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Parable of the Prodigal Son

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The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

The Prodigal Son, also known as the Lost Son, is one of the best known parables of Jesus. It appears only in the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament of the Bible. By tradition, it is usually read on the third Sunday of Lent. It is the third and final member of a trilogy, following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin.


The story is found in Luke 15:11-32. Jesus tells the story of a man who has two sons. The younger demands his share of his inheritance while his father is still living, and goes off to a distant country where he "waste[s] his substance with riotous living" and eventually has to take work as a swineherd (clearly a low point, as swine are unclean in Judaism). There he comes to his senses and decides to return home and throw himself on his father's mercy, thinking that even if his father does disown him, being one of his servants is still far better than feeding pigs. But when he returns home, his father greets him with open arms and hardly gives him a chance to express his repentance. He kills a fatted calf to celebrate his return. The older brother resents the favored treatment of his faithless brother and complains of the lack of reward for his own faithfulness. But the father responds:

" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'

(Luke 15:31-32, NIV)

The Eastern Orthodox Church traditionally reads this story on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son,[1] 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.
Pope John Paul II explored the issues raised by this parable in his second encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Latin for "Rich in Mercy") issued in 1980.

The dual challenge

Within the context of Luke 15, these three parables — the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son — make up a dual plea for repentance to the audience of Publicans and sinners and a rebuttal to the listening Pharisees, according to I. Howard Marshall.[2] The pharisees criticize Jesus for welcoming sinners and having fellowship with them, and Jesus gives anecdotal teaching to justify his attitude. The parable emphasizes the joy experienced by a person who recovers what he has lost.[3]

In the arts

Sebald Beham Der verlorene Sohn hütet seine Schweine

Hans Sebald Beham, 1538, engraving

Gerard van Honthorst 004

Gerard van Honthorst, 1623, like many works of the period, allows a genre scene with moral content.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn - The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662, (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)


Of the thirty or so parables in the canonical Gospels, it 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.[4] 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, and Rembrandt depicted the story several times, although 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, 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. [5]

Notable adaptations for performance include a 1929 ballet choreographed by George Balanchine to music written by Sergei Prokofiev and an 1869 oratorio by Arthur Sullivan. Many of these adaptations considerably 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.

Popular music

The parable is referenced in the traditional Irish folk tune "The Wild Rover", and Josh White`s blues version.

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. In 1978, reggae band Steel Pulse recorded a song "Prodigal Son"; this transposes the story of the prodigal onto the slave trade, and suggests that their real "homecoming" was in fact to be spiritual rather than physical, a "homecoming" through religion (Rastafari). 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. 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. "Prodigal Blues" is a song by Billy Idol that compares the singer's struggles with drug addiction to the parable, and the musical Godspell, which re-enacts the Prodigal Son story as a Western film. Bono, the vocalist of the Irish band U2, wrote the song "The First Time" based on this parable. The Christian Rock trio BarlowGirl recorded the song "She Walked Away" as part of their 2004 self-titled album. The scripture from Luke is quoted during an instrumental section of the song. Musician Dustin Kensrue wrote a song about the Prodigal Son entitled "Please Come Home" on the album of the same name released in 2007. The song "Find Your Way Home" by Texas rocker Kanude from his 2008 self-titled debut is based on the parable. "Juan en la Ciudad" (John in the City), a salsa-merengue fusion that describes the parable in condensed terms, was Richie Ray's and Bobby Cruz's most popular hit ever, in 1977.

The song "Carry on Wayward Son" by Kansas is widely considered to refer to the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The Prodigal Son is the first posthumous release by piano player and gospel singer Keith Green.

Graham Nash makes reference to "a prodigal son" in the song "Be Yourself" from his acclaimed debut album, Songs for Beginners.

Indie rock band Two Gallants covered the parable in the song "The Prodigal Son" on their 2006 album What the Toll Tells.

Branyley Gilbert also has an album released in October of 2009 tiltled "Modern Day Prodigal Son" featuring a track with the same title. He speaks of a journey similar to the one in the bible with a modern addition.


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. He shows how the story is illuminated by the painting and is really about three personages: the younger, prodigal son; the self-righteous, resentful older son; and the compassionate father. Nouwen describes how all Christians—himself included—struggle to free themselves from the weaknesses inherent in both brothers and are destined to find themselves becoming the all-giving, all-forgiving, sacrificial father.

Another, earlier and similar work is Le retour de l'enfant prodigue (The Return of the Prodigal Son), a short story by André Gide, who infuses his own story with that of the parable.


  1. "Scripture Readings Throughout the Year". Retrieved 2008-11-09. 
  2. Marshall, I. Howard (1978). The Gospel of Luke. pp. 597–612. ISBN 0802835120. 
  3. Marshall, I. Howard (1978). The Gospel of Luke. pp. 597. ISBN 0802835120. 
  4. Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image , Religious Art in France of the Thirteen Century, p 195, English trans of 3rd edn, 1913, Collins, London (and many other editions)
  5. Craig, Hardin (1950-04). "Morality Plays and Elizabethan Drama". Shakespeare Quarterly 1 (2): 71. ISSN 00373222. 


  • D. A. Holgate, Prodigality, Liberality and Meanness: The Prodigal Son in Greco-Roman Perspective. Sheffield, 1999.
  • T. E. Phillips, Reading Issues of Poverty and Wealth in Luke-Acts. Lewiston, 2001.
  • W. Pöhlmann, Der Verlorene Sohn und das Haus: Studien zu Lukas 15,11-32 im Horizont der Antiken Lehre von Haus, Erziehung und Ackerbau. Tübingen, 1993.

External links

Some or all of this article is forked from Wikipedia. The original article was at Parable of the Prodigal Son. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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