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Parable of the Prodigal Son

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Title: Parable of the Prodigal Son  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Parables of Jesus, Le retour de l'enfant prodigue, Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Parable of the Lost Sheep, Rich man and Lazarus
Collection: Eastern Orthodox Liturgical Days, Gospel of Luke, Parables of Jesus
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Parable of the 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 Sons, Lost Son, Running Father, Loving Father, or Lovesick Father) is one of the parables of Jesus. It appears in only one of the Canonical gospels of the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke ( Luke 15:11-32). Jesus shares it with his disciples, the Pharisees and others. According to the story, a father has two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance before the father dies, and the father agrees. The younger son, after wasting his fortune (the word "prodigal" means "wastefully extravagant"), goes hungry during a famine, and becomes so destitute he longs to eat the same food given to hogs, unclean animals in Jewish culture. He then returns home with the intention of repenting and begging his father to be one of his hired servants, expecting his relationship with his father is likely severed. Regardless, the father finds him on the road and immediately welcomes him back as his son and holds a feast to celebrate his return, which includes killing a fattened calf usually reserved for special occasions. The older son refuses to participate, stating that in all the time he has worked for the father, he never disobeyed him; yet, he did not even receive a goat to celebrate with his friends. The father reminds the older son that the son has always been with him and everything the father has is the older son's (his inheritance). But, they should still celebrate the return of the younger son because he was lost and is now 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 Western Catholic tradition, this parable is usually read on the fourth Sunday of Lent (in Year C),[1] while in the Eastern Orthodox Church it is read on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.


  • Narrative 1
  • Context and interpretation 2
  • Commemoration and use 3
    • Orthodox 3.1
    • Catholic 3.2
  • In the arts 4
    • Art 4.1
    • Stage 4.2
    • Popular music 4.3
    • Literature 4.4
  • Similar parable in Mahayana Buddhism 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


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 couldn't wait for his father's death for his inheritance, he wanted it immediately. The father agrees and divides his estate between both sons. Both the son's asking and the father's granting of this request would have been shocking to Jesus' Jewish audience.

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:

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:

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

Context and interpretation

Engraving of the Prodigal Son as a swineherd by Hans Sebald Beham, 1538.

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."[2] The father's joy described in the parable reflects divine love,[2] the "boundless mercy of God,"[3] and "God's refusal to limit the measure of his grace."[2]

The request of the younger son for his share of the inheritance is "brash, even insolent"[4] and "tantamount to wishing that the father was dead."[4] 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.[4]

The mention of the son's longing to eat with the swine in Luke 15:16 could refer to how the Pharisees viewed the sinners (and Christ, for eating with them) in Luke 15:2. The Pharisees, caught up in their ideas of ritual cleanliness, might have thought of these people as filthy pigs.[5]

On the son's return, the father treats him with a generosity far more than he has a right to expect.[4] Some have suggested that this mirrors what Christians should do after sinning: feel contrition and return to the heavenly Father, Who will graciously welcome them back.[5]

The older son, in contrast, seems to think in terms of "law, merit, and reward,"[4] rather than "love and graciousness."[4] He may represent the Pharisees who were criticizing Jesus.[4]

The father, who represents God, implies to the older son that his love for both sons is not dependent upon their performance, but their proximity, or closeness, with the father.

Commemoration and use


The Eastern Orthodox Church traditionally reads this story on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son,[6] 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 [7][8] He also explored the issues raised by this parable in his second encyclical Dives in misericordia (Latin for Rich in Mercy) issued in 1980.[9]

In the arts

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.
James Tissot - The Return of the Prodigal Son (Le retour de l'enfant prodigue) - Brooklyn Museum


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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

Notable adaptations for performance include an Sergei Prokofiev, a 1957 ballet by Hugo Alfvén,[13] and an opera, The Prodigal Son by Benjamin Britten (1968).

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.[14]

Popular music

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. 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. 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 is the first posthumous release by piano player and gospel singer Keith Green (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,[15] 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.[16] 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 Irish 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.


