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The Illustrated Life of Jesus: Understanding the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Updated on March 6, 2016

The Story of the Prodigal Son by Frans Francken

Frans Francken: The story of the prodigal son
Frans Francken: The story of the prodigal son | Source

Jesus Teaches in Parables

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch
Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch | Source

Why Jesus Used Parables

Many storytellers in the oral tradition used parables to illustrate a key point they were trying to make. Jesus, however, was the master of this style of teaching. He often used parables as a means to obscure His message from the Jewish leaders and others who hated Him and sought reasons to persecute Him. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is explaining to His disciples why He was willing to associate with so many sinful people. His followers included tax collectors and prostitutes, but He loved them as much as any of the other followers in his entourage.

The Skit Guys Present the Parable of the Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son Asks for His Inheritance Early

The Prodigal Son Receives His Rightful Inheritance by Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo
The Prodigal Son Receives His Rightful Inheritance by Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo | Source

Hey, Dad, I Kinda Wish You Were Dead

Jesus begins the parable by showing us this young man, who goes to his father and says, "Please give me my rightful inheritance." It's important to understand that this was an incredibly callous and unkind thing to do. He was essentially telling his father that he valued the money he would get upon his father's death more than he loved his father. He was due one-third of the family estate; his older brother would get two- thirds. Remarkably, the father gives him the money. There is no legal reason for him to do so, because the young man has no right to anything while his father remains alive. The father loves his son, and gives him his freedom.

In the same way, our heavenly Father loves us enough to make this kind of mistake all the time. We have free will, and if we want to leave the Lord behind and go our own way, He loves us enough to let us do that. God does not order us to obey Him against our will.

The Prodigal Son Spent His Money in Riotous Living by Franz Christoph Janneck

The Prodigal Son Spent His Money in Riotous Living by Franz Christoph Janneck
The Prodigal Son Spent His Money in Riotous Living by Franz Christoph Janneck | Source

The Prodigal Parties On... for Awhile

So, the Prodigal Son had what he wanted. He had cash in hand equal to one third of a rich man's estate! He could be very comfortable on that, if he played his cards right. Did he invest it? Did he get a job to supplement his income from the inheritance? Sadly, the answer is no. The Prodigal Son partied.

And partied.

He found the wine, women and song that his foolish heart had been craving, and he had a really wonderful time - for awhile. In the same way, when we follow our own way rather than God's way, we may feel like we've made a really good decision at first. We may enjoy short-term prosperity, make a name for ourselves among corrupt people or fulfill earthly desires, but these pursuits have a way of leading to bad consequences in the long run. Eventually the money ran out. The prodigal discovered, to his horror, that all those pretty ladies and good-time friends weren't so interested in hanging out with him anymore when he didn't have the cash to foot the bill anymore.

The Prodigal Son by Albert Anker

Albert Anker : The Prodigal Son
Albert Anker : The Prodigal Son | Source

Reduced to Tending Swine

Just as he was running out of money, famine hit the land. There were no jobs, no food, and no easy way for the young man to make money. Eventually, he hit bottom. The only job he could find was taking care of pigs. This was the lowest of the low; pigs were unclean animals to Jews, so he was doing a chore that his people regarded as vile and unholy. Even so, he stared hungrily at the carob pods the owners fed the pigs, and he longed to fill his aching belly with them. He wasn't allowed to do that, and nobody would give him anything to eat.

"I know what I will do" he said at last to himself. "I'm going to go back to my dad. He's going to be really angry at me, and I don't deserve forgiveness. But maybe he'll let me work for him. I could be one of his hired hands. They always ate well."

This moment for the prodigal is like the moment when we, as poor miserable sinners, recognize that we have fallen away from what the Lord wants us to do. Maybe we've lost a fortune, as this young man had. Maybe we are coming to grips with the evil of our ways, or maybe we just miss God. Then it is up to us to return home to God. And, like the young man, we must admit that the breech is entirely our own fault. We must repent our sins, and accept the fact that God does not owe us mercy.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Il Guercino

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Il Guercino
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Il Guercino | Source

And now - another party!

The father of the prodigal son was watching for him. The Bible says that he saw his boy coming from a long way off. How many days, how many weeks or months had he been peering into the horizon, looking for a sign of his wayward boy? And when he saw his son come crawling home, the father didn't scold. He didn't nag or blame, and he certainly didn't turn him away, as the son had feared. Nope! He had his servants kill the fatted calf for a big coming home celebration! There was food and wine and song, and the boy was astonished when his father dressed him up in clean clothes and put the family signet ring on his finger.

Welcome back, son! It was as simple as that.

In the same way, God waits and hopes that His children will return home after they fall astray. All the sinner has to do to win back the Father's love is to accept the fact that he or she is a sinner. There is no need to pay a debt; Jesus has already done that for us. We can be full sons in our Father's house because Jesus has taken our sin away. All we have to do is accept His forgiveness.

Now, the prodigal's older brother was not happy with this arrangement. He had stayed on the estate and worked the ground very hard for his father. "Dad, you never even gave me a goat to share with my friends! My brother wasted a third of your estate? Why are you throwing a party for him?"

The father told the older son, "Your brother has lost his inheritance. Everything I have will someday be yours. But yes, I am going to celebrate today. We lost your brother, but he's come home. He was gone from us, but we still love him. And oh, I am SO glad that he is back!"

The older brother stands for the Pharisees and Jewish leaders who hated the sinners that flocked to Jesus for help. They didn't want to believe that sinful people could enter the kingdom of heaven; they wanted that honor to be reserved for people like themselves who always followed the Law scrupulously. They did not consider this; no person in the world except Jesus is sinless. In God's eyes we are all sinners, but we are also all people that He chooses, in His mercy and compassion, to love more deeply than we can comprehend.


The Parable of the Prodigal Son by Francken - 2!

Frans Francken the Younger did two composite paintings showing scenes from the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The first, shown above, highlights the son's heavy spending. This shows his return home.
Frans Francken the Younger did two composite paintings showing scenes from the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The first, shown above, highlights the son's heavy spending. This shows his return home. | Source

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