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What is the Prodigal Son?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2016
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The prodigal son or lost son is an extremely recognizable parable told by Jesus Christ as recorded in the Book of Luke in the New Testament. Its theme is considered to be one of the foundational aspects of Christianity, emphasizing forgiveness of the Lord for merely the price of asking and repentance. In many Christian churches, this particular text is chosen as part of Lenten celebrations, representing the importance of penitence and the promise that it holds for all.

The basic story of the prodigal son is one where the youngest son leaves his father and recklessly spends all the fortune the father has given him. Ultimately he is left with nothing and in a disgraced position comes home to beg for forgiveness for his misdeeds. Rather than meeting a stern father who has no use for him, the son is met with open arms and glad welcome. His father rejoices at his return, celebrating it with a feast.

An interesting part is accorded to the older brother, who at first is rather disgruntled that the wasteful younger brother would meet with such joy and forgiveness. The older brother reminds his father that he has been his faithful son on many occasions and through many proofs of his affection. The father responds that this all true but the younger son’s return is still a resurrection: “be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

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This second section with the older brother’s response to the return of the prodigal son represents an interesting statement about Christianity in many interpretations. It is not only God that must be merciful, but mercy and forgiveness should also spring forth from brothers or brethren in the faith. Bitterness about the forgiveness of one person, simply because another has always behaved well, doesn’t really have a place. Being forgiven means being totally restored to the Father and to all the privileges the Father confers; there is no in between state when people meet their God with real penitence.

Many are captured by the moving nature of the prodigal son parable, no matter what their religious leanings. For centuries creative artists of many kinds have sought to render it into other forms. Songs, plays, novels, paintings and other media exist that testify to the ongoing power of this particular theme. Such artists as Rembrandt, Prokofiev, Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak (writers of Godspell), the band Kansas, and U2 frontman Bono, have all created interesting interpretations based upon the prodigal son.

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