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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Prodigal Son

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PRODIGAL SON.—The details of this parable (Luke 15) seem to have been carefully thought out, as the structure of the story is fairly complete and its movement quite natural. The younger of a certain man’s sons, dissatisfied with the quiet life he is leading, resolves to leave his father’s house; and, having received the share of property that fell to him, goes to a distant country and gives himself up with the fullest abandonment to every indulgence that appetite craved. But his career of gaiety and dissipation soon comes to an end. He passes from one stage to another in his downward course till he reaches the lowest. Without a friend and in the direst straits, he is forced to take service as a swine-herd—a grade of employment esteemed by Jewish society as the lowest. The misery to which he had brought himself, however, and the neglect from which he suffers, show him how great has been his folly and how wrong his conduct. He therefore resolves to return home, confess his fault, and solicit the place of a servant in his father’s household. He carries out his intention, but his father receives him with the greatest eagerness and affection, and orders a feast to be prepared in celebration of his safe return.

The elder brother, however, is very indignant, and refuses to take any part in the general rejoicing. His father entreats him to enter into the spirit of the occasion; but he is obstinate and petulant, and complains that this display in honour of his brother is in marked contrast with the treatment accorded him. He who had lived at home in dutiful submission had not received the slightest token in recognition of his merits or services, whereas his brother who had squandered his means in a career of vice is being honoured in the most enthusiastic and lavish manner.

Here, then, we have a father and his son differing as to how a younger son who had grievously misbehaved himself ought to be treated. The fact of the young man’s wrongdoing and the sincerity of his repentance are accepted by both; but while the elder brother challenges the justice and propriety of rejoicing over the return of one who had been so headstrong and foolish, the father firmly defends the course he had followed, and, in terminating the discussion, speaks with a finality that is not to be questioned: ‘It was meet that we should make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.’

The prodigal is a minor character in the parable. The contrast is drawn between the father and the elder brother in reference to their treatment of the wrongdoer, and not between the brothers either in regard to character or conduct. The substance of the parable is this: a father who welcomes back an erring and repentant son has his action emphatically approved, and an elder brother who maintains an attitude of surly aloofness is shown to merit severe disapprobation.

The parable is thus practical in its aim—teaching men not only how they ought to treat their repentant brethren, but chiefly what is necessary to enable them to do so. For what was it that led the father to act as he did? Was it not just the love he bore his son, foolish and erring though he had been? The elder son reasoned on the lines of cold and rigid law, whereas the heart of the father spoke, and the voice of love was obeyed. And was it not just the want of this affectionate heart that allowed the elder brother to act so ungenerously? Had he loved his brother, he would have vied with his father in the warmth of his welcome; had he even loved his father, he would have acquiesced in his father’s wish for his father’s sake. It was poverty of affection that led him to display a selfishness that was offensive, and a temper that was childish and rude. What could the father do?—a son he loved and had lost was home again safe and sound—a son who had gone forth to a rude world had returned disillusioned and chastened by his bitter experience.

In the first instance, no doubt, the parable was meant to point out the defect in the Jewish way of dealing with those who had sinned. What was clearly lacking there was a brotherly spirit. Those who had erred were treated with unrelenting severity; the sinner looked in vain for mercy and hoped in vain for restoration, no matter how painful and prolonged his period of repentance had been. But what was true for the Jews is true for all. Love alone is capable of rendering the conscience sensitive to the finest shades of justice. Law rigidly applied does not scrutinize the motive, does not measure the force of temptation, does not take into account the fact of repentance, and is therefore often unjust when in appearance it is most just. The father’showed mercy because he loved his son, and in showing mercy dispensed the truer justice; for mercy is but justice perfectly applied. The elder brother failed in his duty to brother and father alike, because he lacked the affection that would have swept away his shallow notions of justice, and pointed out a better way.

The parable thus emphasizes one aspect of the great commandment of our Lord, that men should love one another; and in this respect shows a close resemblance to several of His other parables. In that of the Good Samaritan, the Priest and the Levite saw no duty they owed to the wounded Jew, whereas the heart of the Samaritan—a member of a despised race—responded at once to the demands of the situation. And in that of the Labourers in the Vineyard, is it not the mean and grudging spirit of the whole-day labourers that is condemned, since their rights were not infringed nor their interests invaded by the generous treatment accorded to the late-comers?

What men require in their dealings with one another is the loving heart, and in dealing with our erring and repentant brethren nothing else will give the insight and tenderness needed to fulfil the ends of real justice. In the sympathy of Christ lay the secret of His power. No one who had paid the penalty of his transgression in bitter repentance was refused His countenance or His help; and the moral sense of mankind, quickened by a genuine brotherly love, will ever admit that His way is the right way—will ever say to the harsh and unforgiving, It is ‘meet that we should make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.’

Literature.—Goebel, Parables of Jesus; A. B. Bruce, Parabolic Teaching of Christ; M. Dods, Parables of Our Lord; Trench, Notes on the Parables; Arnot, Parables of Our Lord; W. M. Taylor, Parables of Our Saviour; also F. W. Robertson’s Sermons, iii. 253; Dale, Ep. of James and Other Discourses, 160; Ballard, The Penitent Prodigal; Hancock, The Return to the Father; Willcox, The Prodigal Son; Expositor, i. ix. [1879] 137, 111. viii. [1888] 268, 388, x. [1889] 122; ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] vii. [1896] 325; Parker, People’s Bible.

D. G. Young.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Prodigal Son'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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