One of my favorite parables (and perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted) is the parable of the “prodigal” son. The word prodigal means basically means ‘wasteful.’ Prodigal does not appear in the Bible. Jesus simply tells the story, or parable. Parables are illustrative stories that do not give us much detail, names, dates, or places—they simply illustrate a point. The story of the prodigal son is a story of two lost boys. Neither boy is a believer. Only one ends up ‘saved.’ As you read the parable, remember to read it in context:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
Each of the sons represents a different people group. The good son represents the Pharisees and scribes who grumbled at and against Jesus’ ministry to the lost tax collectors and sinners. Like the Pharisees and scribes, the good son is outwardly religious, but his words and conduct reveal his legalistically dead, entitled, and embittered heart. The prodigal represents the “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors and sinners personify the immoral and the rebellious who are dead in their sins and trespasses. In reality, spiritually and eternally speaking, the good son and the prodigal are equally lost, with hearts dead and disrespectful toward their father (who represents our gracious God). They simply manifest their sinful and dead states in different ways, one more obvious than the other.
There are those who wish to misrepresent the prodigal as a child who has wandered away from the faith only to come to his senses and rededicate his life to God. Nothing can be further from accurate or the truth. The parable tells us that this boy was ‘dead’ (i.e. spiritually dead). In fact, the father, who personifies God, describes the prodigal as one who was once lost and is now found… as one who was dead but is now alive:
And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32)
The parable is all about the grace of God, a God who has mercy upon whom He has mercy and the danger of overlooking the spiritual condition of our outwardly moral (outwardly Christian) children whose hearts are spiritually dead. The parable of the prodigal son is about two lost boys and their gracious father who shows them both undeserved grace. With this in mind, read the parable for yourself (Luke 15: 11-32). One son is shown to have repented of his sin. The other son is shown to have failed to repent. Often, we overlook the behavior of a lost “good kid” because of outward conformity, rather than an inward change of heart and an eternal change of destination. Be careful.