The “Prodigal Son”: Freewill Repentance?


When seen from the context of the whole chapter, the younger son is part of a “lost” trilogy: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. The son was lost, but the father found him. Even more telling is that the son was dead, but the father gave him new life.

The Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni (1773)
The Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni (1773)

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)—along with the Good Samaritan—is one of the most well-known parables of Jesus, especially during Father’s Day celebrations when sermons typically focus on the good and bad parenting skills of the father, the repentance of the “prodigal,” and the jealousy of his older sibling. Moralistic and psychotherapeutic preachers have their heyday discussing these three personalities.

But in all of these, where is Christ, who narrated this parable, along with the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, as a response to the Pharisees and the scribes who grumbled against him, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2)? It is not just the sheep, the coin and the son who are lost, but the gospel of Christ, the rich overtones of salvation, and the sociocultural background are lost as well amidst all the “relevant” but Christless preaching of today.[ref]Kenneth E. Bailey, “The Pursuing Father: What We Need to Know About This Often Misunderstood Middle Eastern Parable,” Christianity Today, October 26, 1998, pp. 34-40.[/ref]

Since this parable is part of a “Lost” trilogy, it should more appropriately be called the “Parable of the Lost Son.” Indeed, because the older brother is also a lost sinner, it should even be more aptly named the “Parable of the Lost Sons. Luke even refers to these three parables as “this parable,” i.e., he understood this trilogy of parables as a single three-part parable.

The Father Humbled Himself in Love
What is often lost as well in today’s moralisms is the father’s willingness to be disgraced and humiliated in many ways for the sake of his wicked sons. All that transpired between the father and his two sons are public knowledge so that all the disgraceful acts of the sons and all the humiliation of the father would have been the talk of the town.

The Merry Company by Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1640)
The Merry Company by Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1640)

First, for his younger son to ask for the portion of his inheritance is tantamount to wishing he was dead, because no Jewish son in Jesus’ time would get his inheritance before his father died. The whole village would have known and seen the son selling his whole inheritance, packing up and leaving his father’s house. More than a few village fathers would have been seething in derision, saying, “I would have banished that wicked son from my sight forever!”

Second, when the lost son returns, the father runs even while the son was afar off, lifting his robe as he runs. A mature man walks with dignity and never runs, especially to meet a son who has disgraced his father. Added to the father’s unbecoming behavior of running is his lifting his robe as he runs, exposing his legs in public.

Third, when the father throws a celebration for the lost younger son, the older son humiliated him by refusing to join the party. The father had to leave the house and plead with the older son to join him, in effect subjecting himself under his son, all in the sight of his own servants. In addition, it should have been the older son honoring his father by gracing the banquet, greeting the guests, and serving them.

Did the Lost Son Make a Freewill Repentance?
Many evangelicals see in the lost son one of the better examples of a sinner making a decision to repent and believeof his own free will. Again, careful grammatical-historical analysis of the text will reveal that this is not so.

The Prodigal Son with the Pigs by Albrecht Durer (1496)
The Prodigal Son with the Pigs by Albrecht Durer (1496)

The younger son is said to have spent his inheritance in “reckless” (ESV), “riotous” (KJV), “wild” (NIV), “loose” (NASB, RSV) living in a distant, foreign country to his last penny. Now he desperately needed to do something to not only survive a famine, but also to recover the inheritance he lost, by looking for a paid job. He knew that if he returned to the village without his inheritance, the qetsatsah ceremony of being shunned and disowned awaited him. In this ceremony, villagers would fill a jar with burned nuts and corn and break it in front of the shunned person while shouting, “[Name] is cut off from his people.”

First, he tried being a pig herder—one of the most repugnant jobs to a Jew—but the only pay he received could have been the pig feed he ate because “no one gave him anything.” Then, he devised a plan to go home and earn back the money he lost by being one of his father’s servants.

In the next verse is one of the most traditionally misunderstood phrases in the story, “He came to himself” (ESV, KJV, RSV), which is popularly interpreted as “he repented.” Other translations say, “He came to his senses” (NASB, NIV). Is not this evidence that a sinner comes to repentance of his own free will?

Scriptural evidence in this parable and elsewhere refutes this idea. When seen from the context of the whole chapter, the younger son is part of a “lost” trilogy. Did the shepherd, after he realized he lost one sheep, come back to the sheepfold and wait for the lost sheep to return? No, he left the other 99 and wandered in the wilderness looking for the wayward sheep. As well, did not the woman diligently turned her whole house upside down searching for her lost coin?

If the story of the lost son is then interpreted as the son returning to his father of his own free will, while the father waits passively at home wishing that his son would come back, then it would contradict the essence of the first two stories: that of a shepherd and a woman looking for and finding someone or something they love. This is why after the younger son was back, the father says, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” The son was lost, but the father found him. Even more telling is that the son was dead, and the father had to resurrect him, for a dead person cannot raise himself up from the dead by his own free will.

