Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

137. The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)*

A sheep lost away from the flock, a coin lost inside the house-two parables, each designed to be the complement of the other. Next, Jesus put the two together in another parable about two sons, one lost away from home, and the other lost staying at home. It is his most detailed and most exquisite parable, one to spend long hours over. Who is there who Is not a mixture of these two personalities?

Like so many of the other parables, it has its origins in the Old Testament, yet all the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old shows here: "Surely after that I was turned, I repented ... I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth. Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child? for since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord. Set thee up way marks... set thine heart toward the highway, even the way which thou wentest" (Jer.31:19-21). "Ephraim, he hath mixed himself among the people ... Strangers have devoured his strength, and he knoweth it not... they do not return to the Lord their God, nor seek him for all this"(Hosea 7:8-10; and cp. 2:7).

In this parable also, as in most, in order to be true to the spiritual, Jesus has had to frame certain details of his story in a way not true to life. How many parents, on demand, would promptly agree to share out the patrimony well before any sign of personal decay and this, too, knowing the disposition of the two sons and the evident intention of the younger to make reckless use of his share? And, with such an outcome, how many fathers would be continually on the look out for the prodigal's return, would be able to run to greet him, and would receive him with such emotion? The average parent would be more likely to react by saying: 'That waster is no son of mine. I do not wish ever to set eyes on him again!' But this is not a parable about a human father, but about a compassionate gracious God.

The story is fascinating in its details, all of which have to be read with reference to the publicans and sinners, on the one hand, and the scribes and Pharisees on the other. There is also a wider application to the reaction of Gentiles and Jews to the gospel of Christ. In these last weeks of the ministry Jesus was turning his eyes more and more often to the new day when the door of faith would be thrown open to those whom the Chosen Race despised. In later studies this will be seen as a developing prospect receiving constantly increasing emphasis in the Lord's teaching.

A deliberate bad choice

"Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me." According to the papyri this was the usual legal term for inheritance. He assertively asked to receive by right and not by favour. His father acceded to the request, for was there not precedent for this in the family of Abraham? (Gen.25 :5,6). By and by this boy had his share— one third of all, since the double portion due to the firstborn (Dt.21:17) belonged to his brother. His wilful intention, evident enough from the start, was soon put into operation. He set about turning all his own portion into cash—sold off at unrealistic prices, no doubt. All that he had a right to he now dealt with in this way. It was an open declaration that he had no intention of coming back, and this in spite of his father's remonstration (v.21). Blithe of spirit, he now set off for a distant land. The Greek word for "took his journey" emphasizes "leaving one's own people" (Ez.19 :3 LXX; only occ.j. Now he is "lord of himself, that heritage of woe." The hint supplied by Acts 12 :20 suggests that it was the glitter of Tyre,, and Zidon which drew him.

There he soon found evil companions, and under their skilful coaching learned how to paint the town red. "He that is a companion of riotous men shameth his father," says Proverbs 28 :7. The same word for "riotous" living describes also the wanton woman (7 :11), so here is an indication of the kind of life he lived. It also hinti, not inappropriately, at another meaning: "without salvation" (Jer.2 :13).

Providential affliction

After a while his inexhaustible purse was empty, and, by a strange coincidence, his bosom friends also melted away. It was no coincidence, but the Providence of God (cp.v.4,8), which then brought a grievous famine (a famine characteristic of that land, so the Greek phrase suggests). Thus this wilful improvident young fool all at once found himself in dire straits. Almost overnight his condition changed from affluence to poverty, from popularity to loneliness, from abundance to want (not only acute need but a sharp sense of it —so the word implies). Here was the first (unheeded) summons to return (Am.4 :6; Jer.5 :3). It was the divine opportunity which man's extremity has so often begotten.

