In the Old Testament of the Bible, there are many distinct modes through which the text exhibits the basic morals with the help of prophecy, narratives, apocalyptic literature, and poetry. Of all the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, the most common is the parable that is aimed to demonstrate a lesson with the help of a comparison and contrast story having elements of fiction in it. “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” is the story found in the fifteenth chapter of Luke from verses 11 to 32, proclaimed to teach forgiveness. This paper examines the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” taught by Jesus, the literary analysis and interpretation of the theme of the parable, and its practical application.
The Literary Theme of “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” – God’s Redemptive Grace
“The Parable of the Prodigal Son” might be viewed as the last installment in a trilogy of parables about God’s redemptive grace. This parable throws emphasis on God seeking sinners through His unconditional love, redemption, and forgiveness rather than harsh judgement. The prodigal son was the lost son in the parable who was an abuser of unearned favor or grace because he had a loving father, inheritance, future, good provision, and everything that may be required for a contented life. However, he traded all that luxuries for temporal pleasures because of his rebellious nature, but came back to his father after realizing his mistakes “for the father is the unifying figure who welcomes home both the prodigal son and his brother because he is evenhanded” (Kistemaker). In the context of the contemporary world, the allegory of this parable is crystal clear as there is a father, “God”, and two sons, “children of God”, who stray from the path of righteousness into the life of sins. One wayward son decides to live a dissolute life forgetting God and committing sins while insulting his father’s honor and love leaving in haste for some far country. However, winning such people back to the heavenly side or righteous path or those who preserve the will to reshape their lives deserve a second chance in life. This portrays the positive influence of a person having a warm heart to be able to forgive and cherish others without reflecting on the wrongdoings. Every human is inclined towards wrongs, so we should learn to forgive others for being free from adverse energies that bind human beings and their actions.
“The Parable of the Prodigal Son” as an Allegory
The allegory is surely emblematic of the prodigal son (children of God, meaning us) wish to make the Lord a distant memory as he wronged the loving father (God) bears for him (us). The parable refers to a life lesson that this prodigal son (God’s children) must humble himself in willing to serve God in any way because we all need God after all, so that we might be forgiven. After the return of the prodigal son from some distance away, father deliberately forgave him as he knew that his younger wayward son would return to him. This smart detail of Jesus’ account suggests that although the soul of the prodigal son was “dead” to his father (God), the returning to father’s love (God’s mercy) has ensured that the life of the prodigal son is brought back to life and the soul of that child would survive forever (Kistemaker). On the other hand, the elder son’s behavior could be forgiven for being cheesed off as his father told him, “thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine” (Luke 15:11-32 NIV). The elder son has always been a steadfast child who always obeyed and honored his father. In the same way, those who obey God, remain faithful to Him, and follow His commandments will be blessed, respected, and valued by God the Father (Forbes). However, Jesus highlights the fact through this parable that the sinners who lost and came back to the righteous track, having left it before, is something winning and therefore need to be celebrated “this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:11-32 NIV).
According to the parable, the complaints of the older son were due to the father’s reception as he was happy to rejoice in his lost son when he came back, but the elder son did not feel any happiness towards his younger brother. He always told his father, “This son of yours,” rather than calling his brother his own to show mercilessly that he did not even feel the need to claim him as his brother. Though they were brothers, the elder son had always been working hard, and the younger son misused his share of the property and had gone away for several years. However, when he arrived back home, the elder son was not there to welcome him as he might have been working on the farm somewhere, whereas the younger one came back with nothing. The elder son was concerned as the father had never acknowledged him for a bit of hard work, he had been doing but celebrated the coming back of the younger son, who never obeyed his father. Thus, the complaints of the elder son suggest that he felt despised and unappreciated as he had a long-smoldering bitter indignation at having been treated unjustly (Kristanto).
Literary Elements in “the Parable of the Prodigal Son”
The parable uses different literary elements such as irony, allusion, allegory, symbolism, metaphors, and oxymoron that accentuate the message of the text taught by Jesus and written by Luke. Firstly, “the Parable of the Prodigal Son” is an allegory where every aspect of the story is figurative and has a larger sense of it. Secondly, the story uses oxymoron as a literary device when the father tells his elder son that “For this son of mine was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:11-32 NIV). In these lines, two contradictory terms “dead” and “alive” as well as “lost” and “found” are used. Thirdly, the ironic part of the parable is that the son who always obeyed his father was never acknowledged, but the wayward son was taken back by his father with no sign of remorse. This has made the hardworking and obedient son envious of his younger brother, and he refused to celebrate the return of his brother. Fourthly, allusion is utilized in the parable “I would have him prodigal” (Luke 15:11-32 NIV) to express the father’s wish, who wants his son to come back home like a prodigal son. Next, the metaphor utilized in the parable is “the husks” that pigs usually eat which represents ‘worthless knowledge’ and symbolizes the return of the prodigal son for the “bread” of his father.