The Prodigal Son by Guercino (1619)
The Prodigal Son by Guercino (1619)

Indeed, if we went back to the Old Testament, we will find the same truths. The Mosaic laws in Deuteronomy 21:15-21 have striking parallels to Jesus’ parable of the lost son. In verses 15-17, the firstborn son shall inherit a double portion of the father’s inheritance, thus the lost son would have received only one-third, while the older son would have received two-thirds of the estate. Verses 18-21 contains instructions to parents who have “a stubborn and rebellious son” who is “a glutton and a drunkard.” He is to be brought to the elders at the gate of the city and be stoned to death. Here is where Jesus’ parable diverges from the Mosaic law: the father does not bring the rebellious son to the elders to be stoned to death, but instead looks for and fully restores the rebel into his family and his village! [ref]G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 341.[/ref]

A second Old Testament parallel concerns the lost sheep in the familiar Psalm 23. Verse 3 is usually translated, “He restores my soul,” which traditionally has meant that the psalmist’s gloomy spirit was restored by the Lord. However, the Hebrew verb root used is shub, which literally means “to return” or “to “bring back.” The Greek translation uses strepho which means “to turn,” “to turn around,” or “to turn back.” The psalmist says that when he as a sheep turns aside in his walk with the Lord, his Shepherd-Lord returns or brings him back to the sheepfold. Shub and strepho are used in Scriptures in relation to repentance and turning back to God (Neh 1:9; Isa 55:7; Matt 18:3; John 12:40).

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (1636)
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (1636)

Thus, when the prodigal son “came to himself,” he merely came to his senses—a wake-up call—but not to repentance, because the word for repent is not used or implied in verse 17. However, did he not plan to confess to his father in his prepared speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you”? Isn’t this in itself true repentance? Again, looking back in Scriptures, this confession is an exact quotation of the rebellious Pharaoh’s “confession” in Exodus 10:16 to manipulate Moses into removing the plagues from Egypt.

When does true repentance take place in the lost son? As he starved in a far-off land, he decides for himself that he must earn back the favor of his father by working for him as a paid servant. But as he approached the village he forsook, still far from its gate, he saw his father running to meet, embrace and kiss him in a great display of compassion, love and reconciliation. The son, cut to the heart by his father’s unexpected welcome—not wrath or the qetsatsah ceremony—forgot the rest of his contrived speech, the one about working as a paid servant. In his repentance, this profligate rebel was forgiven unconditionally, even without repaying his father a cent of his lost inheritance!

The Lost “Pharisee”
In using the parable of the lost sheep in response to the grumbling Pharisees,  Jesus intentionally points out the contrast between the loving Good Shepherd who brings back and leads the lost sheep into paths of righteousness, and the self-righteous Pharisees who shun sinners and abandon their scattered flock (Ezek 34:1-4; 11-12).

The older son—the other “lost son”—personifies the Pharisees in his indignation, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” Really? This is exactly the Pharisaical self-righteousness that Jesus exposes here, as these teachers of the Law futilely attempt to earn their way to God’s favor by the works of the Law. And in contrast to the younger son, who realized that gaining the favor of his father is out of his hands and only through the father’s grace, mercy and love, the older son obeyed his father’s commands slavishly without joy, not out of a desire to please him in gratitude for everything that the father has given him.

Like those movies that leave us hanging at the end, Jesus leaves the story without the usual happy-ever-after ending. He does not tell us if the older brother reconciled with his family, giving the Pharisees a chance to rethink their embrace of legalism to merit God’s favor, and instead repent of their self-righteousness.

A Father’s Day Sermon?
If this parable is not about emulating (or avoiding) the good parenting skills of the father, or the freewill repentance of the younger son, or the jealousy of the older son, how then shall Christians today make it “relevant” to their lives? Is this parable only suitable for Father’s Day sermons?

The Older Son by Isabella Colette
The Older Son by Isabella Colette

It is well to remember that Luke himself said that everything written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms is about Christ and redemptive history (Luke 24:27, 44). Thus, when Jesus narrated the Parable of the Lost Sons, he wanted to teach everyone, especially the Pharisees and the scribes, these things concerning himself and his kingdom people:

1. Because of his love for his people, Christ—like the prodigal’s father—“though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,” was willing to forsake his glory, honor, power and blessing in heaven and come down to earth. He “made himself nothing,” the Lord becoming a servant, humbling and disgracing himself all the way to his death on the accursed cross.

2. Since all people are totally depraved sinners, no one—not even one—seeks the things concerning God and his Christ, and no one understands his gospel (Rom 3:10-11; 1 Cor 2:14; Rom 8:7). It is the Gracious Father and Christ the Good Shepherd who came running—even to his death outside the camp—to seek and to save lost sheep and rebellious sons (Heb 13:12; Luke 19:10). As the Holy Spirit quickens and softens the heart of dead and rebellious children, the grace of Christ and the love of the Father will fully restore them to their status as adopted children of God. And to confirm this full communion, God invites all his children to his banquet every time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated until he serves us his final glorious banquet in heaven on the last day.

3. Just as the prodigal son prepared a well-crafted plan of action to gain back the favor of his father, all lost sinners also believe—as the older son did—that their slavish self-righteous deeds is their ticket to heaven. But just as the prodigal son soon found out, a contrite heart acknowledging our sin against God and neighbor is all that our loving and compassionate God wants from us  to welcome, embrace and restore us to full communion with him.

In the Parable of the Two Lost Sons, the unresolved happy-ever-after ending that Jesus desires is that all lost people everywhere—rebellious younger lawbreakers and older self-righteous lawkeepers—will abandon their works-righteousness and repent of their sin. But the tragic resolution to the drama is if we reject the full embrace of God and remain as lawbreakers and lawkeepers, “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man [Christ] whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:30-31).


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