There was nothing else for it. To keep body and soul together he must move around to seek employment. And at such a time the best he could achieve was the livelihood of a swineherd. He, a Jew, keeping pigs for a Gentile!— and for such a beggarly wage that he was even eager (s.w. Lk.16 :21; Mt.5 :28) to stave off the pangs of hunger with the animals' food. "He that lives wantonly from a child shall be a servant, and in the end shall grieve over himself" (Pr. 29:21 LXX).

He was now friendless. The boon companions of yesterday had disappeared. Not a soul in the world took notice of him. Never a word or even a look of pity, much less any small act of charity. "No man gave unto him" seems to imply that he tried begging, but without any encouragement. Was the prodigal despised, or had people nothing to give?

Thus the goodness of God, in the guise of severity, drove him to repentance.


At last heaven's therapy had its effect: "he came to himself—this crazy hedonist was brought back to sanity (Ps.34 :10; Am.4 :6). He bethought him of the vastly better life his father's lowest grade of paid workers had, back home. Like them he was a "hired servant", but what a difference! (Hos.2 :7; 2 Chr.31 :10).

Nevertheless he still thought of his father as Father, and this was to be his salvation, even though the Law of Moses said: "An hired servant shall not eat of the holy things" (Lev.22 :10). The contrast with his own wretched plight was too much for him. Sickened at the fruits of his own incredible folly, he was miserable with a self-pity which is so often the beginning of repentance.

As he lay there on the ground, weak and dejected, he made his decision: "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son (had this prodigal even changed his name?): make me as one of thy hired servants'—asking for the meanest of jobs, and as an undeserved favour. Here self-interest and true penitence spoke together: "I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies. I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments" (Ps.119 :59,60). The prodigal's attitude had now become fundamentally right, like that of David after his sin with Bathsheba: "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight" (Ps.51:4;cp.Dt.30:l-3).

So without any delay, "he arose (it is the word which the New Testament constantly uses for "resurrection"), and came to his father."The decision, and the decision put into action, were as necessary as the repentance.

In an eagerness to get on to the climax of the story, the parable omits all mention of the hardship, weariness and discouragements of a faltering journey home, sustained only by an unfaltering conviction that this was the right thing to do, the best, the only thing. Yet it was no easy road back. The Greek neatly hints at much hesitation as the moment of encounter with his father drew near.

Joyful Reunion

In his most optimistic moments he could hardly have dreamed that things would work out as they did. For "whilst he was yet a great way off," his father with faculties sharpened by longing and affection, saw and recognized him (Eph.2 :16,17). There is implication here, surely, of hours of faithful prayer that the son would be brought back, of even longer hours of eager vigil from a vantage point near home.

Now, excitement imparting an unwonted youthful vigour, he ran to meet his son, greeting him with a delight and fervour he could express only in repeated embraces (2 Sam.14 :33). All this before ever a word could be said by the penitent of all that he was resolved on confessing.

At last, as the first surge of emotion subsided, he began his confession—a contrite admission of his sin, untrammelled by any kind of self-excuse (Ez. 36 :30,31 Ezra 9 :6). But he never got as far as seeking the high favour of promotion from ragged tramp to paid farm labourer. When the idea of it was first framed in his mind, it had never dawned on him that suck love and forgiveness might be possible (Ps.139 -.2; 103 :13; 32 :5; ls.64 :4-9). Yet how true it is that "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just (superb paradox!) to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn. 1:9).

By the time the returned vagrant had stammered out his confession (for the hardship and duration of his journey had in no way dulled his penitence), they were back at the house, and his father, more excited than any child having a birthday, was pouring out instructions to the servants as fast as he could talk: 'The best robe—the best one, remember! a ring for his finger, that all may know his place of honour here; shoes on his feet; for he doesn't return as a slave; and the finest feast you can lay on-don't forget the fatted calf, kept against his coming; I knew he'd be back! Dead—alive! (Rom.6 :13), lost—found! Could anything happen more wonderful than this?' The prodigal's request that he be up-graded to the status of hired servant never got said. This amazing display of joy, love and forgiveness stifled the words in his throat.

