Lost: A Sheep, A Coin, & 2 Sons – Part 4: The Prodigal Son #1

The Prodigal Son" Gerrit van Honthorst - 1623

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

Luke 15:11–32 contains the longest of the 3 parables recorded in Luke 15, and perhaps Jesus’ most famous parable (at least one of the top few): the parable of the Prodigal Son. The parable is often seen quite literally as a not much of a parable at all, but rather an example story about forgiveness. But as we will see, it definitely contains deeper, symbolic meaning, fits well the label of “parable,” and also goes very nicely with the previous two parables from this chapter. Make sure to read parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series of articles first, if you have not already read them.

Definition of a Parable

First let’s briefly look at what a parable is. Dictionary.com defines the word like this: “A statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like.” So a parable is essentially a story of some sort that parallels the actual meaning of the story. Thus the common root between “parable” and “parallel.” Based on that, if we take the “parable” quite literally as merely a fictional moral example, then it’s no longer a parable at all. However, if there’s deeper meaning understood through “comparison, analogy, or the like” then suddenly it’s both a parable, and something of a mystery to be studied and understood in new ways.

First Clues: The Target Audience

The first clue in my reading, is one we discussed in a previous post in this series, and that is the setting. Since it’s taken me so long to write this concluding article, let’s review those verses:

1. Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.
2. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. (Luke 15:1–2)

Christ initially is teaching publicans and sinners. Then the Pharisees and scribes come along and criticize him for doing so. That was the original context for all 3 of these parables. The first told of a lost sheep and a shepherd who leaves the flock to find it. As we learned already, the shepherd is not meant to represent Christ, but rather the priesthood leadership of the church. In the second story a woman, representative of the general membership of the church, looses a coin. Now we’re starting a 3rd story. Who is this one intended for?

Well, it’s probably for the Pharisees, or the publicans/sinners, or both. The earlier parables were very instructive for Jesus’ Apostles, as well as the other disciples who were surely there. They’ve been taught a lot about bringing these “lost sheep and/or coins” back into the fold. But it’s also very instructive for the Pharisees, who also represent church leadership under the law of Moses. So if they were listening they should have realized that it’s not wrong for Christ to be among the sinners, and that they should be going out of their way to bring these individuals back into the fold, rather than shunning them. This is where Jesus really comes down on them, driving the point home with a final parable that’s much longer and more reaching in it’s symbolism.

The Characters

Where there was essentially only 1 character in the first 2 parables, now there are at least 3 major players in this third parable: the father and his 2 sons. There appears a clue about who the father is, almost immediately, when Jesus starts the story by saying “a certain man had two sons.” While the phrase “a certain man” can be found elsewhere in the New Testament, referring to real people, in Christ’s parables, it often refers to God, or Adam (representative of all of us). The story that follows indicates that it’s most likely representative of Heavenly Father. Stephen L. Richards (1st councilor to President David O. McKay), said “I have always felt that the Savior intended the father in the parable to typify the Eternal Father of all of us”.1

If we go with that assumption, suddenly we see the younger son in a new light: he takes his inheritance and goes to “a far country.” The inheritance would be godlike attributes he inherited from his Heavenly Father: a physical body, a spirit, intelligence, the desire to do what is right, potential to become like God, and all good elements we each receive from being descendants of a Heavenly Father.

The Far Country

This son then “took his journey into a far country.” What is the mysterious place that he went to? The fact that it is far away is one clue. If it’s far away from the holy land, they’re not likely to be Israelites, or believers of any sort. In Luke 15:15 he “went and joined himself to a citizen of that country.” It was probably more like indentured servitude (the kinder form of slavery) than a job in the way we think of it. But we get another clue about what kind of a place this is, by his task: feed the pigs. Under Mosaic law, swine are unclean, and so is their meat. Jews don’t eat pork, so they have no purpose to keep pigs, feed them, etc. Now it’s clear that this is an unholy place filled with pagans who worship sinful things.  The prodigal has left the presence of Heavenly Father and went to earth, mortal life.

Notice two other other things about this part of the story: 1) he “joined himself to a citizen of that country”; and 2) he is assigned to feed swine. So if this is a land of sinners, and he’s a slave to one of the people of that land, Jesus is telling us that he’s a slave to his sins. Then again, his job–the only opportunity he has to survive in the famine–is to feed swine, an animal that is unclean and unholy. So Christ is reiterating the same point: he’s feeding his sinful appetites, his base desires. And he’s a slave to them, he has little power to do anything else. So it’s not just about going to earth, but also completely away from God.

That leads us to examine the famine. It’s obviously a famine of freedom to choose, happiness, blessings, and the love of God. His heart is set upon sinful things, and so he’s experiencing a spiritual famine of all this is good, beautiful, joyful, peaceful, and filled with love. The famine symbolizes the resulting destitution of the spirit that follows commitment to evil, to sin. The implication is that an individual could stay close to God, in this life, if he didn’t give-in to the natural man.

Squandering God-Given Talents

Isn’t that exactly what we do when we sin? Or if somebody chooses to live a sinful life, isn’t that exactly what they do? They “waste” their godlike attributes, talents, and gifts, on the things of the world. Instead of their mind, body, and physical intimacy being beautiful and sacred things, they’re squandered on mere pleasure, degraded by lack of control, and often worn out to the point of failing to function correctly. As C.S. Lewis put it:

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.2

First Indications of Change

The fact that he finally is so hungry that he want’s to eat the pods that he’s feeding the pigs tells us something as well: he’s hit “rock bottom” as they say. He’s at a point where his sinful life can’t sustain him anymore. It’s that moment where the heroin addict realizes they’re about to kill themselves if they shoot-up one more time, or the sex addict realizes that their life is absolutely worthless and they’ve lost every thing that really mattered, because they won’t stop being pursuing sexual pleasures.

Jesus then throws in one other little detail: “and no man gave unto him.” Other translations of the Bible add the word “anything” on the end. So basically, Satan abandoned him. There’s no reward at the end of the path of darkness. He’s left completely alone, with nobody and nothing but his sinful nature. He doesn’t even have the means to really feed his sins anymore. There’s no money left to buy another dose, no strength left to even try to steal them. People he called friends are gone since the money has run out.

In Part 5 we’ll finish the parable, exploring it’s other meanings.

2 thoughts on “Lost: A Sheep, A Coin, & 2 Sons – Part 4: The Prodigal Son #1

  1. Thank you for this! This is wonderful. I have thought about it likewise; however, I didn't see all of the symbolism in it. I am grateful for such insights, because it confirms to me that the education that we receive from this gospel is complete.

    Maggie- CA

  2. Was there ever a part 5 to this series? I am an early morning seminary teacher and was looking for ways to expand my lesson when I discovered this site and this series of articles on Luke 15. Your insights on the symbolism of the parables is fascinating and will lend itself beautifully to class discussion. I have three senior boys who are wonderful scriptorians and I look forward to sharing your insights with them especially.
    Thanks for sharing and please let me know where I can find Part 5.

    Maria — KS

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