The passage is so often brought up in one of two contexts:
1) Arminian and Calvinist Debates.
I have been in quite a few debates like these myself, and often the prodigal son is brought up, specifically to demonstrate that a person can lose and regain their salvation. I know many Arminians deny that one can lose their salvation, so this interpretation is not exclusive to or required for Arminians, but that is the context in which I personally have most often heard this parable referenced.
Thus, one interpretation of the passage is that this is a parable about losing and gaining salvation again. Many pastors have preached this text teaching this idea, that even when we walk away from the faith and reject our salvation, God is willing to receive us back.
2) Wayward Children.
This passage is also brought up often in personal settings to comfort Christian parents who have backslidden children.
I stand firmly opposed to the former, and will explain in this blog. I think the latter could have some merit when used as a very secondary application, but the main purpose of the passage, meaning Jesus and Luke’s purpose for saying and recording the passage, was not to address and comfort parents of disobedient, adult children.
In that way, I reject both interpretations. What then is this passage about? The first step is in identifying who the protagonist of the story truly is.
The True Protagonist
Allow me to utilize my English degree for a moment and remind you that a protagonist is not synonymous with “the good guy.” In our minds, we tend to associate a protagonist with the good guy, and the antagonist with the bad one. However, this is not always the case, it often is, but does not have to be.
The protagonist is, to put it simply, the one whom the story is about. The antagonist is the one antagonizing the plot development. If someone wrote a WWII story about Hitler’s desire to occupy all of Europe, the United States would be antagonists in that story. The U.S. would be the ones antagonizing the protagonist’s goal for European control.
The very fact that this parable is called “the prodigal son” handicaps the reader’s minds. It establishes the wrong bias before reading the text.
In the New Testament, the titles above certain paragraph breaks are not inspired; they are not in the original. Just like chapter and verse divisions, they are helpful and good, but not divine, and therefore allowed to be criticized.
The prodigal son title is one of the few I take issue with in our modern translations, because the prodigal son is not the main character. The prodigal son should actually be titled, “The Prodigal Son’s Jealous Brother.”
Were the prodigal son the character to focus on, then verse 24 would be the perfect ending!
Luke 15: 20-24, “20 And [The prodigal son] arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”
The prodigal son returns in repentance, the loving father meets him in forgiveness, they party and live happily ever after right?
Well, the story continues on for another 8 verses (that’s an entire third of the story). The story is barely over halfway over when the son returns home. What are all these pesky verses doing ruining our happy ending?
The context of the passage will help. Luke 15: 1-3,
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”So he told them this parable…”
Jesus told this parable in a string of parables with the same audience in mind, in response to the same situation.
The Pharisees were complaining that Jesus ignored them in order to spend time with rebellious Jews.
From the Pharisee’s perspective, they have spent their entire lives rejecting their passions, and living out the Jewish faith, following its laws.
As Christians we know this is not the case, but from their perspective, they faithfully followed God their entire lives. The people Jesus was reaching out to were disobedient Jews. Those who had lived lives far from even attempting to follow the Law of Moses.
Therefore, the Pharisees were jealous and bitter that Jesus would care so much for those who were rebels, and spend such little time with the ones who had been “faithful” their entire lives.
Jesus told these parables as a response to them. Jesus’ love for the lost sheep of Israel, and the Pharisees jealousy is what these parables are addressing.
The prodigal son parable was said specifically to the Pharisees to teach them a lesson. Jesus creatively taught the Pharisees by making up a story in which they became characters. Given that context, whoever the Pharisees are in the story is who the story is about. And the Pharisees are clearly the jealous brother.
That is why the parable continues past the uniting of the prodigal son and his father. It was imperative that we see the faithful brother’s jealousy. If we see this story is being about nothing more than a father’s love for a wayward son, we have missed the contextual point, and that is cured simply by reading all the verses of Luke 15.
Who is the Prodigal Son?
The important context above sets the table for proper interpretation of the passage. Too often with parables, modern readers treat them as analogies or allegories. There is similarity, but they are not the same. We need to be careful about over-analyzing and misapplying elements.
When analyzing this story, the two characters and their analogous parts should be easy: the father is God, and the jealous brother is the Jewish religious leaders. Those anchors stable us to focus in properly on who the prodigal son is. Obviously, it is the sinners Jesus is eating with, but contextually it is Jewish sinners.
We want to apply the prodigal son to any sinner, or to any backslidden Christian. However, when we do that, we chop the story up and remove the necessary element of the prodigal son’s relationship to his brother. That is why this is not a soteriological text; it isn’t about salvation. The prodigal cannot be allegorical of unbelievers in general, because who would their jealous brother be?
What is going on here is Jesus is ministering to the people His ministry was primarily focused on reaching. Jesus says in Matthew 15: 24, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Thus, in the parable, there are two sons who have a relationship to the father. We are quick to make this a salvific relationship. But the Pharisees did not have that; that would be pronouncing the Pharisees saved.