The old rags, which once flaunted their owner's worldly vanity, were, of course, thrown away, like the fig-leaf garments of Eden. Fit for nothing! "The first robe" may mean "the robe he used to wear," specially kept against his return, a robe which he had deliberately left behind, being set on having something even finer? (Rev.3 :18sw.; ls.61 -.10). But more fikely it signifies "the best there is in the house." In the Roman world, it was not uncommon to announce that a slave was now a free man by publicly arraying him in a fine new robe.

The slaying of the fatted calf for the feast of rejoicing was an outstanding token of intense religious thankfulness at the prodigal's return, for the word used in the parable means "to kill for sacrifice" (22 :7 s.w.). This great celebration centred round a peace-offering which outstandingly emphasized the renewal of fellowship together before God (Dt.12 :7,12).

The father's excited "Let us eat, and be merry" included the household servants and all: "Enter thou into the joy of thy lord" (Mt.25:21,23); in the parables of lost sheep and lost coin: "Rejoice with me" (v.6,9). What a contrast between this heart-felt gladness and the empty gaiety the prodigal had gone in for in that far country I

The phrase "this my son" made public acknowledgement of a lost prodigal's reinstatement. "He was lost, and is found" |v.4,8) surely indicates that just as the shepherd had sought his lost sheep and the woman her lost coin, so also the father had done all in his power to trace his boy. Now that depressing discouraging search was over.

The older brother

The parable could have ended here, but happily, and unhappily, it didn't.

The elder son, who had been busy on the farm, returned at the end of his day's work, to find the house and all connected with it enjoying a splendid party. There was jollity and music (Gk: sumphonia, harmony!) such as the family had not known for many a long day. This in itself riled him (disharmony!). To think that all this should be organized, and he know nothing about it!

There is a problem here. Why had he not been told? Wasn't it a most obvious thing to send a messenger to him in the field to tell him the great news? Why was it not done?

Now, instead of assuming that what his father did was bound to be right, he called one of the servants and in a churlish tone (so the Greek phrase neatly implies) kept on enquiring whatever it all meant, until he had got the story down to the last detail.

"Thy brother is come." Like Abraham's steward, this servant had taken on much of his master's outlook—the word he used is one which nearly always has to do with divine action (e.g. Mt.23 -.36; 24 :14,50; Lk.19 :43; Jn.6 -.37; 8 -.42; 2 Pet.3:10; Rev.15:4; 18:8). So this was his way of saying: God has brought him home safe and sound, that is, healthy—when he might have been an incurable wreck; in fact, much more healthy than when he went away!

This news made the brother intensely angry. Nor was it a sudden uncontrolled burst of indignation but a cold deliberate hostility (Gk: orge). He, whose double portion and birthright should have been used to seek out and redeem his younger brother (lev.25 :49), was positively resentful that he was back again. Did he but know it, it was himself who was the lost son (Mt.23 :13). He refused to go in and greet his brother and share in the festivities. So his father came out, as eager to reclaim this son as the other, and kept on beseeching him to share in the general rejoicing. But there was no budging him from his critical self-righteousness. He could not even bring himself to say: "Father."

Instead: "See," he said, "all these years I go on slaving for thee (note here his estimate of his father's character!), and not at any time did I ever transgress a commandment of thine: (18:11) yet not at anytime didst thou give me a kid (not to mention the fatted calf), that I might make merry with my friends." Here was a fulsome pride in his own qualities. He positively enjoyed writing his own testimonial (Mt.20 :12). Yet his own words gave the game away—that although he had stayed at home, his inclinations were (like the prodigal's) towards enjoying life away from his father. And the crude grumble: "thou never gavest me a kid", was downright misrepresentation, for he knew that had he wished for either kid or fatted calf he could have had them without even asking.

