How the Story of the Prodigal Son Reveals that God is Unconditional Love
The prodigal son story is actually not about the prodigal son. Jesus told the story in order to show us who God the Father really is, and what His heart, attitudes, and love are like. And so it is Jesus' ultimate revelation of the unconditional Love of His Father for every single human being.
You have probably heard the prodigal son story many times. But in this article, you will gain some new insight. Jesus used all sorts of imagery and symbolism that would have had special meaning to the Jewish culture two thousand years ago. This imagery and symbolism does not mean as much in today's age, because our culture is so different. So we are going to translate the story into what Jesus' intended audience probably heard when they first listened to it.
Now, before we get into the story, it's important to realize why Jesus is telling it. He doesn't just sit down one day and say, "Hey, guys, I've got a great story for you." He has a purpose. Luke 15 tells us that the Pharisees and scribes were getting very annoyed that all of the sinners and tax collectors were coming to see Jesus. They said, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." They made that as a judgment against Jesus. Sinners and tax collectors were seen by the ancient Jewish culture as "unclean." If you spent time with unclean people, and even went into their homes and ate with them, you would become unclean, too. So the Pharisees and scribes were accusing Jesus of not being from God, because God would not "dirty" Himself by hanging out with sinners. Jesus tells them the prodigal son story in response to their accusation. He is correcting their very mistaken view of what God is like.
The story goes like this…
Once upon a time there was a father who had two sons.
The father represents God. Everything you see the father doing in this story is what Jesus is saying God is like.
One day the younger son came to him and said, "Dad, give me my share of the inheritance." And so the father did.
Think about this for a minute… who asked for his share of the inheritance? The younger son. Under traditional Jewish culture, the younger son wouldn't have a claim to anything, unless the father willed it to him. It would ordinarily have gone to the oldest son. So the younger son's demand is not only disrespectful, it's inappropriate.
But worse than that – think about when a child normally receives an inheritance – isn't it when the parent dies? In effect, the boy has now given his dad the ultimate insult – "Dad, you're as good as dead to me. All I care about is your money. Give it to me now so that I can get out of here and do whatever I want."
To the people listening to this story for the first time, the boy's actions would have been completely disgusting. They wouldn't have just thought, "The boy is a brat." They would have thought he was a total barbarian who has just shamed his father and his whole family. They are probably expecting that the father in the story is going to disown the kid – or at least become furious and launch into a bitter argument with him. But the father doesn't do either. Instead, he divides his property and gives the boy half. This is shocking to the audience. No father would have done that. But Jesus is revealing that God's love is unconditional. One part of loving someone unconditionally is to respect that person's freedom. God will not force you to accept His love. He will not yell at you or disown you when you reject Him. He will let you have free will.
A few days later, the boy took off to a foreign country where he blew all of his father's hard-earned money on wine, women, fast camels, and other pleasures.
Not only has the boy shamed his father and committed the ultimate insult against him, he has also shamed his people and committed the ultimate insult against his country. At home he's part of the "chosen people." But he ditches his people and goes to live with foreigners, making him a traitor – and a traitor of the worse kind, because these new people are not even Jews. They are probably Gentiles – the unsaved people. But then it gets even worse. The boy breaks all the laws of Torah (the Jewish law) by spending his father's money on corrupt living. So not only has he shamed his father and his country – now he has shamed his God and committed the ultimate insult against the religious law. But just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, it does…
When all the money was gone, a great famine struck the land, and the boy found himself starving to death. So he went to work for a local farmer, taking care of his pigs. He was so poor that he even wished he could eat the rotten slop the pigs were eating. But no one would give him any.
So now the boy has reached rock bottom. He has committed the worse kinds of sins against his family, his country, and his religion, and now he is living with pigs. He is starving to death, but the local people think so little of him that they won't even give him the food they are giving to the pigs.
This is a really big deal. In the Jewish culture of the 1st century (and even for many Jews today), pigs are considered really unclean. You don't eat pigs. And you certainly don't live with them. If you touch a pig, you get "pigness" all over you, and you have to go through years of ritual cleansing to get it off of you. But this boy is living with pigs. He is touching them and even wishing he could eat what they are eating. That would be utterly horrifying to the audience Jesus was addressing. He is not only completely spiritually impure by the evil life he has been living and the shame he has brought on his family and culture, but now he is also completely physically impure.
