The Prodigal Son: Bible Story Summary, Analysis and Themes

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

The parable of the Prodigal Son is a story about God’s redemptive grace and mercy.  It is a story of His unconditional love and forgiveness.  It is about God seeking sinners.  In Luke 15, Jesus tells about the youngest son coming to his father to ask for his inheritance ahead of time.  The youngest son would only receive one-third of the father’s inheritance in accord to the Old Testament laws in Deuteronomy 21:17.  He then took the inheritance and ran away to spend it all on having a good time. He had plenty of “friends” to help him spend it but quickly ran out of his inheritance funds.  Then he was reduced to working in a pig pen and the pigs ate better than he.  For a Jew, to tend to pigs was the height of humiliation since they were deemed unclean according to the Old Testament dietary laws.  He thought of his father’s servants who were at least fed well and had shelter at night.  The young son had reached the end of his rope and came back home. He was accepted with open arms by his father.  The older son was outraged; he was angry that his father had allowed his brother to return and even more disturbing was the gift of  a rob, a ring, and a pair of sandals and a huge feast, in his honor, with the choicest of the fatted calves.

Key Questions to Consider for Prodigal Son Parable

Why would Jesus tell this parable with the religious leaders and the Jewish crowd there?  What would there reaction have been?  What would the Jewish leaders have done to the son when he came back home?  Why did Jesus feel the need to tell this parable to the Jewish leaders?

Commentary and Analysis

Jewish Culture and Background

When the young son came to his father to ask for his inheritance, in the Jewish culture of that day, it was like he was saying, “I wish you were dead!”  This was highly unconventional and was insulting of the father.  This is what the Jewish leaders understood and in their minds, they would not have received the young son back into the family.  In fact he would have been disinherited or even stoned as was done in the ancient Jewish culture in the Old Testament. He would have been disowned and he would not have been allowed to return at part of the father’s family.

Who Does the Youngest Son Represent?

The youngest son represents all of those who have been called by God and for whatever reason; they have placed one foot in the world and one foot in the church.  When God chastises those Who He has redeemed, as any loving father would, He brings them to their knees and they see their need for repentance and return to God and ask for His forgiveness.  This can not be a picture of the lost because they would never have been a child of the father in the first place.  Unbelievers are children of the devil as Jesus said in John 8:42-44, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me.  Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.  You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. “To the Father’s own, does He give “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

Who Does the Father Represent?

The father represents God the Father for He gladly receives His son as part of His family.  The young son returning is a good picture of what repentance is.  He made a change of direction, which is the root meaning of the word repentance.  He returned to the father begging for his forgiveness and acknowledging his sin.  He comes back with nothing to offer, yet the father receives him with joy and celebration.  The son felt unworthy and was remorseful.  The son had come to the end of himself and was in desperate need.

The father, as God the Father does, shows His love is unconditional He accepts him back into the family. In fact the father had been watching and waiting for his son to return.  When the father sees the son approaching, indicating that he had been watching for him, he runs to him and embraces him with open arms. The Jews considered this highly undignified in their culture. The patriarch never ran or never made the first move in such a situation.  Yet this shows that God the Father sought us and called us and that we never initiate our own calling into the Kingdom of Heaven (John 6:44).

Here the Father gives the son what he does not deserve (called grace) and withholds what he actually did deserve (called mercy).  The Father celebrates as he tells the eldest son, “…this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32).  The older brother is filled with anger saying in Luke 15:29-30, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

Who Does the Eldest Son Represent?

The eldest son represents the Jewish leaders.  The religious leaders saw their rewards due for their works.  They didn’t understand that they can bring nothing to the plan of salvation and if they try to earn it, they do not understand how God saves and that it is Jesus’ righteousness alone that accounts them worthy.  No human works can ever earn salvation. The youngest son had nothing to bring, no good works, and came back with barely the shabby cloths on his back. This may be why the father provided a robe for him and sandals for his feet.

In Luke 15:31-32, the father tells the oldest son why he is rejoicing:  “’My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Harmony in the Gospel

The Parable of the Lost Coin in the same chapter, Luke 15:8-10, is similar in nature in how the Father seeks those who are lost: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’  Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:8-10).

The pursuit is relentless, it is effectual, and it is with great intensity that God the Father seeks those to whom will be His children for now and for eternity.  And God never gives up this pursuit. The Bible emphasizes:

    • there is no one who seeks God (Romans 3:11);
    • that our “Salvation does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16);
    • that  Jesus tells them plainly that, “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.” (John 10:29); and
    • as stated by Paul that, “… he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:4-6)

Perhaps He is pursing you now.  If you are reading this, He has either sought you and bought you or He is seeking you now, you who are lost.  It is time to come to the Father through Jesus Christ today as John 14:6 says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Will you come today? Let us know that you came to Jesus on our contact page here: Contact Us. We will rejoice at the news!


Jesus told this parable to the religious and the Jewish crowd there to help them understand that salvation does not come by works, but by the grace of God. The reaction of the crowd was most likely extreme upset and outrage, similar to that of the eldest son.  Jesus was teaching against their tradition and for that they would have been offended and astounded.  As stated in the opening of this commentary, the Jewish people would have disinherited the son or even stoned him to death.  The son’s behavior was highly insulting to the father, as a matter of tradition.  Jesus needed to tell this parable to the Jewish leaders because Jesus came to fulfill the law, thereby making Jewish tradition of a works-based salvation unnecessary (Matthew 5:15-18).


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