Which child are you in the Prodigal Son story?

Dr Mak Koon Hou // May 2, 2018, 4:02 pm


Photo by Katherine Chase on Unsplash

We are quite familiar with the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. 

The younger of two children demanded his inheritance and then squandered it. When he was broke, the younger son tended to pigs. He then came to his senses and returned to his father, hoping to become one of his servants. Instead, his father welcomed him and reinstated him as his son. To top it all off, the father threw a sumptuous feast to celebrate the reunion.  

The parable could have ended here. The disobedient, wayward son asked for forgiveness, and the gracious and generous father received him gladly. But Jesus continued with the story, turning his attention to the elder brother.

Returning from working in the field, he was surprised and upset by the party and refused to join in the joyous reception. The father left the gathering and tried to persuade the elder son to participate. Instead, the young man chided his father for disregarding his welfare. Without hesitation, his father responded by reaffirming his status. And the parable stops there, without letting us know what happened next. 

The father’s remuneration system was not based on hard work alone; his rewards for his sons were born of love.

Did the elder brother take part in the celebration and reconcile with his father and his younger brother? As with any master storyteller, the reader is left to wonder and contemplate how the story would end.

On top of the several interpretations to this parable, additional insight can be gained by considering the audience to whom Jesus was speaking. There were tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and scribes (Luke 15:1-3).

In this narrative, the hedonists were represented by the younger son. Their sinful lifestyle and actions were obvious. Once they recognised their state and came to their senses, they could return to God. The Father always welcomes His children back (Ephesians 1:7).

But there is another group in the audience that He was addressing: The Pharisees and scribes. These were individuals who claimed to know God and professed that they were doing His work. They believed that they were doing all the correct things to be right with God.

But, consciously or unconsciously, their motives were not as they professed. Clearly, Jesus understood their state and criticised their legalistic hypocrisy. Contrary to their practices and beliefs, their teachings were misleading the people and leading them further away from God.

Indeed, the elder brother of the prodigal son had worked hard to build up the family business. Therefore, he believed that the father owed him, or at least, should have shown favour to him. Bearing such an attitude, the elder brother appeared to be in the father’s business only for himself. 

His industry was not motivated by his love of the father or the work of the father. The elder brother was using his father to get the things he wanted. But the father’s remuneration system was not based on hard work alone; it was not even based on complete submission in doing the work.

The father’s rewards for his sons were born of love.

This must have been a startling revelation to the Pharisees and scribes in terms of their understanding of God. Their realisation must have been uncomfortable. It was no wonder that the ending was left open for them to consider.

The moralist within 

In today’s world, we are often told to work hard to stay ahead. Not surprisingly, the “I have earned it” mentality has permeated our lives. 

Even in the spiritual realm, we do our best to observe rules and rituals, and perform various tasks and missions in church. While most of us may declare that it is the saving grace of Christ that brings us back to God, we may believe the “Christian” things we do should grant us special status. 

Unlike the hedonist, the moralist finds it far more difficult to see that he is lost.

At the same time, we also take comfort because we are not murderers, robbers or committing truly evil acts. Unknowingly, moralism may have crept gradually into our lives, and become a hindrance in our relationship with God.

In fact, being a moralist may have taken us further away from God than we might have suspected.

Hedonists or moralists – both are alienated from God.

Unlike the hedonist, the moralist finds it far more difficult to see that he is lost. The path to reconciliation may be more challenging.

While Jesus has always been reaching out to both hedonist and moralist, his approach was outright, and somewhat cordial, with hedonists. But his treatment was harsher for the moralist. By far, most of us tend towards being moralists than hedonists. As such we should constantly guard ourselves against wandering into what seemed to be the straight and narrow path.

About the author

Dr Mak Koon Hou

Dr Mak, a cardiologist in private practice at Gleneagles Medical Centre, worships at Covenant Community Methodist Church. He is also on the Board of Directors for the Singapore Heart Foundation and an author of three books on heart health.