The parable of the prodigal son was told by Jesus as a response to Pharisees and the scribes who grumbled that he was receiving sinners and eating with them. It is a fascinating story with unexpected forgiveness of a lost son.
The immoral son who needs forgiveness
The parable is about a father who had two sons, with the young one asking for his share of the property. He goes in a far country and there he squanders everything in reckless living. He began to be in need. He hired himself out and is sent to the fields to feed pigs. The Bible says that no one gave him anything and he longed to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate. What a sad story!
Jesus said that the man came to his senses, and decided to go back to his father. This young man fell at the mercy of his father, is ready to be treated as one of his father’s servants.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ (Luke 15:17-19)
The forgiving Father
The second half of the Parable is more intriguing. What will his father do? If I was the father, how would I have reacted? Is such sin forgivable? What is expected here is anger, punishment and possibly rejection from his father. The parable at this point takes a different twist as we see from the father reaction towards the lost son;
The lost son arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24)
Is this how sinners are rewarded or celebrated? What is the point of all the father is doing here? It is surprising that the father shows extraordinary compassion, affection and acceptance to his younger son. Worth noting is that the father does not bring up the past, he is simply overwhelmed by the joy that his son has returned. There is a celebration. Not only is this father forgiving, but he wants his son to have joy and fulfilment in him.
The ‘moral’ son who needs forgiveness
The older son after hearing all that the father has done to his ‘lost but found’ brother, he became very angry and would not join in the celebration. This older brother thinks of himself a very good person who always obeys his father. His thinking of being ‘good and moral’ turns him into an angry, stubborn, entitled, bitter and resentful son. It is sad to note here that this son feels entitled to more than his lost brother, and that his father owes him a lot.
His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:28-32)
This parable concludes by noting that both brothers needed the fathers’ forgiveness: one for his immorality and one for his ‘morality’. I love how Life Explored Course summarizes the lesson from this parable;
The younger brother comes back to his father humbly, knowing he deserves nothing. Like the young brother, whatever we have done wrong, we ought to ‘go back’ to the father, acknowledge what we have done and throw ourselves on his mercy.
The older brother is a warning, particularly to people who think of themselves as very good, moral or religious people, that we should beware of coming to God with a sense of entitlement. God doesn’t owe us anything; we owe him everything.