Parable of the Prodigal Son

  (Redirected from Prodigal son)
The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

The Parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the parable of the Two Brothers, Lost Son, Loving Father or Forgiving Father,[1][2] is one of the parables of Jesus in the Bible and appears in Luke 15:11–32. Jesus shares it with his disciples, the Pharisees and others.

In the story, a father has two sons. The younger son asks the father for his inheritance, and the father grants his son's request. However, the younger son is prodigal (i.e., wasteful and extravagant) and squanders his fortune, eventually becoming destitute. The younger son is forced to return home empty-handed and intends to beg his father to accept him back as a servant. To the son's surprise, he is not scorned by his father but is welcomed back with celebration and welcoming party. Envious, the older son refuses to participate in the festivities. The father tells the older son "you are ever with me, and all that I have is yours, but thy younger brother was lost and now he is found".

It is the third and final part of a cycle on redemption, following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. In Revised Common Lectionary and Roman Rite Catholic Lectionary, this parable is read on the fourth Sunday of Lent (in Year C);[3] in the latter it is also included in the long form of the Gospel on the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C, along with the preceding two parables of the cycle.[4] In the Eastern Orthodox Church it is read on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.


James TissotThe Return of the Prodigal Son (Le retour de l'enfant prodigue) – Brooklyn Museum

The parable begins with a man who had two sons, and the younger of them asks his father to give him his share of the estate. The implication is the son could not wait for his father's death for his inheritance, he wanted it immediately. The father agrees and divides his estate between both sons.

Upon receiving his portion of the inheritance, the younger son travels to a distant country and wastes all his money in extravagant living. Immediately thereafter, a famine strikes the land; he becomes desperately poor and is forced to take work as a swineherd. (This, too, would have been abhorrent to Jesus' Jewish audience, who considered swine unclean animals.) When he reaches the point of envying the food of the pigs he is watching, he finally comes to his senses:

"And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 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: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him."

— Luke 15:17–20, King James Version

This implies the father was hopefully watching for the son's return.

In most versions of Luke, the son does not even have time to finish his rehearsed speech,[5] as the father calls for his servants to dress him in a fine robe, a ring, and sandals, and slaughter the "fattened calf" for a celebratory meal.

The older son, who was at work in the fields, hears the sound of celebration, and is told about the return of his younger brother. He is not impressed, and becomes angry. He also has a speech for his father:

"And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf."

— Luke 15:29–30, King James Version

The parable concludes with the father explaining that because the younger son had returned, in a sense, from the dead, celebration was necessary:

"It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found."

— Luke 15:32, King James Version

Context and interpretationEdit

The Prodigal Son, a 1618 painting by Rubens of the son as a swineherd.
Engraving of the Prodigal Son as a swineherd by Hans Sebald Beham, 1538.

The opening, "A man had two sons" is a storyteller's trope and would immediately bring to mind Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, and Esau and Jacob. Jesus then confounds the listeners' expectations when the younger son is shown to be foolish.[6]

While a number of commentators see the request of the younger son for his share of the inheritance as "brash, even insolent"[7] and "tantamount to wishing that the father was dead,"[7] Jewish legal scholar Bernard Jackson says "Jewish sources give no support to [the idea] that the prodigal, in seeking the advance, wishes his father dead."[6]

The young man's actions do not lead to success, he squanders his inheritance and he eventually becomes an indentured servant, with the degrading job of looking after pigs, and even envying them for the carob pods they eat.[7] This recalls Proverbs 29:3 "Whoever loves wisdom gives joy to his father, but whoever consorts with harlots squanders his wealth."[8]

Upon his return, his father treats the young man with a generosity far more than he has a right to expect.[7] He is given the best robe, a ring for his finger, and sandals for his feet (Luke 15:22). Clothing in the Bible may be symbolic of a character's change in status (see Biblical clothing). In this instance, clothing and accessories represent his rebirth ("was dead and is alive again") and newfound state ("was lost and is found," Luke 15:23).[9] Jewish philosopher Philo observes, "parents often "do not lose thought for their wastrel (asoton) children ... In the same way, God too ... takes thought also for those who live a misspent life, thereby giving them time for reformation, and also keeping within the bounds His own merciful nature."[6] The Pesikta Rabbati has a similar story. "A king had a son who had gone astray from his father on a journey of a hundred days. His friends said to him, "Return to your father." He said, "I cannot." Then his father sent word, "Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you." So God says, "Return to me, and I will return to you."[6]

The older son, in contrast, seems to think in terms of "law, merit, and reward",[7] rather than "love and graciousness."[7] He may represent the Pharisees who were criticizing Jesus.[7]

