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Understanding the Customs in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Updated on September 5, 2017
revmjm profile image

Rev. Margaret Minnicks writes for HubPages and Blasting News. She loves sharing interesting information with people all over the world.

You can read the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32; however, there is no way you can understand it completely unless you understand the customs that are found therein. If you read this article all the through, I promise you will learn more about the Parable of the Prodigal Son than you knew before,

First of all, you must understand that a parable is a story with a beginning, ending, and a plot conveying one main idea usually though of as a moral.

Secondly, you must understand that Jesus was provoked to tell these three parables when the Pharisees complained that Jesus was socializing with sinners and tax collectors.

Thirdly, you must understand that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the last one in a trilogy of three parables. All three parables have the same theme: lost and found. Jesus told all three parable at one sitting, but preachers usually preach only one and that one is the longest one about the prodigal son. All of them must be taught together for effectiveness.

Fourthly, you must understand that the word "prodigal" means "wasteful,"

Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7)
The first parable is about 100 sheep and one wanders away leaving the 99. Then the shepherd leaves the 99 to go after the one. That which was lost is now found.

Parable of the Lost CoIn (Luke 15:8-10)
The second parable is about a woman who had ten coins and lost one. Therefore only 9 were left. Like the sheep, the set was incomplete with one missing. The woman searched to find the missing coin because it was not just a coin. It was part of a charm bracelet that her husband had given her and it was grounds for divorce if she didn't find it before he came home. She did find it and rejoiced with her neighbors because that which was lost was now found.

After understanding the first two parable, you are now ready to focus on the third and longest of the parable in this trilogy.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:32 )
This parable is loaded with broken customs. Understanding the customs will help you understand the parable.

Custom #1 was when the younger son said, "Father, give me my share of the estate." (Luke 15:12) This request was both disrespectful and irregular because normally an inheritance is given only after the father has died. By asking for the inheritance, younger son broke the family ties and treated his father as though he was already dead. When the father divided his inheritance, it was equivalent to dividing his life.

By receiving the inheritance, the younger son gave up any further claim on his father's life or estate, as he himself acknowledges later.

Custom #2 was when the younger Jewish son set off for a distant country--to a Gentile country. After he spent everything, in a Gentile country, away from his Jewish family, he goes to the only source of survival that he could -- to a Gentile who orders him to feed his pigs. This was an abomination to Jews.

For a Jew to even touch a pig meant defilement. For a Jew to feed a pig was great humiliation. For a Jew to eat food that the pigs had touched was to be degraded beyond belief. When the prodigal (wasteful) son comes to his senses about his situation, he returns home.

Custom #3 When the father sees the son afar off, he runs to meet him. It was regarded as a loss of dignity for a grown man to run.

Custom #4 The father kisses his son on the neck as a custom of greeting and an expression of forgiveness.

Custom #5 The father gives the younger son the best robe, a ring and sandals. These gifts are public indications that this son was no longer a servant but a son who has been welcomed back into his house.

Collectively, the items represented the father's best for his son. The ROBE belonged to his father, so this was symbolic of the father honoring the son and treating him like royalty and giving him the clothes off his own back.

The RING represents the father's authority and a symbol of reinstatement to sonship.

The SHOES or SANDALS illustrate that the son is not considered a slave or a servant any longer. Slaves and servants didn't wear shoes but would go barefooted. The prodigal son returned home as a slave.

Slaves carried and tied their masters' sandals. (Remember John the Baptist said he wasn't worthy to tie Jesus' shoes). The father was indicating to his son that he was receiving him back not as a servant but as a beloved son.


Custom #6 A fatted calf was killed to celebrate. Meat was not a part of the daily diet. It was normally reserved for special celebrations.

The moral of this parable is the same as the moral for the other two that came before it, However this parable is different because in the other two the owner sought the lost because they were not human. The father did not go after the son because the son had the capability to "come to his senses" and return on his own.

When Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son, He devoted the first part of the story to the younger son who left home and wasted his possessions with riotous living. The real lesson of this parable is that the loving and forgiving father took the lost son back. He forgave him and celebrated his return. The real "Hero" of this story is NOT the younger son. It is the loving and forgiving father.

The Older Brother
The older brother became angry and refused to go in to the celebration. He complained that all those years he had been slaving at home and in the fields and was obedient. Yet he claimed the family never gave him anything not even a young goat so he could celebrate with his friends. Then the older son reminded his father how he was treating the younger son who had squandered his money. (Luke 15:28-30)

It was hard for the older brother to accept his younger brother when he returned. In this part of the parable, the father's response is contrasted with the older brother's. The father forgave because he was filled with love. The older son refused to forgive because he was bitter about the younger son's return.

In this parable, the older brother represented the Pharisees. Like the Pharisees, the older brother was resentful that sinners were being welcomed. Like the Pharisees, the older brother thought he had sacrificed and done more and was treated unfair. The younger son got a fatted calf and the older brother didn't even get a goat. Like the Pharisees, the older brother was self-righteous who thought he deserved the recognition; yet it was his younger brother who received special attention.

It was fitting to celebrate because the lost was found. Like the Pharisees, the older son did not want to associate with sinners (his younger brother). This entire parable, like the other two that came before it, was told in response to the Pharisees murmuring about Jesus eating and gathering with tax collectors and sinners.

