A reflection on Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:11-32

– by Don Schwager

How can you love someone dear to when they turn their back on you and still forgive them from the heart? The prophets remind us that God does not abandon us, even if we turn our backs on him (Micah 7:18). He calls us back to himself – over and over and over again.

Jesus’ story of the father and his two sons (sometimes called the parable of the prodigal son) is the longest and most moving parable in the Gospels. What is the main point or focus of the story? Is it the contrast between an obedient and a disobedient son, or is it between the warm reception given to the wayward son by his father and the cold reception given to him by the elder son?

Jesus contrasts the father’s lavish, merciful love with the eldest son’s harsh reaction to it. While the errant son had wasted his father’s money, the father maintained unbroken love for him. The son, while he was away, learned a lot about himself. And he realized that his father had given him love which he had not returned. He had yet to learn about the depth of his father’s love for him. His deep humiliation at finding himself obliged to feed on the husks meant for the pigs and his reflection on all he had lost led to his repentance and decision to declare himself guilty before his father. While he hoped for reconciliation with his father, he could not have imagined a full restoration of relationship.

The father did not need to speak words of forgiveness to his son; his actions spoke more loudly and clearly! The beautiful robe, the ring, and the festive banquet symbolize the gift of new life – pure, worthy, and joyful – which God gives to those who return to him.

The prodigal could not return to the garden of innocence, but he was welcomed and reinstated as a son. The errant son’s dramatic change from grief and guilt to forgiveness and restoration express in picture-language the resurrection from the dead, a rebirth from spiritual death to new life.

The parable also contrasts mercy and its opposite – unforgiveness. The father who had been wronged was forgiving. But the eldest son, who had not been wronged, was unforgiving. His unforgiveness turns into contempt and pride. And his resentment leads to his isolation and estrangement from the community of forgiven sinners.

In this parable, Jesus gives a vivid picture of God and what God is like. God is truly kinder than we are. He does not lose hope or give up when we stray. He rejoices in finding the lost and in welcoming them home. Do you know the joy of repentance and the restoration of relationship as a son or daughter of your heavenly Father?


Don Schwager is a member of the Servants of the Word and author of the Daily Scripture Readings and Meditations website. Taken from Living Bulwark August 2009. Used with permission.