Luke 15:11-32 – The Prodigal Son and His Brother


Luke 15:11-32


Jesus tells a parable about a man with two sons. The younger one demands to be given his inheritance in advance, leaves home, and later returns to his father’s warm and generous welcome. The older son is critical of his father’s desire to celebrate his brother’s homecoming and complains that his own obedience has never been recognized and rewarded.


This may be the most famous of Jesus’ parables. Its basic story is familiar to many people. Part of its meaning comes from its position in Luke (which is the only Gospel that includes it). It is the third of three parables (see also Luke 15:1-10) that describe the recovery of something that was lost and then conclude in celebration. Jesus tells these parables immediately after certain Pharisees and scribes complain about his practice of sharing meals with notorious people, “tax collectors and sinners.” One of the points of the parable, then, is that generous celebration is the appropriate response when a “lost” person becomes “found.”

One ambiguous detail in the parable is the motive that prompts the younger son to return home in 15:17. His situation is bleak: he has offended his father, deliberately disowned himself from family, lived wastefully and perhaps immorally, and found himself in the midst of a severe famine. The parable does not clearly say whether his plans described in 15:17-19 are an attempt to manipulate his father or a sincere expression of sorrowful repentance. Whatever his motive, his father’s response upon seeing him is extravagant. The father is not interested in hearing why the son came back to him; he only desires to restore him to his status as a full and honored member of the household. Unable to finish his prepared speech, the younger son is surprised by grace.

The traditional title, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” unfortunately detracts from the older son’s important role in Jesus’ short story. On one hand, this other son is a model of resentment. He vilifies his brother and speaks in a way that suggests his own alienation from the family. On the other hand, he also points out (apparently, with some justification) that the father does not operate according to certain standards of fairness. The elder son’s commitment to these standards makes him unable to appreciate his father’s extravagant generosity toward his brother. In the offense he experiences, the older son, too, is surprised by grace.