The last few verses of the parable summarize the parable in accordance with the Jewish teaching of the two ways of acting: the way of life (obedience) and the way of death (sin).[10] God, according to Judaism, rejoices over and grants more graces to repentant sinners than righteous souls who don't need repentance.[11]

This is the last of three parables about loss and redemption, following the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin, that Jesus tells after the Pharisees and religious leaders accuse him of welcoming and eating with "sinners".[12] The father's joy described in the parable reflects divine love,[12] the "boundless mercy of God",[13] and "God's refusal to limit the measure of his grace."[12]

Commemoration and useEdit


The Eastern Orthodox Church traditionally reads this story on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son,[14] which in their liturgical year is the Sunday before Meatfare Sunday and about two weeks before the beginning of Great Lent. One common kontakion hymn of the occasion reads,

I have recklessly forgotten Your glory, O Father;
And among sinners I have scattered the riches which You gave to me.
And now I cry to You as the Prodigal:
I have sinned before You, O merciful Father;
Receive me as a penitent and make me as one of Your hired servants.


In his 1984 apostolic exhortation titled Reconciliatio et paenitentia (Latin for Reconciliation and Penance), Pope John Paul II used this parable to explain the process of conversion and reconciliation. Emphasizing that God the Father is "rich in mercy" and always ready to forgive, he stated that reconciliation is a gift on his part. He stated that for the Church her "mission of reconciliation is the initiative, full of compassionate love and mercy, of that God who is love."[15][16] He also explored the issues raised by this parable in his second encyclical, Dives in misericordia (Latin for Rich in Mercy), issued in 1980.[17]

In the artsEdit

Gerard van Honthorst, 1623, like many works of the period, allows a genre scene with moral content.
The Polish Rider; possibly the prodigal son. The subject is of much discussion.


Of the thirty or so parables in the canonical Gospels, this was one of the four that were shown in medieval art almost to the exclusion of the others, but not mixed in with the narrative scenes of the Life of Christ (the others were the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Dives and Lazarus, and the Good Samaritan.[18] The Labourers in the Vineyard also appears in Early Medieval works).

From the Renaissance the numbers shown widened slightly, and the various scenes – the high living, herding the pigs, and the return – of the Prodigal Son became the clear favourite. Albrecht Dürer made a famous engraving of the Prodigal Son amongst the pigs (1496), a popular subject in the Northern Renaissance. Rembrandt depicted several scenes from the parable, especially the final episode, which he etched, drew, or painted on several occasions during his career.[19] At least one of his works, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, a portrait of himself as the Son, revelling with his wife, is like many artists' depictions, a way of dignifying a genre tavern scene – if the title was indeed the original intention of the artist. His late Return of the Prodigal Son (1662–1669, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) is one of his most popular works.


In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the theme was a sufficiently popular subject that the Prodigal Son Play can be seen as a subgenre of the English morality play. Examples include The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, The Disobedient Child, and Acolastus.[20]

Notable adaptations for performance include an 1869 oratorio by Arthur Sullivan, an 1880 opera by Amilcare Ponchielli, a 1884 cantata by Claude Debussy, a 1929 ballet choreographed by George Balanchine to music written by Sergei Prokofiev, a 1957 ballet by Hugo Alfvén,[21] and an 1968 opera by Benjamin Britten.

Many of these adaptations added to the Biblical material to lengthen the story; for example, the 1955 film The Prodigal took considerable liberties, such as adding a temptress priestess of Astarte to the tale.[22]

Popular musicEdit

The parable is referenced in the last verse of the traditional Irish folk tune "The Wild Rover" ("I'll go home to me parents, confess what I've done / and I'll ask them to pardon their prodigal son").

Oblique adaptations include that by the Reverend Robert Wilkins, who told the story of this parable in the song "Prodigal Son", which is probably best known as a cover version by the Rolling Stones on their 1968 album Beggar's Banquet. "Prodigal Man" was written by Ted Nugent and is the second track of the third album "Migration" by The Amboy Dukes and was released in 1969. The Osmonds present a version of the parable in their 1973 hit song "Let Me In," from their Mormon concept album The Plan. The British heavy metal band Iron Maiden recorded a song titled "Prodigal Son", based on the parable of the same name, which appeared on their second release, Killers, in 1981. U2 recorded a song titled "The First Time" on their 1993 album Zooropa. While based on the parable, it presents the idea of an alternate ending to the story. It could be argued that Kelly Willard's 1982 song, Make Me A Servant is based on what the son said to his father when he returned home. "The Prodigal Son Suite" from the album The Prodigal Son is one of the first posthumous releases by the late piano player and gospel singer Keith Green in 1983. Another artist in the Christian music field during that era, Benny Hester, would record a song titled "When God Ran" based on the parable in 1985.

