The Prodigal Son

David gave this talk at Woodside Church (Bedford) in 2016, as part of their "Parables of Jesus" series. Click here to download it.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is so well known, we often look over it, despite not being able to put ourselves in the position of a first-century Galilean. However, when we read the story through from this place, we see a great deal more going on.

The Story

The audience was the Pharisees and Scribes, the righteous, religious people of the community. Their complaint was that Jesus receives sinners and tax collectors and eats with them. Tax collectors in an occupied country collaborated with the occupiers – so hated and despised. Sinners were the unclean, breakers of the law. “To eat with another person in the Mideast is a sacramental act signifying acceptance on a very deep level.” Kenneth Bailey.

A man had 2 sons – often tension over inheritance because the eldest got two thirds, probably tension between brothers here. Younger son says “Give me my share now”. Awful, dishonourable thing to say – impatient for his father’s death – “I wish you were dead!” Unthinkable in a Middle East village for a son to ask for his portion while his father is still alive – he wants his father to die.

A relationship is broken – not a law. With father – and the son doesn’t care about the entire family clan – to lose a third of its wealth. Also, almost every conversation is public – servants etc – then does a public thing that disgraces family further – sold it quickly (literally turned everything to cash) – so knock down price – family wealth through generations lost in a few days – everybody would know. Seizes his share, breaks fellowship with father. “…the son chose deliberately to wound his father’s heart and break all his relationships with the family.” Kenneth Bailey.

Amazingly the father granted his request and didn’t break relationship from his son. Would be unheard of in that culture! Divided the inheritance between them. Father in authority but sons have right of possession. Older son of course doesn’t sell his.

Then went to a far country among Gentiles – non Jews – literally “travelled away from his own people”. This listener would know that if a Jewish boy lost his property among Gentiles, there would be a “Kezazah” ceremony (“cutting off”) if he dared to return home – break a large pot in front of him, publicly shame him and mock him, small boys mocking him. He then squandered his property in “wild living” or “loose living” – no record of how he did it (older brother said spent on prostitutes but he didn’t know). Greek word “extravagant living” – Arabic translation, “If the prodigal is a traditional Middle Eastern villager… The money is used primarily to establish a reputation for generosity. He holds large banquets and gives out expensive gifts. Generosity is a supreme virtue, coveted by all. The opportunity to gain status in the eyes of new friends through an exercise of this virtue would be the highest kind of pleasure for such an individual.” Kenneth Bailey.

A great famine came, no relief so he “clung to” (i.e. with glue) to a citizen. Again familiar in culture. “Glued” himself to – park car at shop, someone appears to polish car, look after it, carries your bag – “glues” to you for reward. This citizen wants to get rid of him so offers him a job which he’d be bound to refuse if any honour left – how you sack people! Feed pigs – unclean to Jews, revolting (rat illustration), Goa story. But the prodigal so desperate he accepted!

Son “came to himself” – this doesn’t mean he was repentant but he was hungry and remembered there was plenty of food in his father’s village. He didn’t say, I’ve disgraced and brought shame on family and broken relationship – still didn’t care – he devised a scheme, “a cunning plan”. He thinks the problem is money – it’s not, it’s relationship! The father’s broken heart. So plan admit he’d sinned – (a scholarly audience would understand), he spoke like Pharaoh after plague who did not repent but said words, Then Pharaoh hastily called Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you.” Exodus 10:16. I’ll become a “hired servant” – manipulate father into endorsing him for job training – as a “misthios”. If repentant offer to become a slave but no – get a good job to pay off money. “Hired men” were various kinds of tradesmen and craftsmen who lived in local villages and earned a wage.” Tim Keller.

When went back, everybody listening to Jesus’ story would expect – He’d be shamed, “kezazah” ceremony, little boys mocking. Instead the father acted counter-culturally. He saw him, ran (no eastern patriarch would run – a disgrace – a man of his age would always walk in a slow, dignified fashion. Bailey says it so well, “…he must take the front edge of his robes in his hand like a teenager. When he does this, his legs show in what is considered a humiliating posture. All of this is painfully shameful for him. The loiterers in the street will be distracted from tormenting the prodigal and will instead run after the father, amazed at seeing this respected village elder shaming himself publicly. It is his “compassion” that leads the father to race out to his son. He knows what his son will face in the village. He takes upon himself the shame and humiliation due the prodigal.” A drama of reconciliation so that prodigal can only say first part and couldn’t because of father’s kisses, set out his manipulative plan. If father forgives, nobody in the village can reject him. Son, because of the grace and mercy shown him realised the sin is not the money but the wounded heart. That is repentance not his plan. Grace produces repentance – not repentance produces grace.

Clothed in finest robe – what father wore on special occasions – honouring is dressing him in father’s or King’s robe (often in Bible), family signet ring – you belong – full inheritance again. Shoes – slaves barefoot, sons wear shoes! Public honouring – banquet – grass fed beef – the best!

Older son, hears music and dancing – what’s going on. Asks a boy – your brother’s back. What! Now older son disgraces his father. Younger son received with shalom – reconciliation. Older son’s perspective of condemnation, he’s already lost.

Reconciliation without punishment – impossible for him to accept. Unthinkable for older son to refuse to come in, just as much as for younger son.

So father again is willing to carry the older son’s disgrace and shame. Normally shame him, cut him off afterwards. No, father goes out – just as unthinkable as running – humiliates himself in front of guests.

Older son demands his rights, doesn’t understand relationship or grace.


Grace produced repentance in one but apparent refusal in the other. We are accepted not by working hard but by God’s gracious acceptance of us. We are sons and daughters not servants; that is our identity.

  • We often consider grace for big things, like when we first became Christians, but how can we recognise God’s grace for us on a daily basis?

Unfortunately Christians often behave like the older son and condemn the world rather than like the father who endures dishonour to reach out. We must change. We protest instead of loving, condemning instead of showing grace to produce change. This is a scandalous story even to us!

  • What does it mean to endure dishonour to reach out?
  • How can we be those who show grace to those we don’t agree with? Share examples.
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