Parable of the Prodigal Son
The Prodigal Son, also known as Two Sons, Lost Son, The Running Father and The Loving Father is one of the parables of Jesus. It appears in only one of the Canonical gospels of the New Testament. According to the Gospel of Luke (Luke 15:11-32), a father gives his two sons his inheritance before he dies. The younger son, after wasting his fortune (the word 'prodigal' means 'wastefully extravagant'), goes hungry during a famine. He then returns home with the intention of begging to be employed and renouncing his kinship to his father. Regardless, the father finds him on the road and immediately welcomes him back as his son and holds a feast to celebrate his return. The older son refuses to participate, stating that in all the time he has worked for the father, he did not even receive a goat to celebrate with his friends. The father reminds the older son that everything the father has is the older son's (his inheritance) but that they should still celebrate the return of the younger son. It is the third and final part of a cycle on redemption, following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin.
The parable begins with a young man, the younger of two sons, who asks his father to give him his share of the estate. The implication is the son couldn't wait for his father's death for his inheritance, he wanted it immediately. The father agrees and divides his estate between both sons.
Upon receiving his portion of the inheritance, the younger son travels to a distant country and wastes all his money in extravagant living. Immediately thereafter, a famine strikes the land; he becomes desperately poor and is forced to take work as a swineherd. (This would have been abhorrent to Jesus' Jewish audience, who considered swine unclean animals.) When he reaches the point of envying the food of the pigs he is watching, he finally comes to his senses:
But when he came to himself he said, "How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough to spare, and I'm dying with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.'"
He arose, and came to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran towards him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
— Luke 15:17-20, World English Bible
The son does not even have time to finish his rehearsed speech, since the father calls for his servants to dress him in a fine robe, a ring, and sandals, and slaughter the "fattened calf" for a celebratory meal.
The older son, who was at work in the fields, hears the sound of celebration, and is told about the return of his younger brother. He is not impressed, and becomes angry:
But he answered his father, "Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him."
— Luke 15:29-30, World English Bible
The parable concludes with the father explaining that because the younger son had returned, in a sense, from the dead, celebration was necessary:
"But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found."
— Luke 15:32, World English Bible
Context and interpretation
This is the last of three parables about loss and redemption, following the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin, that Jesus tells after the Pharisees and religious leaders accuse him of welcoming and eating with "sinners." The father's joy described in the parable reflects divine love, the "boundless mercy of God," and "God's refusal to limit the measure of his grace."
The request of the younger son for his share of the inheritance is "brash, even insolent" and "tantamount to wishing that the father was dead." His actions do not lead to success, and he eventually becomes an indentured servant, with the degrading job of looking after pigs, and even envying them for the carob pods they eat.
The mention of the son's longing to eat with the swine in Luke 15:16 could refer back to how the Pharisees viewed the sinners (and Christ, for eating with them) in Luke 15:2. The Pharisees, caught up in their ideas of ritual cleanliness, might have thought of these people as filthy pigs.
On the son's return, the father treats him with a generosity far more than he has a right to expect. Some have suggested that this mirrors what Christians should do after sinning: feel contrition and return to the heavenly Father, Who will graciously welcome them back.
Commemoration and use
The Eastern Orthodox Church traditionally reads this story on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, which in their liturgical year is the Sunday before Meatfare Sunday and about two weeks before the beginning of Great Lent. One common kontakion hymn of the occasion reads,
I have recklessly forgotten Your glory, O Father;
And among sinners I have scattered the riches which You gave to me.
And now I cry to You as the Prodigal:
I have sinned before You, O merciful Father;
Receive me as a penitent and make me as one of Your hired servants.
In his apostolic exhortation titled Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (Latin for Reconciliation and Penance), Pope John Paul II used this parable to explain the process of conversion and reconciliation. Emphasizing that God the Father is "rich in mercy" and always ready to forgive, he stated that reconciliation is a gift on his part. He stated that for the Church her "mission of reconciliation is the initiative, full of compassionate love and mercy, of that God who is love." He also explored the issues raised by this parable in his second encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Latin for Rich in Mercy) issued in 1980.
In the arts
Of the thirty or so parables in the canonical Gospels, this was one of the four that were shown in medieval art almost to the exclusion of the others, but not mixed in with the narrative scenes of the Life of Christ (the others were the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Dives and Lazarus, and the Good Samaritan. The Labourers in the Vineyard also appears in Early Medieval works).
From the Renaissance the numbers shown widened slightly, and the various scenes – the high living, herding the pigs, and the return – of the Prodigal Son became the clear favourite. Albrecht Dürer made a famous engraving of the Prodigal Son amongst the pigs (1496), a popular subject in the Northern Renaissance. Rembrandt depicted several scenes from the parable, especially the final episode, which he etched, drew, or painted on several occasions during his career. At least one of his works, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, a portrait of himself as the Son, revelling with his wife, is like many artists' depictions, a way of dignifying a genre tavern scene - if the title was indeed the original intention of the artist. His late Return of the Prodigal Son (1662–1669, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) is one of his most popular works.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the theme was a sufficiently popular subject that the Prodigal Son Play can be seen as a sub-genre of the English morality play. Examples include The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, The Disobedient Child, and Acolastus.
