. Prodigal, today, means a person who goes their own way.

First-century Christians understood "prodigal" as "wasteful" or someone who is a "spendthrift." Being prodigal meant a son or daughter who wasted their resources and assets, a person who rejected everything good like love, wisdom, and discipline.

In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus relates the parable of the prodigal, sometimes translated “lost son.”

Jesus used parables, or stories that include a spiritual lesson, to teach us about heaven and God's character. Parables were meant to confound the skeptical religious leaders, but enlighten those seeking Christ. According to the Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words, over one-third of Jesus' teaching were parables.

The parable is the story of a prodigal son, a loving, merciful father, and a resentful, truly lost brother. This is a story of rebellion, repentance, restoration, resentment, and rejoicing.

Photo Credit: © Unsplash/Kyle Cottrell

A Story of Rebellion

Traditionally, the firstborn son received two-thirds of his father's estate. The younger son received only one-third. The father could bestow his wealth to his sons but retain control over the resources until the time of his death. In Jesus’ tale, the father hands over the younger son's share and relinquishes ownership. He willingly gave the son what he wanted. Jesus tells the story best:

Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his Father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.” (Luke 15:11-12)

The passage does not tell us why but the son is, in essence, saying to his father, "I wish you were dead so I can have my inheritance." Perhaps he and the father disagreed over a critical family matter. Maybe he was angry with his older brother. Perhaps he was enticed by worldly temptations. Either way, his pride and the temptations of the world will lead him down the road of destruction. The younger son quickly turns the assets into cash and hits the road.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.” (Luke 15:13)

The younger son wastes all of his inheritance on worldly pleasures. His eagerness to experience a moment of pleasure left him with a lifetime of pain.

Why would someone waste their valuable assets? The answer is sin. Sin enslaves us to desires and leads us away from our relationship with Jesus. Then unforgiveness and bitterness lead us to wasted relationships. Selfishness and pride leave us destitute and wanting more.

The young son squanders all of his inheritance on lustful desires. He forfeits a loving relationship with his Father. He wastes time and energy, and in the end, he is left penniless. On top of all the consequences of his wastefulness, a famine leaves him hungry.

After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” (Luke 15:14-16)

A Jew working for a Gentile feeding pigs; this is as far as a Jewish boy from the country could fall. The young son is at the bottom of the pit and at the end of the road. What can we do when we reach this point?

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A Story of Repentance

Our temptations, desires, and sin bring us to a broken place where we must choose between death or life. Which way do we turn? The youngest son saw his plight, came to his senses, and chose life.

"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my Father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (Luke 15:17)

Have you ever felt like that? Realizing that what you turned away from is really what you need? When we turn away from God and go our own way, we become a slave to the world and find ourselves like the young son, lacking hope, and hungry for restoration.

“‘I will set out and go back to my Father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.' So he got up and went to his Father.” (Luke 15:18-20)

Repentance is a Bible word commonly translated as "turn" or "return." To repent means to turn away from sin and return to God. It is a realization that we have sinned against God.

The young son is now completely aware of his sin. As he rehearses the words he will tell his Father, he accepts the consequences of his sin. Esteemed evangelist, Billy Graham wrote, "Repentance is not a word of weakness but a word of power and action." So, the son takes action and sets out to return to his Father.

adult son hugging dad fathers day forgiveness

A Story of Restoration

The next part of the parable is the most poignant. The Father, probably an older man, spots his son on the horizon. Has he been watching for his lost son? Did he know that someday his son would return? When he sees his son, the Father runs to meet him on the road.

But while he was still a long way off, his Father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

This part of the story has been considered a picture of how God runs to the lost. The scene shows us God's compassion for the lost and those who go astray. When we return to the Father, He will meet us where we are and throw His arms around us and rejoice.

"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” (Luke 15:21)

The first step to repentance is admitting our wrong. The young son realizes that he has sinned against his earthly Father and more so against his Heavenly Father. Sometimes admitting we have messed up is difficult, especially when we fear the punishment. But we serve a Heavenly Father who is the God of mercy and grace. We have nothing to fear.

"But the Father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:22-24)

When we turn away from sin, admit our wrong, we are restored to a relationship with our Father, and He forgets our sins (Acts 3:19). The boy's Father never let him finish his prepared speech. Instead, he celebrates.

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A Story of Resentment

Meanwhile, in the fields, the older brother is working, doing what he believes is right. He was not as happy to learn about his brother's return and the celebration. By now, word had reached the community and the family of his younger brother's exploits. He was ashamed and resentful.

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:25-28)

The father went to his son and pleaded with him to join the celebration (Luke 15:28-31). Instead, the older brother reacted with bitterness and resentment toward his sibling. The resentment toward his brother's restoration mirrors the attitude of the Pharisees and the religious. How could the prodigal son be celebrated? The misunderstanding lies in their works. If we depend on our works to save us, we will always be truly lost. We are saved only by God's grace.

A Story of Rejoicing

In the parables preceding the story of the lost son, Jesus tells two stories of the lost. One about a sheep, the other a coin. They illustrate how we are lost and stray away from our Father and how, when we are found, there is great rejoicing in heaven and on earth.

"'My son,' the Father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’" (Luke 15:31-32)

Lost but now is found. Isn't that true for all of us? We all wander and stray, enticed by the world and our desires. We are all prodigal sons and daughters. But Our God is waiting, watching down the road, waiting for us to come to our senses and return. When we do, He will meet us where we are broken and destitute, throw his arms around us and rejoice. For once, we were lost, but now we are found.

Photo Credit: © Getty Images

tamela turbeville headshotTamela Turbeville wants every woman to know God loves them, no matter what their past looks like. She lives in Arkansas and while writing she is surrounded by her six rescue dogs who are usually sleeping. She began her website and blog, Living One Word, to share how God redeems even the most broken lives. You can read more from Tamela at www.livingoneword.com, on Facebook, and Instagram. Her new book, A Rescued Life, is now available on Amazon.

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