The audience probably thinks that the story will end with the rotten boy rotting in the rotten pig pen for the rest of his rotten life. But that's not what happens….
Suddenly the boy comes to his senses. In the pigpen, with "pigness" all over him, he figures a possible way out. He says to himself, "How many of my father's servants have more food than they can eat, but here I am starving to death. I will get up, go to my father, and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against you and against God, and I no longer deserve to be called your son. Just treat me as one of your servants.'" Believing that his father might be merciful enough to take him back under that condition, he leaves the pigpen to begin the long journey home.
Now, while Jesus' audience is probably surprised that the boy would dare to head back to his father's house, they're pretty sure they know what's going to happen when he gets there.
Remember that the boy has totally shamed his family in every way imaginable. The father would have a right under the law to dispatch a band of servants to keep the boy from setting foot on the property. It's possible he might take the boy up on his offer to be treated like a servant for the rest of his life. But it's more likely that he will disown the boy and banish him forever. In Jesus' story, none of those things happen.
While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him…
"Wait," Jesus' audience is thinking. "That can't be right. If the boy was still a long way off, how could the father have caught sight of him? Unless he was… looking for the boy! What kind of story is this, anyway?" Apparently, it's a story about a father who is longing for his son to come home.
…and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.
Uh oh. The father completely ignores all rules of logic and justice and runs out to where the boy is. First of all, no father would have disgraced himself even further by going out to meet the boy on the boy's level. Secondly, what do you suppose happens when you touch a person who has pigness all over him? That's right – you get pigness all over you! But this father doesn't seem to care. He embraces his son and then kisses him!
The father's love overpowers the boy's sinfulness and ritual impurity. Even though the boy did everything he could to destroy his own goodness, the father sees a spark of goodness when his son recognizes that he needs his father.
What's very curious is that the boy tries to deliver the speech that he has probably been rehearsing over and over on the way home, but the father cuts him off and won't even let him finish…
"Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son." But his father ordered his servants to put the finest robe on his shoulders, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. "Take the fatted calf and slaughter it, and let's have a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life." Then the celebration began.
Notice that the father cares about the fact that his son is not wearing shoes. This indicates that God is not just concerned with your spiritual needs. He also cares about your physical needs. What's more, the father orders that a robe be brought to the son. The robe is a sign of aristocracy or royalty. So, in effect, the father is saying, "Treat my son like royalty."
Secondly, the father tells the servants to put a ring on the boy's finger. In 1st Century Jewish culture, the ring was probably a signet ring with something like a family code of arms on it, meaning that you belonged to a particular family. That's where we get our tradition of the wedding ring. So the father is inviting the boy back into the family. And it's not just a partial invitation, like saying, "Well… you can come back, but you have to live in the spare bedroom off the servant's quarters, because you're still ritually impure, and I don't want to get pigness on me." No… the ring symbolizes that the father will pay no attention to the boy's request to be hired on as a servant. He is welcoming the boy back into the family one hundred percent.
Now, you might be asking yourself, "Wait a minute… why one hundred percent? And why throw a party? That doesn't sound right. The boy just spent the last year insulting and shaming everybody and everything in sight, and he gets a party? He committed unspeakable crimes against his father, brother, friends, country, the law, and even God. Furthermore, he's not even really sorry that he hurt everybody… he's just sorry that he was starving to death in the pigpen. That's the only reason he came home. And the father takes him back 100%?" Yes, but that's the power of God's unconditional love. Obviously, the boy is not perfectly sorry for his sins. Perfect sorrow would mean he feels sorry because he loves his family and his country and his God, and feels bad that he hurt them and wants to make it right. But instead, he is imperfectly sorry because he doesn't want to die. His motivation is fear of death, so he is still being selfish. But he has taken the first step towards love by realizing that he needs his father. God's love is so unconditional that He doesn't have to wait for your love to be perfect in order to save you.