Notable adaptations for performance include an 1869 oratorio by Arthur Sullivan, an 1884 cantata by Claude Debussy, a 1929 ballet choreographed by George Balanchine to music written by Sergei Prokofiev, a 1957 ballet by Hugo Alfvén, and an opera, The Prodigal Son by Benjamin Britten (1968).
Many of these adaptations added to the Biblical material to lengthen the story; for example, the 1955 film The Prodigal took considerable liberties, such as adding a temptress priestess of Astarte to the tale.
The parable is referenced in the last verse of the traditional Irish folk tune "The Wild Rover" ("I'll go home to me parents, confess what I've done / and I'll ask them to pardon their prodigal son").
Oblique adaptations include that by the Reverend Robert Wilkins, who told the story of this parable in the song "Prodigal Son", which is probably best known as a cover version by the Rolling Stones on their 1968 album Beggar's Banquet. The British heavy metal band Iron Maiden recorded a song titled "Prodigal Son", based on the parable of the same name, which appeared on their second release, Killers, in 1981. It could be argued that Kelly Willard's 1982 song, Make Me A Servant is based on what the son said to his father when he returned home. The Prodigal Son is the first posthumous release by piano player and gospel singer Keith Green (1983).
Detroit musician, Kid Rock, also recorded a song titled "Prodigal Son" which appeared on his second album The Polyfuze Method, in 1993. Kid Rock later re-recorded the track for his 2000 album The History of Rock. The Christian Rock trio BarlowGirl recorded the song "She Walked Away," influenced by the parable, as part of their 2004 self-titled album. "Indie" rock band Two Gallants covered the parable in the song "The Prodigal Son" on their 2006 album What the Toll Tells. Musician Dustin Kensrue wrote a song about the Prodigal Son entitled "Please Come Home" on the album of the same name released in 2007. Rock band Sevendust has a track titled "Prodigal Son" on their 2008 album, Chapter VII: Hope and Sorrow. The band Bad Religion has a song of the same title on their album New Maps of Hell. The band Extreme recorded a song titled "Who Cares?" which appeared on the album III Sides to Every Story, which is influenced by this parable. Brantley Gilbert released a song called "Modern Day Prodigal Son". British Reggae band Steel Pulse recorded a song titled "Prodigal Son" on their debut album Handsworth Revolution, recreating the Biblical story as a Rastafarian parable. The Post-Hardcore band "Gideon" released a song called "Prodigal Son" which appeared on their second album "Milestone." Christian rock outfit The Chinese Express opened and closed their 2006 release with a two part telling of the parable with songs titled "Said the son to the Father" and "Said the Father to the Son". Post-hardcore band "Jamie's Elsewhere" also released a song titled "Prodigal Son." The Irish rap group House of Pain references the parable in one of the verses of their song, "Jump Around". English indie rock band alt-J references the parable in the first verse of their song "Left Hand Free".
Another literary tribute to this parable is Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen's 1992 book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Story of Homecoming, in which he describes his own spiritual journey infused with understanding based on an encounter with Rembrandt's painting of the return of the Prodigal and deals with three personages: the younger, prodigal son; the self-righteous, resentful older son; and the compassionate father – all of whom the author identifies with personally. An earlier work with similarities to the parable is Le retour de l'enfant prodigue (The Return of the Prodigal Son), a short story by André Gide.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is also a recurring theme in the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, who interpreted the parable in a different way to the conventional reading. His version of the parable was not so concerned with redemption and the forgiveness of family; the love of the family, and human love in general, was seen as less worthy than unreciprocated love, which is the purest form of love. In loving the family less, the Son can love God more, even if this love is not returned.
Similar parable in Mahayana Buddhism
A similar parable of a lost son can also be found in the Mahayana Buddhist Lotus Sutra. The two parables are so similar in their outline and many details that several scholars have assumed that one version has influenced the other or that both texts share a common origin. However, an influence of the biblical story on the Lotus sutra is regarded as unlikely given the early dating of the stratum of the sutra containing the Buddhist parable. In spite of their similarities, both parables continue differently after the two meet for the first time at the son's return. In the biblical story, there is an immediate and reunion of the two. In contrast, in the Lotus sutra, the poor son does not recognize the rich man as his father. When the father sends out some attendants to welcome the son, the son panics, fearing some kind of retribution. The father then lets the son leave without telling him of their kinship. However, he gradually draws the son closer to him by employing him in successively higher positions, only to tell him of their kinship in the end. In the Buddhist parable, the father symbolises the Buddha, and the son symbolises any human being. Their kinship symbolises that any being has Buddha nature. The concealment of the kinship of the father to his son is regarded as a skillful means (Sanskrit:upāya).
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