In 2012, a detailed study into the parallel meanings of the parable of the Prodigal Son ignited a deep passion within me for biblical research. I realized in that moment I had a hunger for finding depth within the Scriptures beyond simply reading the words. That self discovery was one of the
primary reasons I started the In-Place Missionary blog to help you, dear reader, look for hidden truths and bits of gold on your own. It’s vital to read the Bible and understand what you profess to believe. It’s a critical piece to understanding your identity in Christ and God’s love for you. The more nuggets of gold you find hidden within the pages, the more God’s nature and love is revealed. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
The Prodigal Son Revelation
I’ve been in a church most of my life, and I’ve probably heard the story of the Prodigal Son over a hundred times (seriously); however, I only knew the parable at its surface: a young, immature son leaves home and spends his inheritance on material things and has to return home to a father who is thankfully happy to have his son back. It took a small group discussion, a close friend with a powerful gift of teaching, and my own follow-up research to realize there is more to the story. Yes, these themes are important; but, as with many other stories and accounts throughout the Bible, there is more to discover than what you initially see.
Theme One — The Lost Son
The first theme of the Prodigal Son parable is the narrative about the youngest son. He grew up with the comforts of his father’s estate and had a responsible, older brother who worked the fields of his father’s property. The young son was eager to see the world at any cost; and, as a result, acted selfishly and foolishly.
In the beginning of the story, the youngest son asked his father for his inheritance, something that was generally not common in that culture until after the father’s death. However, the father agreed to his son’s request; and as quickly as the estate was split between the two heirs, the youngest son left home for his grand adventure in a far away land.
Once he left home, we learn the young man made a series of regrettable mistakes. He quickly squandered his inheritance and indulged in wild living. He lived a lavish life of blissful immaturity and youthful invincibility. However, before long, he ran out of money.
At this point in the story, he probably should have returned home. His pockets and his belly were empty, but his pride and determination likely fueled his decision to stay in the far away land in spite of his dire situation.
Eventually, the wayward son got a job feeding pigs for a farmer. The wage was pitifully small, and he frequently couldn’t afford food for himself. As he felt his hungry stomach ache for a long awaited meal for yet another night, he finally decided to make the long journey home and beg for his father to take him in as a servant to make up for his misdeeds. The young son was surprised when his father hugged him and called him “son”, ignoring the prodigal’s comments on his unworthiness.
I don’t know about you, but I can identify with the younger son. He was immature and strong-willed. He believed he knew what was best for his own life; but, obviously, he didn’t. After he lost all his inheritance, he forgot his identity as a son. He felt undeserving of his father’s love. This loss of identity is evident by his plan to ask his father to allow him to become a servant. Have you been in that place? I have.
Theme Two — The Second Prodigal
The second theme is all about the second prodigal — the older son. He was the dependable, outwardly wiser son who always tried to do things for his father to earn his rightful place.
Once the estate was divided, he decided to remain with his father. His choice to stay home may have appeared virtuous, but his character was revealed in his reaction over his father’s response to his little brother’s homecoming. When he saw a celebration happening for his irresponsible, younger brother, he became angry and said to his father, “All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” (Luke 15:29-30)
At this point in the parable, the older brother thought his father would love him more than his brother because his actions were righteous. However, his motivation to take those actions were not pure. The ugly truth about this self-righteous attitude is it caused him to lack compassion for his little brother, compare himself to someone he felt was “less deserving”, and miss what was already available to him. The oldest son already had everything that was of his father’s estate, but he didn’t recognize it because he thought he couldn’t obtain it without first gaining approval (Wow, that hits me right in the heart!).
I can also identify with this second prodigal son. I too am guilty of the religious mindset to earn God’s favor at times. It is important to keep the Lord’s commands and follow His will, but the key question should always be what motivates us to obey the Lord? He cares more about the condition of our hearts than our words and deeds.
Consider the pharisees and how they were portrayed in the New Testament. They thought they were better than everyone who called themselves a Jew because they knew and kept the laws better than most other people could, but they missed the whole reason for following the law (Matthew 22:34-40). Also, take a look at these hard words spoken by Jesus: “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.'” (Matthew 7:21-22) Simply stated, God wants us to choose to make the right choices as a byproduct of love.
Theme Three — the Unwavering Love of the Father
The third and most important theme of the story is the father’s response to his wayward son. He was patient and longsuffering. He remained loving despite how his son’s choices grieved him, and he continued hoping his son would return to him.
During ancient times, it would have been likely taboo for a son to ask his father for his inheritance. It would have been the equivalent to saying, “I can’t wait for you to die so I can have my portion of the estate and do what I want!” How many times have we had this attitude towards God the Father, and He chooses to love us anyway? The thought makes me weep.
Even after such a hurtful request, the father divided his estate and gave it to his sons. He never berated or belittled the younger son because, out of abundant love, he allowed him to exercise free will. He was old enough to leave home afterall.
This section of the parable reveals an important detail about the nature of God. He’s a gentleman who, out of the truest expression of love, allows us to make our own choices even if they lead us away from Him. He doesn’t coerce or demean to force us to change our minds. Alternately, He grieves for us knowing we’ll have to experience the consequences of poor decisions. Instead of responding with anger, He is filled with compassion. Like the father in this story, He waits every day and night, looking intently for us to come back home. He wants nothing more than for us to return to His embrace.
When the son finally returned home, the Bible says the father saw him “from a long way off.” This detail indicates the father watched for his son, waiting eagerly for him to come home. Although the son expected to grovel at his father’s feet and beg to become a servant, his father restored him to sonship and a place of honor in the family. He dressed the son in the finest robe and placed a ring on his finger (signifying to whose house he belonged and the level of authority given to him). The father even threw a party and feast for his young son!
At this point, you may be asking like I did, “Why would the father not be mad? His son blew all his inheritance. His dad would have been right to be upset. The son didn’t deserve a party. He’s lucky he didn’t have to scrub the floors of his father’s estate for the rest of his life.” This is the part of the story that still amazes me, honestly. The father made a profound statement that provides a clue as to why he’s rejoicing and why Father God does the same with real life prodigals like you and me (my paraphrased summary): “Son, when you left home, it was like you were dead. But now you are home and brought to life again!”
When we make choices that cut us off from God, our source, we wither and die. In contrast, when we return to the Father, we come back to life again. We cannot survive without being connected to the source of our identity and lifeblood (John 15:5). It is only when we realize our desperate need for the Presence of God and a deep relationship with Him that we experience abundant life. Without Him, we are starved like the son trying to make his own way, feeding pigs to survive. Thank goodness for God’s unfailing love!
The most transformational meaning from this simple parable is understanding who the Father is and how He sees us. Do we expect God to wait and watch for us to do wrong so He can punish us? Do we expect our sins will cause us to lose our sonship? Do we believe God loses interest in us because we fail Him? He is none of those things, of course, because He is the very definition of love. He is not like earthly fathers who may be well-meaning but flawed. He does not have the same mindset or emotional responses we do. We would be wrong to try to assign human qualities to Him out of our personal perception and experiences with our own fathers.
Son or Daughter of the King, if you’ve made poor choices, feel unworthy or unredeemable, know this: Abba Father is always waiting for you to return home. He longs for your fellowship and companionship although He doesn’t need it. He chooses you anyway! His desire is to draw you back to Himself, bring you back to life, and watch you thrive. He knows that when we are most alive, we are most effective to show others around us the love of Christ and bring restoration to this broken world.
“We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!” – Luke 15:32