On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, the gospel reading is the famous parable of the "prodigal son."
It is a moving story that teaches us about God's love for us and his willingness to forgive us no matter what we have done.
But there is more to the story than meets the eye . . . much more.
Here are 12 things you need to know.
1. What does "prodigal" mean?
The word "prodigal" is mysterious to us. Almost the only time we ever hear it is in the title of this parable.
It's basic meaning is "wasteful"--particularly with regard to money.
It comes from Latin roots that mean "forth" (pro-) and "to drive" (agere). It indicates the quality of a person who drives forth his money--who wastes it by spending with reckless abandon.
That's what the prodigal son does in this story.
2. Why does Jesus tell this parable?
This question is answered at the beginning of Luke 15, where we read:
 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him [Jesus].  And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."  So he told them this parable . . .
Actually, Jesus tells three parables:
- The parable of the lost sheep
- The parable of the lost coin
- The parable of the lost son (or, as we know it, the parable of the prodigal son)
All three parables are on the subject of recovering the lost, which is the implicit explanation of why Jesus receives sinners and eats with them: They are lost, and he wants to recover them.
Interestingly, the parable of the prodigal son (and the parable of the lost coin) occur only in Luke.
3. What's happening in the parable?
Jesus' parables are based on real-life situations, though they often veer off from the expected course of events in surprising ways. Those surprises teach us lessons.
Here, Jesus relates the situation of a father who has two sons, one of whom can't wait for his inheritance.
In Jewish society, there were laws regarding how inheritances were typically divided. The oldest brother got a double share (cf. Deut. 21:17), while the other brothers got a single share.
When there were two brothers (as here), the older brother would get 2/3rds of the estate, and the younger brother would get 1/3rd.
4. What is the prodigal son asking for?
In this parable, the younger son demands "the share of property that falls to me" (v. 12).
That means he is asking for the 1/3rd of the father's possessions that he would ordinarily get when the father dies.
Think about that.
He's asking his father to give him 1/3rd of everything that he owns right now, before the father is dead, when his father would still have use for these possessions.
How many fathers would receive that suggestion well today? How many would comply with it if one of their children asked it?
This is a truly astonishing request, and it would have been even more astonishing in the ancient world.
In a society that highly reverenced parents, it would have been equivalent to saying: "Father, I can't even wait for you to die. Give me 1/3rd of everything you have right now."
5. What does the father's reaction teach us?
Despite the breathtaking--and insulting--audacity of the younger son's request, the father grants it!
This reflects the amazing indulgence that God shows toward us. Even when we are acting as selfishly as the prodigal son, God indulges us.
He yields what is his and allows us to misuse it out of respect for the freedom that he has given us.
But he knows that the misuse of our freedom will have no better results than it did with the prodigal son's misuse of his freedom, and God trusts that we will learn our lesson and come back to him.
6. What does the prodigal son do next?
After he gets 1/3rd of his father's estate, he takes everything he has and goes "into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living" (v. 13).
In context, this means that he abandoned the Holy Land to go, voluntarily, into exile into a gentile, pagan country where he could live loosely without being censured by fellow Jews living all around him.
He wanted to get out of God's land so that he could live in sin and fund his sinful lifestyle by what he took from his father.
But eventually the resources he had were exhausted and a hard time came.
If he had not spent what he had on loose living (as we will later learn, on prostitutes), he would have had the money he needed to weather the hard time, but he didn't.
Thus he was reduced to a state of hunger and had to subject himself to a pagan (humiliation #1) and to feed the pagan's pigs (humiliation #2).
He would have been happy just to eat as well as the pigs (humiliation #3), but nobody gave him anything to eat, not even from the pigs' slop (humiliation #4).
Having been brought to such a low state, he recalled how his righteous father treated even his hired servants better: "How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!" (v. 17).
He thus plans to return to his father and say three things:
(a) "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you" (v. 18),
(b) "I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (v. 19a),
(c) "treat me as one of your hired servants" (v. 19b).
Even being treated as one of his father's hired servants would be better than the treatment he is receiving in the gentile world.
7. What do the actions of the prodigal son teach us?
They teaches us the depths to which our own misuse of freedom will bring us.
If we are bent on leaving God, things will go badly for us. We will be humiliated in the uncaring world.
The farther we get from the Father's loving care, the worse off we will be, and our best course is to return to God and his forgiveness.
8. What does the father do next?
When the prodigal son returns to his father, something significant happens.
While he is still at a distance, the father sees him, has compassion upon him, runs to him, hugs him, and kisses him.
This is far from the humiliating reunion that the son might expect based on his previous audacious and insulting treatment of his father!
The returning son must have been astonished!
But he continues by beginning to recite his pre-scripted speech to his father, and he manages to get the first two parts of it out. He says:
(a) "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you" (v. 21a),
(b) "I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (v. 21b).
But before he can say the third part--before he can ask to be treated merely as a servant--the father interrupts things and takes them in a very different direction.
Rather than treating his younger son as a mere servant, he turns to the actual servants and orders a celebration.
9. What do the actions of the father teach us?
The first lesson is that the father will not treat a son as a hired servant. The younger son is still a son!
As a result, his return is something to be celebrated!
He is to wear a fancy robe! A fancy ring! Shoes! There is to be a fancy feast for everyone! There is to be music and dancing!
Because "This my son was dead, and is alive again" and "He was lost, and is found."
This shows us God's reaction when we return from being lost in sin.
He doesn't begrudge us what we have done. He doesn't take us back reluctantly.
Like the father in the parable, he takes us back joyously! Eagerly!
But this is not all there is to the story . . .
10. What does the older brother do next?
There is usually at least one major lesson per parable for each major figure in it, and now we come to the lesson that the older brother can teach us.
He didn't demand his inheritance. He stayed faithful to his father. And now he is angry.
Why should his younger, wasteful, sinful brother receive such a reception by their father?
The older brother is so angry that he refuses to go inside and join the party.
Naturally, his father hears about it and comes to talk to him.
When that happens, we discover that he's not just angry with his brother, he's angry with his father, too.
He points out that he has never disobeyed his father's commands but that his father has never given him a kid (a young goat) so that he could slaughter it and have a party with his friends.
In contrast, the younger brother has "devoured your living with harlots" (wasting a third of the father's estate!), but when he comes back "the fatted calf" (that is, the best, most tender and delicious animal, specially raised to be so) is killed!
The older brother sees this difference in treatment as a manifest injustice toward him and is angry with his father because of it.
As we will see, he even seems to be worrying about his own security in the family since the father is showing such seeming favoritism to the younger son.
11. What does the father do?
The father tells the son three things.
First, he tells him: "Son, you are always with me." This seems to be a reassurance to the elder son that he has not lost his place in the family. His place is secure.
Second, he tells him: "and all that is mine is yours." This is because the division of property has already taken place. The younger soon took his third, so the two-thirds that remain will go entirely to the older son.
This means that the current celebration does not represent a threat to the older brother or his inheritance. Instead, it is a celebration of joy occasioned by the return of the son.
Thus the father thirdly tells him: "It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'"
12. What are the spiritual lessons for us?
From this parable we can draw a number of spiritual lessons:
- We can be a genuine son of the Father--who is spiritually "alive"--and be "lost" through sin. We can turn our backs on our heavenly Father and leave him of our own free will. Mortal sin is a real possibility.
- Mortal sin inevitably lands us in a far worse state than we were in originally.
- We can, however, return to the Father and be accepted by him with great joy. In fact, he is ready and eager to accept us back and forgive us, no matter what we've done.
- Christians who have never fallen should not resent those who come back. They should share in their Father's joy.
- Their own place is secure and their heavenly reward is not threatened. God loves them just as much as he loves those who come back through a dramatic conversion.
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