The relationship in the parable is akin to the covenant relationship the Jews had with God. They were lost sheep; they had a real, meaningful, covenantal relationship with God, but they were rebellious pagans who did not love him, left the pen, and needed to come to Him, now through Christ.
This is best demonstrated by two important things, the latter being the most important.
First, the prodigal son was still a son when he went away. He never lost his sonship. That is why it is taking the text too far to make this allegorical of someone losing their salvation.
This is parallel to the unbelieving Jews. They did not have a meaningful, salvific relationship with God in Christ, but they did belong to God covenantally. They were in a unique relationship to God through the Mosaic covenant unlike the gentile pagans.
Second, the greatest example of this is that the prodigal son, by the end of his part in the story, did not get back what he once had. He was restored to a new and better relationship he never once had.
In case you think mathematically, this might help:
We are tempted to interpret the prodigal’s journey as going from point A, to point B, then back to point A. But that is not the case.
Verses 12-13 reveal to us a boy who is in a place where he does not value or care for his father. The story begins with him asking for an advance on his inheritance, and he gets out of dodge as quickly as he can. That sounds like a real loving, strong, united family unit right?
Jesus clearly presents a son who hardly wants to be called a son. This is a reluctant son. This is a son who wants out and away from this father. That is why the second he receives his advance he leaves.
What is the story at the end of his role in the parable? Luke 15: 17-19,
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”
He is now a repentant son. He is no longer reluctantly a son, but happy to be called a son. He now willingly lives under his father, and knows in an experiential way the true loving-kindness of his father. The son did not receive back what he once had, but he received something so much better.
And that is the journey of the lost sheep of Israel who came to love Jesus. Their entire lives they spent far from their covenant Father; they spent their entire lives rebelling against God. But when the Father sent the Messiah, they experienced first hand how truly merciful, gracious, loving, and forgiving the Father is. They turned to him in true repentance, and entered into a covenant relationship through Christ, which is a far better mediator than Moses. It is a far better way to be united to the Father than the previous way: through the Law.
Those who were lost and found were not Christians once saved, but Jews who finally fulfilled their purpose. They were God’s people finally coming to Him in the way they were always meant to: a repentant, loving obedience.
And the Pharisees were not to allow their jealousy to get in the way of Jesus’ mission field: the lost sheep of Israel, the covenant breakers, the ones who had abused their Father for too long, and needed to be brought to a place of genuine repentance.
Secondary Principal Applications
I do believe there is a time and place to apply the concepts and principles of Luke 15 to personal circumstance, provided they do not become the intended meaning of the passage.
Here is a personal example of what I mean:
I played college football. And before every home game we would have chapel. One of the pastors at the church I attended ran the chapel, the other few Christians on the team and myself always looked forward to going to chapel.
Being a Christian was sort of “my thing.” I wasn’t a superstar on the field by any means. I did not get very much playing time, and was not ever touted as being imperative to the team. I played on the scout team during my entire tenure, and never traveled with the team. Therefore, being a Christian was my thing; it was the only time I got any attention.
The story continues that the pastor who ran chapel was very mission minded, very evangelical, and established great relationships with guys on the team. Over the years, more and more guys would come to his chapel sessions, and suddenly chapel wasn’t about me.
I began seeing people go to chapel who I knew were not true Christians. Their lives produced no fruit at all. They lived in fornication, vile language was always on their lips, they abused drugs and alcohol like their scholarships depended on it, and they were not members, nor even attended a local church. Yet, they were in chapel, and the pastors were reaching out them, talking with them, and it was no longer about me.
I wanted the attention. They got the attention on the field. They were popular on the campus. This was my place.
One day a coach came who I had a particularly poor relationship with. I was angered he was even there. I wanted to stand up and rebuke him for being a fake Christian.
Suddenly, halfway through the chapel, the Gospel came out. The pastor articulated it clearly and boldly. I looked around and saw a room filled with unbelievers hearing the Gospel, paying close attention to it, and there I was drowning in jealousy.
This very passage came to mind. If anyone of those people came to the Lord it would be my place to rejoice with the angelic hosts, not wade self-righteous jealous waters, wanting the entire plan of redemption to be about my glory.
And that I believe that was a proper secondary application of the principles learned from the passage. My application had both elements, the lost and the jealous, which is crucial to the structure of the story.
However, I am not claiming that the parable is an allegory that situation. I am claiming that the overall principles from the parable (rejoicing over saved souls, not being jealous, etc.) can be applied to everyday life, without making the parable an allegory for my everyday life.
In other words, I was not “the brother” and they were not “prodigal sons.” However, I was jealous rather than joyous over unbelievers being exposed to Christ Jesus. I was self-righteous rather than humble.
There is a subtle but important difference in making the Scriptures all about us through analogy, and applying the Scriptures not about us to our lives. It is a difficult thing in all narrative texts, but it is important that we toil to identify the primary meaning of a passage, and then apply its principles in an appropriate way.