You would be right to suspect that the boy will have to do some apologizing when he gets inside the house, will have to do some work to patch up the relationships he broke, and will have to learn how to move from fear to real love. But the father won't make the son do that all at once, and he won't make the boy do it by himself. The boy is too weak to do it by himself, and the father knows it. The boy needs his father's help to get there. So the father celebrates because the boy has taken the first important step. He has squeaked out the tiniest little, "Help me, Dad!"
Now, it would seem that the story should end here. Jesus has just told the perfect story to reveal that God's love is unconditional. But there's more...
All this time, the older son has been working hard in his father's fields. In fact, he is probably carrying a double load now, ever since his rotten brother left the country. To the people listening to Jesus' story, the older son has done everything right by honoring his father and being loyal to the family. One day as he is returning from work, he hears music, dancing, and laughing coming from his father's house, and calls a servant over to ask what's going on.
You can imagine how nervous the servant feels to break the news.
"Oh…. You know that younger brother of yours? The one who insulted and shamed your whole family, betrayed your country, and dissed the entire Jewish law? Well, he's back, and your father has just invited him back into the family one hundred percent. They're inside now celebrating and eating the fatted calf."
This news is so incredibly unreal that the older son can't comprehend it. It doesn't make any sense. He figured that his bum brother would probably blow all the money and try coming back, but the father had rights. The law would have allowed him to deal out all kinds of punishments. He feels like a knife has just been stuck in his heart. And so he refuses to come into the house.
Isn't that how all of us would feel? But when the father hears of this, he does another unthinkable thing. Normally, a father in this circumstance would have expected the older son to respect his authority, or at least to come to him if he had a complaint. But this son thinks he knows better than his father, and wants his brother to rot. In a different way, he is now "disowning" his father by refusing to go into the house. The father knows that he has to show his unconditional love to his older son too, or his older son will get swallowed up in his own pigpen of pride, anger, and self-righteousness. So, even though the older son is being completely disrespectful by refusing to go in the house, watch what happens next…
The father humbled himself again and went out to meet his older son, asking him to come into the house.
In fact, the word Jesus used was that the father went out and "begged" his son to come into the house. To beg your son to do anything would have been completely out of place. But that's what God does for us. God would do far more than beg us to come back into the house – He would allow His only Son to sacrifice Himself totally in a humiliating and painful death, if that's what it takes for us to trust His love.
Furious, the older son declares, "Why would I come into your house after what you did to me? Here I have been loyally working for you all these years without complaining. I've never once disobeyed you, and you've never even given me so much as a goat to share with my friends. But when your son (notice how he won't even call the kid "my brother") comes back from living a life of sin with your money, you fire up the barbeque and have a party with the fatted calf. No way am I coming in."
So the father answers, "My son, you are here with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate because your brother was dead and has come back to life again. He was lost and is found."
In other words, the father is showing the older son that mercy and love is far more powerful than simply wanting justice to be done. He is saying, "Look for the spark of goodness in your brother. It's still there, even though he's done his best to try to extinguish it. What a huge waste it would be to take his life and completely squash it. Far better to resurrect the life and bring joy out of misery. All of the family was hurting by the loss of your brother. This is the way to bring healing back to the entire family."
Now, remember who Jesus' audience was, and why He began telling the story in the first place. Jesus is so clever that he has written the Pharisees and scribes into the story! They had been complaining to Jesus, saying, "You can't be from God. All this time we have been the loyal ones, obeying the law and serving God. But then you go out and welcome sinners and eat with them. We're not following you anywhere." And Jesus responds by saying, in effect: "Yes, you have done a good job obeying the law, and because of that, everything I have is yours. But there's so much more than just the law. Please, never place burdens so heavy on your brother's back that he can't lift them. Every human life is precious and good and valuable. Don't turn your back on any human life, no matter how evil it may seem. The most wasted life can still be redeemed, because God's love is unconditional. If it were not, then He wouldn't be God. So come into the house and find perfect happiness through perfect mercy, forgiveness, and love."
What this part of the story shows is that Jesus longed for the salvation of even the worst sinners of all – the arrogant and self-righteous ones who thought they knew better than God. He would humble Himself and die on a cross even for them. Even for us.