Detroit musician, Kid Rock, also recorded a song titled "Prodigal Son", which appeared on his second album The Polyfuze Method, in 1993. Kid Rock later re-recorded the track for his 2000 album The History of Rock. The Christian Rock trio BarlowGirl recorded the song "She Walked Away", influenced by the parable,[23] as part of their 2004 self-titled album. "Indie" rock band Two Gallants covered the parable in the song "The Prodigal Son" on their 2006 album What the Toll Tells. Musician Dustin Kensrue wrote a song about the Prodigal Son entitled "Please Come Home" on the album of the same name released in 2007.[24] Rock band Sevendust has a track titled "Prodigal Son" on their 2008 album, Chapter VII: Hope and Sorrow. The band Bad Religion has a song of the same title on their album New Maps of Hell. The band Extreme recorded a song titled "Who Cares?", which appeared on the album III Sides to Every Story, which is influenced by this parable. Brantley Gilbert released a song called "Modern Day Prodigal Son". British Reggae band Steel Pulse recorded a song titled "Prodigal Son" on their debut album Handsworth Revolution, recreating the Biblical story as a Rastafarian parable. The Post-Hardcore band "Gideon" released a song called "Prodigal Son", which appeared on their second album Milestone. Christian rock outfit The Chinese Express opened and closed their 2006 release with a two part telling of the parable with songs titled "Said the son to the Father" and "Said the Father to the Son". Post-hardcore band "Jamie's Elsewhere" also released a song titled "Prodigal Son". The Los Angeles rap group House of Pain references the parable in one of the verses of their song, "Jump Around". English indie rock band alt-J references the parable in the first verse of their song "Left Hand Free". On their 2015 album Something Different, the Christian band Sidewalk Prophets included an uplifting song titled "Prodigal" with lyrics that are directed towards the Prodigal Son from the parable, or any person who is or has felt like they are in a similar situation.

In 2006 Country artist Dierks Bentley wrote a song for his album Long Trip Alone entitled "The Prodigal Son's Prayer". The song is based on the son's prospective of coming home after he's ruined himself in the world. Gospel artists Tribute Quartet released "When the Prodigal Comes Home" in 2016.


The Return of the Prodigal Son (Leonello Spada, Louvre, Paris)

Another literary tribute to this parable is Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen's 1992 book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, in which he describes his own spiritual journey infused with understanding based on an encounter with Rembrandt's painting of the return of the Prodigal and deals with three personages: the younger, prodigal son; the self-righteous, resentful older son; and the compassionate father – all of whom the author identifies with personally.[25] An earlier work with similarities to the parable is "Le retour de l'enfant prodigue" ("The Return of the Prodigal Son"), a short story by André Gide.[26]

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem[27] giving an interpretation of the younger brother's perspective.[28]

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is also a recurring theme in the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, who interpreted the parable in a different way to the conventional reading. His version of the parable was not so concerned with redemption and the forgiveness of family; the love of the family, and human love in general, was seen as less worthy than unreciprocated love, which is the purest form of love. In loving the family less, the Son can love God more, even if this love is not returned.[29][30]

The theme of the Prodigal Son plays a major role in Anne Tyler's novel A Spool of Blue Thread.[31]

The Prodigal Son was also referred to in the play The Merchant Of Venice as well as As You Like It, comedies by William Shakespeare. The Prodigal Son is also mentioned in Shakespeare's romance, The Winter's Tale (Act 4, Scene 4 line 89).