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.[17] 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.[18]

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem[19] giving an interpretation of the younger brother's perspective.[20]

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is also a recurring theme in the works of

  • Leaving Home
  • In a Foreign Country
  • Returning Home
  • The Brother
  • The Lost Son - the Prodigal Son retold for children (text and audio)

External links

  • Wiggins, James, 2010. What Did Jesus Teach? A Detailed Survey of His Parables ISBN 978-1477699065
  • David A. Holgate, Prodigality, liberality and meanness in the parable of the prodigal son: a Greco-Roman perspective on Luke 15.11-32, Continuum, 1999, ISBN 1-84127-025-3.
  • Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, "Comments on Fourth Sunday of Lent Readings", Zenit News Agency, March 17, 2007.
  • Rev. George Dimopoulos, "The Prodigal Son", "Orthodoxy and the world", February 24, 2008.
  • G. Campbell Morgan, "The Parable of the Father's Heart."
  • E. Di Rocco (a cura di), Il romanzo della misericordia. La parabola del figliol prodigo nella letteratura in Studium, 4 (2013), nº 109
  • E. Di Rocco, Leggere le Scritture con le Scritture: Ugo di Santo Caro e Nicola di Lira lettori di Luca (15, 11-32), in Studium, 4 (2013), nº 109.
  • E. Di Rocco (a cura di), Il romanzo della misericordia. La parabola di Luca nella letteratura moderna e contemporanea. in Studium, 2 (2014), nº 110.
  • E. Di Rocco, Heimkehr: wohin?, Auszug: wohin?: la parabola esistenziale del figliol prodigo nella letteratura del Novecento. in Studium, 2 (2014), nº 110.

Further reading

  1. ^ "Lent 4C". Retrieved 2013-09-12. 
  2. ^ a b c Richard N. Longenecker, The Challenge of Jesus' Parables, Eerdmans, 2000, ISBN 0-8028-4638-6, pp. 201-213.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ a b "Love, Minus the Condemnation". Answering Protestants. Retrieved 2013-10-18. 
  6. ^ "Scripture Readings Throughout the Year". Retrieved 2008-11-09. 
  7. ^ The post-synodal apostolic exhortations of John Paul II by Catholic Church 1998 ISBN 0-87973-928-2 pages 234-239
  8. ^ "Vatican website ''Reconciliatio et paenitentia''". Retrieved 2013-10-18. 
  9. ^ "Vatican website ''Dives in misericordia''". Retrieved 2013-10-18. 
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Craig, Hardin (April 1950). "Morality Plays and Elizabethan Drama". Shakespeare Quarterly 1 (2): 71.  
  13. ^ Don Michael Randel, The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, Harvard University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-674-37299-9, pp. 13-14,
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ BarlowGirl by BarlowGirl CD review at
  16. ^ Dustin Kensrue at
  17. ^ Deirdre LaNoue, The Spiritual Legacy of Henri Nouwen, Continuum, 2000, ISBN 0-8264-1283-1, p. 45.
  18. ^ Turnell, Martin. "André Gide and the Disintegration of the Protestant Cell". Yale French Studies (Yale University Press) (7): 21–31. 
  19. ^ "The Prodigal Son". Retrieved 2013-10-18. 
  20. ^ Andrew Keith Malcolm Adam, Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible: A reader, Chalice Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8272-2970-4, pp. 202-203.
  21. ^ Retrieved 2013-10-18. 
  22. ^ Retrieved 2013-10-18. 
  23. ^ Sinkler, Rebecca Pepper (February 13, 2015). "Sunday Book Review: 'A Spool of Blue Thread' by Anne Tyler".  
  24. ^ a b Lotus Sutra, Chapter 4, translated By H. Kern
  25. ^ 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
  26. ^ Nhất Hạnh, Thích (2003). Opening the Heart of the Cosmos. Parallax Press. pp. 37–41.  


See also

A similar parable of a lost son can also be found in the Mahayana Buddhist Lotus Sutra.[24] 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.[25] 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.[25] 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 and 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.[24] 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).[26]

Similar parable in Mahayana Buddhism

The Prodigal Son was also referred to in the play As You Like It, a pastoral comedy by William Shakespeare.

The theme of the Prodigal Son plays a major role in Anne Tyler's novel A Spool of Blue Thread. [23]


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