Unwise father, spendthrift son

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Who are the three main people in this story?
  2. Each one is at fault in some way. Describe these three individuals. How are they different?
  3. What should each one have done?
  4. What’s this story really about?

In brief: Jesus told the story of an unwise father, an embittered older son and his impulsive and spendthrift young brother. None of the characters come out well. Notice that the message is not only about the father forgiving his son, but about each family member forgiving the others for their human failings.

The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: the Departure, James Tissot

The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: the Return, James Tissot

The spendthrift younger son

In the story of the Prodigal Son, the younger son demanded the portion, about one-third, of his father’s estate which he could expect to inherit in the normal course of events when his father died.

It was a slap in the face to his father, since by the standards of the time demanding the inheritance was virtually saying to his father ‘you are already dead to me’.

Traditional wisdom advised against doing this sort of thing, but the father ignored this advice, gave in to his younger son and handed over the inheritance.

The legal position is correctly depicted. Property could be disposed of either by a will or by a gift during one’s lifetime.

As soon as he received his share the younger son turned his share into cash and left to enjoy the proceeds away from home and parental control. Right away the reader is faced with two characters, father and son, who lack backbone (the father) and foresight (the younger son).

The elder son made no such demands and stayed dutifully by his father’s side, tending the estate which would one day be his.

Read the blue Gospel text at bottom of this page

The bitter older son

When extravagant and dissolute living had reduced the younger son to penury and his fair-weather friends had deserted him, he was forced to take the most menial form of employment, one that was particularly humiliating to a Jew: feeding pigs (pigs were regarded as unclean animals).

He was by this time destitute, and so hungry he would gladly have eaten the carob pods set aside for the pigs – you can see how unappetising these were from the picture below.

He began to realise how stupid, how short-sighted he had been. He had lived well in his father’s house, but now he was little better than a slave. He decided to return home and beg his father’s forgiveness.

But before he even reached home, his father saw him coming in the distance. The older man was filled with pity and relief.

Before the young man could say a word his father had welcomed him back into the family circle, forgiving everything, simply grateful that his son was back. What was important to the father was that his son, seemingly lost forever, had returned.

He offered him signs of honour and authority – including sandals: shoes were the prerogative of free men, not slaves. Property transactions might be ratified by the exchange of sandals – see the story of Ruth and Boaz.

One person refused to join in the celebration: the elder son. He resented the lavish welcome given his ne’er-do-well brother. He pointed out to his father that he had never been treated in the same joyful manner, but his complaints were dismissed, and he was dragged down by bitterness. He could not bring himself to say ‘my brother’ but spoke contemptuously of this son of yours.

The story leaves one question unanswered: did the elder brother eventually join in the celebration and accept his brother back as a member of the family? Or did resentment continue to fester in his mind?

Read the green text at bottom of page

What’s this story really about?

This parable is said to be about forgiveness, and so it is. But there is another aspect of the story that has been largely overlooked: the way your place in the family shapes the person you are.

Psychologists have been studying birth order for many years, and they report that first-borns are likely to be more responsible and achievement oriented than later-borns, who are in turn reported to be more socially successful than their older brothers and sisters. The story of the Prodigal Son shows that Jesus understood this long before modern psychological theory appeared.

There are three characters in the story: a father, an eldest son, and the younger son of the family. Each of them behaves in the way that modern psychologists would predict.

If you are a parent, you may see the main character as being the father himself, trying to navigate through family jealousies and make the best decisions you can. If you are the eldest in your family, you may identify with the frustration of the eldest son who has done all the right things but feels under-appreciated. If you are the baby of the family, used to being loved and pampered, you may not understand what all the fuss is about.

Your interpretation of this story may depend on the role you yourself have in your own family:

  • Are you a parent watching your children grow up?
  • Do you have brothers or sisters?
  • Where did you come in the family – eldest? Second or third?
  • Were you the baby of the family?
  • Are there people with similar characteristics in your own family?

By the way, where is the mother of these young men? One can’t help feeling that if there had been a Jewish mother in the background, this would never have happened. Or perhaps it might: see the story of Rebecca and Isaac.

Read the red text at bottom of page

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri)

What happened next? See Parable of the Rich Fool

What the Gospels say

1. What is this story really about?. Read the blue text

2. The spendthrift younger son. Read the green text

3. The bitterness of the older son. Read the red text

Luke 15:11-32

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons; 12 and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. >/p>

13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. 15 So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ 20 And he arose and came to his father.

But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had 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 fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”

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