Similar parable in Mahayana BuddhismEdit

A parable of a lost son can also be found in the Mahayana Buddhist Lotus Sutra.[32][33] The two parables are so similar in their outline and many details that several scholars have assumed that one version has influenced the other or that both texts share a common origin.[34] However, an influence of the biblical story on the Lotus sutra is regarded as unlikely given the early dating of the stratum of the sutra containing the Buddhist parable.[34] In spite of their similarities, both parables continue differently after the two meet for the first time at the son's return. In the biblical story, there is an immediate reunion of the two. In contrast, in the Lotus sutra, the poor son does not recognize the rich man as his father. When the father sends out some attendants to welcome the son, the son panics, fearing some kind of retribution. The father then lets the son leave without telling him of their kinship. However, he gradually draws the son closer to him by employing him in successively higher positions, only to tell him of their kinship in the end.[32] In the Buddhist parable, the father symbolises the Buddha, and the son symbolises any human being. Their kinship symbolises that any being has Buddha nature. The concealment of the kinship of the father to his son is regarded as a skillful means (Sanskrit:upāya).[35]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ BibleGateway. 2016. Luke 15:11–32 The Parable of the Lost Son - Jesus.
  2. ^ BibleGateway. 2016. Parable of the Forgiving Father (15:11-32) - The IVP New Testament Commentary Series
  3. ^ "Lent 4C". Retrieved 2013-09-12.
  4. ^ "Proper 19 (24th Sunday of Ordinary Time)". Retrieved 2016-09-11.
  5. ^ Nicoll, W. R., Expositor's Greek Testament on Luke 15:21, accessed 3 November 2019; some ancient authorities complete verse 21 in line with the son's prepared statement
  6. ^ a b c d Levine, Amy-Jill. "What the Prodigal Son story doesn't mean", The Christian Century, August 25, 2014
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, Eerdmans Publishing, 2002, ISBN 0-8028-6077-X, pp. 70–82.
  8. ^ NAB, Prov. 29:3, USCCB
  9. ^ James L. Resseguie, "A Glossary of New Testament Narrative Criticism with Illustrations," in Religions, 10 (3) 217), 29-30.
  10. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Didache
  11. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Repentance
  12. ^ a b c Richard N. Longenecker, The Challenge of Jesus' Parables, Eerdmans, 2000, ISBN 0-8028-4638-6, pp. 201–213.
  13. ^ Scott Hahn, Curtis Mitch, and Dennis Walters, Gospel of Luke: The Ignatius Study Guide, 2nd ed, Ignatius Press, 2001, ISBN 0-89870-819-2, p. 51.
  14. ^ "Scripture Readings Throughout the Year". Retrieved 2008-11-09.
  15. ^ The post-synodal apostolic exhortations of John Paul II by Catholic Church 1998 ISBN 0-87973-928-2 pages 234–239
  16. ^ "Vatican website ''Reconciliatio et paenitentia''". Retrieved 2013-10-18.
  17. ^ "Vatican website ''Dives in misericordia''". Vatican. Retrieved 2013-10-18.
  18. ^ Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, p 195, English translation of 3rd ed, 1913, Collins, London (and many other editions), ISBN 978-0064300322
  19. ^ Roland E. Fleischer and Susan C. Scott, Rembrandt, Rubens, and the art of their time: recent perspectives, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-915773-10-4, pp. 64-65.
  20. ^ Craig, Hardin (April 1950). "Morality Plays and Elizabethan Drama". Shakespeare Quarterly. 1 (2): 71. doi:10.2307/2866678. ISSN 0037-3222.
  21. ^ Don Michael Randel, The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, Harvard University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-674-37299-9, pp. 13-14,
  22. ^ Paul Hammond, The shadow and its shadow: surrealist writings on the cinema, 3rd ed, City Lights Books, 2000, ISBN 0-87286-376-X, p. 70.
  23. ^ BarlowGirl by BarlowGirl CD review at
  24. ^ Dustin Kensrue at
  25. ^ Deirdre LaNoue, The Spiritual Legacy of Henri Nouwen, Continuum, 2000, ISBN 0-8264-1283-1, p. 45.
  26. ^ Turnell, Martin. "André Gide and the Disintegration of the Protestant Cell". Yale French Studies. Yale University Press (7): 21–31.
  27. ^ "The Prodigal Son". Retrieved 2013-10-18.
  28. ^ Andrew Keith Malcolm Adam, Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible: A reader, Chalice Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8272-2970-4, pp. 202–203.
  29. ^ Retrieved 2013-10-18.
  30. ^ Retrieved 2013-10-18.
  31. ^ Sinkler, Rebecca Pepper (February 13, 2015). "Sunday Book Review: 'A Spool of Blue Thread' by Anne Tyler". The New York Times. Retrieved October 5, 2015.
  32. ^ a b Lotus Sutra, Chapter 4, translated By H. Kern
  33. ^ Suzuki, Takayasu (2015). Two parables on "The wealthy father and the poor son" in the Saddharmapundarika and the Mahaberisutra, Journal of Indian and Budddhist Studies 63 (3), 169-176
  34. ^ a b Lai, Whalen W. "The Buddhist Prodigal Son': A Story of Misperceptions". Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4.2 (1981), p. 91
  35. ^ Nhất Hạnh, Thích (2003). Opening the Heart of the Cosmos. Parallax Press. pp. 37–41. ISBN 9781888375336.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit