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3 Reasons the Parable of the Prodigal Son Isn't What You Think

In November of 2000, director M. Night Shyamalan followed up his crowd-pleasing The Sixth Sense with another slow-burn thriller. In the opening scene of Unbreakable, protagonist David Dunn survives a horrible accident, propelling him to investigate how and why he survived. The true nature of Dunn’s discovery reveals to the audience that, whereas they thought they were watching just another thriller, they were actually watching another genre altogether. Even with the foreshadowing of the film’s opening slate, the genre-bending proved an unexpected surprise.

Similarly, for many who hear or read the parable of the prodigal son (as it is commonly called), they interpret it, understandably so, as the story about a reckless and immoral individual who repents of his sin. But there’s more to this parable than the simple (albeit, accurate!) fact of God’s love for the rebelliously wayward. Even with the catalyst for the parable laid out at the beginning of the chapter, the direction Jesus takes his narrative doesn’t follow our expectations.

It’s not that this parable has a hidden meaning so much as a multi-layered meaning. The surface-level interpretation is easily discerned, but there’s more to the story than that. As such, there are three contextual keys to understanding the parable’s core message.

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1. Jesus Has a Specific Audience in Mind

One of the benefits of subheadings in our Bibles is that we can more easily locate particular passages. One of the downsides of these subheadings is that we can read certain sections of Scripture as isolated passages, when that is often not the case. With the parable of the prodigal son in particular (which starts in Luke 15:11), the Bible sets the stage several verses earlier.

As miscreants and publicans crowd around Jesus, the Pharisees mutter the following complaint: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). This statement includes an implicit accusation—i.e., that Jesus shouldn’t be hanging around such riffraff. It’s an accusation that deserves an answer, and Jesus is up to the challenge.

He begins his response by telling a parable about a shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to find the one that is lost. The shepherd utters the last spoken words in this parable: “I have found my lost sheep” (v. 6).

Just one parable, however, isn’t sufficient for Jesus’s purposes; he goes straight into a second parable. This one is about a woman who expends all her energy to find one lost coin. The woman utters the last words spoken in this parable: “I have found my lost coin” (v. 9).

Even two parables aren’t sufficient. Jesus transitions immediately into a third, and longer, parable about a father who welcomes back his prodigal son with lavish grace. The father utters the last words spoken in this story: “[my son] was lost and is found” (v. 32).

These three parables provide a lengthy response to the complaint that Jesus indiscriminately welcomes sinners. In fact, these three parables represent the one time in the book of Luke where Jesus spends an entire chapter addressing only one topic. Evidently, the answer he has for the Pharisees is an important one, worthy of emphasis.

The first and most obvious point of these parables is similar to what Jesus had told the Pharisees earlier: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). But there’s another and more direct message Jesus has for the Pharisees. His ultimate point is not to address what they consider a problem, but rather to address a problem they completely fail to recognize.

2. The Scene with the Older Brother Is the Climax, Not an Afterthought

2. The Scene with the Older Brother Is the Climax, Not an Afterthought

You may notice that the parable of the prodigal son ends differently than the previous two parables do. After the wayward son has returned and been reconciled to his father, there’s an additional scene: the older brother refuses to celebrate, choosing instead to criticize his father’s willingness to, in the words of the Pharisees, “welcome sinners.” The father pleads with his son to change his perspective, and then the parable ends. We never learn if the eldest son is reconciled to his family or not.

The reason for this “extra” scene is that Jesus is directing his attention back onto the Pharisees themselves. He explains the error of their ways by putting them into the third parable; they are represented by the firstborn son, and his words reflect their hearts.

Listen to the older son’s self-evaluation: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders” (v. 29). This is the self-evaluation implicit in the Pharisees’ posturing. They see themselves as obedient to the will and ways of God—unlike the tax collectors and sinners.

But the way the oldest son relates to his father reveals how the Pharisees—and, by extension, all legalists—relate to God. The son says he’s spent years “slaving for” his father. He categorizes their relationship, not with paternal or familial terms, but with the imagery of slavery. He is a bondservant and his father is a taskmaster. He sees himself earning the right to his father’s good graces through his slavish obedience.

This posturing can keep a soul out of heaven just as much as licentious living can. It’s the same posture taken by the rich young ruler who asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). For the legalist, life comes through being—or doing—good. If we’re honest, we all succumb to legalistic thinking to one degree or another.

And thus, to one degree or another, we all need to hear Christ’s plea to the Pharisees through the parable of the prodigal son, which leads to our third point.

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3. Christ’s Appeal Is to Wayward Rule-Followers, Not Wayward Rule-Breakers

Like the Pharisees, or the older son in the parable, the legalist might appear obedient to God, but as theologian Thomas Chalmers points out, under the surface of legalistic pursuits lies an evil root:

On the tenure of “Do this and live” . . . the creature[,] striving to be square and even with his Creator, is, in fact, pursuing all the while his own selfishness, instead of God’s glory; and with all the conformities which he labours [sic] to accomplish, the soul of obedience is not there. (10)

In such a case, the appearance of obedience is present, but not the soul of obedience. Through outward conformity, the legalist pursues God on his own terms. He may do many of the right things, but for the wrong reasons. He chooses a transactional arrangement with God based on works, rather than a relationship with God based on undeserved favor.

Since God refuses to honor the legalist’s terms, the legalist is in a constant state of inner agitation. Because he seeks the rewards of merit, he misunderstands, and sometimes even loathes, the rewards of grace—especially when those rewards are bestowed on those the legalist deems unworthy.

It is ultimately this legalism that Jesus unpacks and addresses in the climax of his third parable in Luke 15. And how does the father in Jesus’s parable respond to his legalistic son? “My son,” he says, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (v. 31).

It is almost as if Jesus is pleading to the Pharisees through the father: “Stop acting like you have to earn what God has, or that his pleasure is contingent on your performance. Accept your sonship without merit or effort. Rejoice in the reality that everything God has can be yours—not because you don’t have a wayward heart (you do!), but because his inheritance is given freely, not earned.”

One Coin, Two Faces

One Coin, Two Faces

We don’t tend to think of rule-following as a possible expression of a wayward heart. The elder son in the parable certainly doesn’t. The Pharisees certainly don’t. But slavery to sin isn’t just experienced through licentious living; it’s also experienced through legalistic living. After all, it isn’t freedom to seek merit before God based on your performance. Such a goal is both impossible and anti-Christ at its core. In spite of its pious appearance, legalism is slavery to sin.

What many fail to realize is that legalism and licentiousness are two sides of the same coin. Both represent a rejection of God’s rule. Both despise God’s mercy in favor of an ostensibly better way. Both are expressions of a wayward heart.

In Luke 15, Jesus reminds us that he came to save all slaves of sin—regardless of what we look like on the outside.

The Forgiving Father

What we typically call the parable of the prodigal son is really a parable about a loving father who offers reconciliation to a licentious son and a legalistic son. Both of his sons are lost—like the lost sheep or the lost coin. Both are sinners in desperate need of mercy.

The one who acknowledges his need for mercy (like the younger son) is in a good place. The one who fails to even see his need for mercy (like the older son) is in serious—and even eternal—danger. God calls such a person to repentance, to take on the mantle of sonship, and to accept God’s terms of forgiveness and grace.

We all need rescuing—both the law keeper and lawbreaker. What the Pharisees considered bad news is actually good news: Jesus welcomes sinners. Let us not begrudge Christ’s heart for sinners, for that means he has a heart for us.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Drazen Zigic 

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