Lastly, the character of two sons symbolizes how we can choose the person we want to be in our lives because we are not guided, but we have to choose the path in the denouement of our lives. Moreover, the representation of “the house” in the parable clearly symbolizes the Lord’s castle, Heaven and how human beings always return home after repentance as long as we are alive. The older brother in the story is the symbol of the devil as he once was submissive, obedient, and dedicated to his work, but his pride has turned him into an evil being. The way father turned down his complaints suggests how easy it is for us to overcome bad intentions and the nefarious designs of others “the father did not use his position to underestimate the others” and the father was a “wise man full of self-control and patience” (Kristanto). Contrary to the elder one, his wayward sibling turned out to be the one who returned home as the “sinner turned as a lectionary parallel to his father, God” (Duncan and Derrett). Furthermore, the overall tone of the parable seems to be the father’s compassion and love for the wayward son, which symbolizes the hope human beings must have in their Lord God that they would be forgiven and saved if they repent and return to their father, God.
Practical Application of the Literary Interpretation of Prodigal Son
As Christians, we need to think about whether we have earned the grace of God or if anything similar happens to us that happened to the younger prodigal son of the father. Sometimes we think that we know everything and have everything, which makes us squander the grace of the Lord and yet at any turning point in our life, we realize that we are strayed, destitute, and dirty. At the point of this realization, we run back into the arms of Gracious, who forgives us and saves us as the prodigal son of a father in the parable returned to his home that overjoyed his father. We also need to analyze our hearts if we think ourselves superior to other prodigal sons that return to their true father God after repentance. If so, we should ask for the redemption of our sins because pride is a foolish sin that should never come between people and also pray to God that He transforms our hearts. This would help us join the ceremony of reception and celebration that a lost prodigal son has come back home unlike the elder brother who upon receiving father’s orders for feast “arouses the indignation of the elder brother, who resents such treatment of one so undeserving” (Forbes).
The reality of giving into temptation in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is that all human beings are sinners except Jesus Christ, who was fully man and fully divine in his nature, so we fell short of God’s glory as Adam did when disobeyed his father, God. This parable also begins with the same theme of giving into temptation when the younger son asks his father, “Give me the part of the estate that lays upon me” (Luke 15:11-32 NIV), and then faces the consequences of that temptation as he returns with nothing in his hands. Not only has this parable taught the realism of giving into temptation but also the reality of jealousy and wickedness due to sibling rivalry. The elder brother said to his father, “I have been serving you for so many years and I have never passed any command of you, but when this son of yours came, you sacrificed the fattened calf for him” (Luke 15:11-32 NIV). This reflects the kind of superiority he felt in his heart over his younger brother. The words “this son of yours” intensify the situation that the elder one does not want to claim the younger one as his brother even, which raises a conflict between the two brothers and the father. However, the parable concludes with fatherly wisdom when the father advises his elder son that it is significant to look past for any earlier mistakes that any of your relations committed and praise the repentance and return of his younger brother. This illustration is drawn by Jesus to help people remain optimistic that God is always waiting for his people to return.When we return to Him after repentance, He places humans back at the table where they belong.Indeed, God is always ready to welcome us into His gracious arms.
In a nutshell, the literary interpretation of the parable is that true honor and bonding can never be forced into a relationship. This parable conveys the realism of giving into temptation, the forgiveness of a loving father, and jealousy due to siblings’ rivalry, which sends a typical biblical lesson of forgiveness for wayward people and sinners. The literal meaning behind this parable imparts the underlying message of forgiveness, repentance, unconditional love, and returning back to our father God even when we have made serious mistakes. Even though the younger son was detached from his family and taken over by his sinfulness, he realized his mistakes and returned home. This event signifies that when human beings stray away, our father God always keeps an eye on us, hoping that we will get back to him once we realize our mistakes. The moral lesson this parable reiterates is that true repentance over sins is reciprocated with forgiveness, broken relationships can be mended, and the lost can be found.
Duncan, J., and M. Derrett. “Law in the New Testament: The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” New Testament Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 1967, pp. 56–74.
Forbes, Greg. “Repentance and Conflict in the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15: 11-32).” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 42, no. 2, 1999, p. 211.
Kistemaker, Simon J. “Jesus as Story Teller: Literary Perspectives on the Parables.” The Master’s Seminary Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 2005, pp. 49–55.
Kristanto, Johan. “The Parable of the Prodigal Son: The Idea of Grace.” Widya Warta, vol. 2, no. 39, 2015.
Luke 15:11-32 NIV – The Parable of the Lost Son – Jesus – Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2015%3A11-32&version=NIV. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022.