Hopefully, you have learned something about the Parable of the Prodigal Son that you did not know before. Keep these things in mind when you will it again with fresh eyes.


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    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 7 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks, lindatymensky, for your kind words. I am a teacher in a Bible College I started 14 years ago. I train ministers and those going into the ministry. So my hubs are based on the teachings that I do. Thanks for your encouraging words. They help me stay motivated to keep on doing what I do.

    • lindatymensky profile image

      lindatymensky 7 years ago

      Wow! This is wonderfully informative, revmjm! I just heard a sermon on this parable and didn't understand half as much as I did from reading this. You put the entire message in the context it was intended. Your church must be on fire for Christ! Your articles are always so powerful! You have a GREAT, GREAT ministry!

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 7 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Tamarajo, thank you so much. It really touched my heart when your quoted lines from the article. This proves that you read it and understood what I was trying to convey. That's why I love HubPages. I can teach people around the world.

    • Tamarajo profile image

      Tamarajo 7 years ago

      I really enjoyed this teaching. I loved the background information about customs on it..very helpful in understanding.

      I also enjoyed this quote:

      "The real "Hero" of this story is NOT the younger son. It is the loving and forgiving father."

      I liked as well that you made note that the Father did not go chasing after the younger son. He let him come to his senses.

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 7 years ago from Richmond, VA

      crystolite, thanks for reading and responding to my explanation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Glad to know you learned something from this article.

    • crystolite profile image

      Emma 7 years ago from Houston TX

      Nice piece of work that explained some things i didn't know before,thanks for sharing this piece of work and is also in line with my believe.

    • Betty Johansen profile image

      Betty Johansen 7 years ago

      Yeah, I understood that the elder brother had his share of the inheritance, which I presume was larger than that of the younger brother's. But money isn't everything. Sometimes a troublemaker child gets so much attention that the "good" or compliant child gets ignored. That's what disturbed me. And the article was published in a magazine years and years ago - water under the bridge now.

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 7 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Carolapple, thanks for reading and responding.

      Betty, I am glad you were enlightened by this article on The Parable of the Prodigal Son. Many times it is overlooked that the older son received his inheritance also because Luke 15:12 says, "So the father divided the property between them." But you are absolutely right. He said he didn't even get a goat whereby the younger son got a fatted calf that was reserved only for special occasions. There is so much that can be said about this parable. (Maybe you can rewrite your paper and include some of these things.)

    • carolapple profile image

      carolapple 7 years ago from Suffolk Virginia

      I enjoyed this hub and appreciate the added insight that we get from knowledge of the customs and mindset of the culture from which the story came. And congratulations on your 100 hubs! That is quite an achievement.

    • Betty Johansen profile image

      Betty Johansen 7 years ago

      revmjm, Thank you so much for this hub. I have always had a problem with the parable of the prodigal son because I only saw it in the context of the family. It seemed to me that the older son should have received some kind of acknowledgement for his faithful obedience and who could blame him for becoming bitter when the younger son was rewarded in the face of his great sin while he (the older brother) didn't receive anything like that kind of warm acknowledgement. BUT NOW, understanding that the older brother represented the Pharisees... Wow! It's a whole other story. Now it makes sense. I always had trouble with my interpretation, knowing the father represented God, but it still bugged me. I even wrote an article once about the importance of acknowledging compliant children and mentioned this parable. I might have never written the article if I'd read this hub first.

      I feel so enlightened! Even if this hub were the only blessing I ever received from hubpages, it would be well worth it. THANK YOU!!!

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 7 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks Marcella, for reading and responding to my article about "The Customs in the Parable of the Prodigal Son."

    • profile image

      Marcella Glenn 7 years ago from PA

      Well written.

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 7 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Dave, you are absolutely right. All of the lessons could not be addressed in this one article. My intent was to focus on the customs in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Perhaps the next time I write about this, I will include the smaller lessons.

    • Dave Mathews profile image

      Dave Mathews 7 years ago from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA

      revmjm: I voted this up and useful.

      The younger brother, like all children needed to be taught some very specific lessons about knowing his place, running away from home and family, waste,suffering consequences.

      The main morals from all of this story that I always see but are not mentioned or emphasized are "There's no place like home, Love, and Mercy.

      The Gentile shows mercy by allowing the boy to work, and through his work learn humility.

      The older brother shows love and respect for his father even though he questions the father's welcoming back of his brother and the father's lavishness toward his son who has returned the older son accepts the father's decision.

      There's no place like home is obvious, as the young boy demands and receives his inheritance, leaves home and wastes it and then has to come crawling back to home and family.

      Many smaller lessons are also built into this parable too.

    • FaithDream profile image

      FaithDream 7 years ago from (Midwest) USA

      Revmjm. 99 wow.. Congrats. You are an inspiration. I look forward to see the 100th.

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 7 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Yes, I call Luke 15 the lost and found chapter of the Bible when that which was lost has now been found.

      Guess what? That was my 99th hub. I want the 100th to be really special. So, I am seeking the Lord on what He wants me to write.

    • FaithDream profile image

      FaithDream 7 years ago from (Midwest) USA

      Nicely done revmjm. What was once lost has now been found, like the song amazing grace. A story surrounded with love by the father.