The bald fact was that he resented the generous treatment accorded to his brother, and his jealousy boiled over into a tirade against him: "As soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf." "This thy son"! He could not even bring himself to speak of the prodigal as "brother". Nor did he speak of a "return home," but instead referred to his coming as though he were a stranger. And the bitter and unkind censure about harlots was almost certainly not conjecture. The prodigal had sought to hide nothing. Such was his penitence, the full sordid story had been told.

The father's rejoinder could hardly have been in greater contrast. "Son," he said gently and with affection (although there had been no disposition to address him as "Father" in the way that the prodigal had done), "thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine (had it not all been shared out?). It was necessary, a thing not to be restrained, that we should make merry, and be glad." This was not recompense to the prodigal for his evil life, as his brother had so unkindly implied, but an overflow of irrepressible joy, "for this thy brother (note the gentle nudge towards a more kindly attitude) was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found."

An unfinished story

There Jesus stopped, his parable still unfinished. Did the older brother have a change of heart, and join the happy fellowship of father and brother and all the household? Or did he persist in his self-righteous aloofness and thus by his unforgiving spirit create a worse rift in the family at a time when bonds should have been stronger than ever? In an earlier parable Jesus, informed by the Old Testament, had already provided the inevitable discouraging end to the story (14 .-18-20). The fact that here he left out the tragedy of Israel's estrangement is surely an intimation of the intense longing within him that the situation might even now not be past repair. In another parable a forgiven debt had been called into existence again (Mt.18 :34). So here also the elder brother's birthright, already his, was to be taken away from him (Rom. 11). But how does the story of the younger brother continue?

Whilst the immediate context of this parable may suggest reference to publicans and sinners and to scribes and Pharisees (v.1,2), there can be little doubt that the more fundamental application of it is to the rejection of the gospel by Israel and its eager acceptance by godly Gentiles. Jesus saw the earlier situation as foreshadowing the later.

Certainly some of the details are framed with specific reference to the publicans who although belonging to the commonwealth of Israel, deliberately chose a way of life which estranged them from their own nation and from their God. The prodigal "joining himself to a citizen of that country" and "feeding swine” clearly pictures the un-Jewish activities of the publicans in the service of their Roman taskmasters. Nevertheless, at the first sign of repentance, God was glad to "spare them as a man spareth his own son" (Mal.3 :17). "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him" (Ps. 103 :13). Let the worst of sinners "draw nigh to God" (Jas.4 :8), and God will draw nigh to him. In the story how graphically Jesus represented this truth! "Yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead," wrote Paul (Rom.6 :13) almost appropriating the words of the prodigal’s father.

The prodigal's destitution and contrite return home, and the father's gladness and his eager rehabilitation of his son—these are described with detail marvellously appropriate to the redemption of spiritual castaways in a way which none but Jesus could frame. Even the word used for the slaying of the fatted calf, by its implication of sacrifice, suggests the vital essential in the forgiveness of sin.

And in part two, the hostile indignation and damaged self-love of the elder son represent with superb faithfulness the disdain of the Pharisees, holding off from Jesus and his following of forgiven sinners. It also anticipates with unerring insight the jealousy of spiritually proud Jews when the gospel of Jesus brought benighted Gentiles into fellowship with the God of Israel. From this point of view most of the details explain themselves.

Could Jesus have coined a more gracious or more telling parable than this? And is it conceivable that those able men who heard if failed to grasp its meaning?

Notes: Lk.l5:11-32

Two sons.These two appear again in another parable: Mt.21 :28-31.
Took his journey. Doubtless the father could have kept him at home. But here is the Bible's doctrine of freewill.
15, 16.
Consider the relevance of these details to the publicans (v. l).
Hired servants of my father's. The Pharisees were considered models of perfection in the eyes of publicans and sinners.
Music and dancing by hired entertainers?
Me fatted calf... Some of the versions have this precise phrase at Pr. 15 :17.

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