Parable of the Prodigal Son
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (also known as the Two Brothers, Lost Son, Loving Father, or Lovesick Father) is one of the parables of Jesus and appears in Luke 15:11–32. Jesus Christ shares it with his disciples, the Pharisees and others.
In the story, a father has two sons, a younger and an older. 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 fanfare. 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); 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. In the Eastern Orthodox Church it is read on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.
The parable begins with a young man, the younger of two sons, who 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 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.
The son does not even have time to finish his rehearsed speech, since 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
Allegory is common in the Old Testament, and parables are a typical rabbinical method of teaching. The older son would have the first share in the father's inheritance as his firstborn, unless his younger brother received this share from the father by redemption via presentation in the temple. In addition, the younger son would receive the older son's inheritance upon his brother's death according to the mitzvah yibbum. The younger son demanding his share in his father's inheritance before his father's or his brother's death is illegal, as it is the same as assuming they are both dead. In this parable, Jesus portrays the younger son's life of sin in a typical scriptural way: sexual immorality, like how God describes Israel as a harlot to Hosea. Again, Jesus uses a typical scriptural way of describing the consequences of sin: bondage to wicked gentiles, like the Babylonian captivity. The younger son being joyfully greeted and celebrated by the father is typical of God promising to deliver Israel from exile. The older son not sharing in his father's joy is typical of scriptural portrayals of unrepentant sinners. 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). God, according to Judaism, rejoices over and grants more graces to repentant sinners than righteous souls who don't need repentance. With all this in mind, it is obvious what Jesus is implying with the parable: more than just teaching the Jewish leaders to rejoice as he does over repentant sinners, he is teaching them how Israel (firstborn son of God) ought to treat the righteous gentiles (son of Abraham according to God's promise to him). In addition, Jesus is teaching them that, if they do not repent of being prodigal sons, they will forfeit their inheritance, and so, not share in the world to come like the righteous gentiles.
Context and interpretation
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." The father's joy described in the parable reflects divine love, the "boundless mercy of God", and "God's refusal to limit the measure of his grace."
The request of the younger son for his share of the inheritance is "brash, even insolent" and "tantamount to wishing that the father was dead." His actions do not lead to success, 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.
On the son's return, the father treats him with a generosity far more than he has a right to expect.
The father, who represents the Heavenly Father, implies to the older son that his love for both sons is not dependent upon their perfection, but their willingness to return to Him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
Commemoration and use
The Eastern Orthodox Church traditionally reads this story on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, 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." He also explored the issues raised by this parable in his second encyclical, Dives in misericordia (Latin for Rich in Mercy), issued in 1980.
In the arts
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. 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. 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.
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, 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.
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.
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, 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
The Prodigal Son was also referred to in the play The Merchant Of Venice as well as As You Like It, pastoral 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 Buddhism
A similar parable of a lost son can also be found in the Mahayana Buddhist Lotus Sutra. 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. 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. 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. 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).
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