Lost Son Parable – Parenting 501 – update

Even many non-Christians know of the “Prodigal Son”.

It’s usually looked at as a study of the two sons.  I want to view it as a study of the parent – the father whose two sons ended up like they did.  It’s not as simple as it may seem, that’s why the title is about Parenting 501.  Anyone who has been to college knows that Parenting 101 would be the introductory course – freshman level – required for a related degree.  Parenting 501 would be the graduate level course – required for an advanced degree in the field.

This parable is a reference to God as the “Father” of us – and the two sons are two possible ways to look at us as the children.  Therefore, it seems totally reasonable to study the parent in the same way.  Let’s read the parable first, and then I’ll explain how I came to look at it this way.

The Parable of the Lost Son

Lk 15:11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
Lk 15:13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
Lk 15:17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
Lk 15:21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
Lk 15:22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Lk 15:25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
Lk 15:28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
Lk 15:31 “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”

As I said – every time I’ve heard or read about this parable – it’s a study of the sons.  How could they have such a good father, and yet neither of them realizes it?  And the assumption is always that the father is good.

For me – this isn’t what I grew up with.  I always wanted the father described here, even going back to when I was in second grade –

Mt 7:9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

So, I’ve always figured the prodigal son parable doesn’t really apply to me, since I didn’t have the “good” father to begin with.  The thing is though – I’m sure I’m not alone in that situation.  Plenty of people have a father that isn’t “good”.  Probably many more have the “not good” father than have the “good” father.  If that’s the case, I think maybe we’ve always studied, at best, half of what this parable is really about.  That means we miss at least half of the meaning – and I dare say, the most important half, since it applies to so many people.

I used the image at the top because I think it’s an amazingly accurate description of what’s going on here.  Not that it’s two parents and one kid- but that they are made of cardboard.  And especially that they have no mouth.


A few days after publishing this one, I received an email with a comment based on something written by John MacArthur.  I’m just going to mention it now – leave the body of the article “as is”, and then put in the comment at the end, along with my thoughts on it.

The two sons

I’m in a group at church that’s looking at the prodigal son parable this week.  There are two discussion questions about the sons.  

The first one is about the one who left home – the prodigal.  Why did he leave home?  Given the ending – and the way this is always discussed – the “obvious” answer is that this son didn’t know what he had at home.

The second one was asking about the misconception the second son had about the father.  And we always learn that this son had the wrong response to the brother returning.

The father

But how did we get to the point where neither brother knew that they had been born to – and had lived with – this great father?  

Part of my answer to that second question was this –

Some earthly parents say nothing and expect their kids to just know they are loved.  I didn’t have that problem – mine said plenty.  And it wasn’t about love.

It sounds like the two of the never had a “real” conversation.

I can’t help but wonder – if this father is so wonderful, how come neither of his sons knew it?  Further – how could the father be so blind as to not know that neither son really knew him?  And if he was aware that his sons didn’t know him – how come he didn’t do anything about it?  In other words – why is it just accepted that the father was good and the problem was with the sons?

parenting 501

The answer to all of these questions is that this isn’t basic Parenting 101.  This is advanced parenting – the graduate level course.

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve – although not both sons (obviously) – had a similar scenario.  They had direct contact with God.  But they didn’t know what they really had.  Well – not until after they’d eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  

I’m still working on writing about that part – that they didn’t really know what they had.  I’ll put a link in here when it’s done – or you can subscribe to the site using the box towards the top right if this page and you’ll get emails for new articles.

The point is – I don’t believe Adam and Eve really knew what they had with God – not until they also knew the difference between good and evil.

Cain and Abel

Ge 4:1 Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”
Ge 4:2 Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
Ge 4:3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD.
Ge 4:4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
Ge 4:5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Ge 4:6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?
Ge 4:7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”
Ge 4:8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Ge 4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Ge 4:10 The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.
Ge 4:11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
Ge 4:12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth. ”
Ge 4:13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is more than I can bear.
Ge 4:14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
Ge 4:15 But the LORD said to him, “Not so; if anyone kills Cain , he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.
Ge 4:16 So Cain went out from the LORD’S presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Does this sound like Cain fits the prodigal son scenario?

When Cain offered inferior sacrifices to God – he was starting to walk away from God.  When Cain killed his brother Abel – he completed that walk away from God.  And – with regard to the parable – he did what the older brother did, but for real.  The older brother in the parable had “killed” his younger brother, if only in his mind and essentially from his life.  The difference – Cain did it for real.  I seriously doubt that Jesus would consider the difference as significant –

Mt 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

OK – Jesus wouldn’t consider it any different at all.

But look how God treats Cain after the discussion between the two of them.  Again – very much like the conversation between the prodigal son and his biological father.  The question is also the same – how come Cain didn’t realize what he had?


Jesus tells a parable, using sheep – that is related to this theme – which He addressed to His disciples –

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Mt 18:10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
Mt 18:12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.

You may have noticed, there’s no verse 11.  Some of the original manuscripts from which English Bible was translated have these words included for verse 11 –

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

It would be nice if these words were actually included.  This completes the circle and the analogy that I’m looking at.

Jesus tells us how wonderful the Father is.  His Father.  But even more than that –

Jesus Prays for All Believers

Jn 17:20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

We see here that in addition to the “Father” – “Son” relationship – Jesus and The Father “are one“.

Going all the way back to – Ge 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth  – the Hebrew word translated as God was plural.  From the very beginning – the three persons of the trinity that we see in the New Testament – and that were alluded to or prophesied about in the Old Testament – had always existed.  They were, to use a “church” word, in “community”.  God has always been one – but three.  And the three communicate with each other.

Communication – something the father and sons from the parable of the prodigal son seemed to have problems with.

Care for the lost – something the above passages from the Bible have in common.

  • The Prodigal Son – the father welcomed back the younger son who left, and returned.
  • Adam and Eve – after the fall, God promised Jesus would come, at some point in the future (from that time) to avenge what happened in the Garden of Eden.
  • Cain – after killing his brother, tells God the punishment would be too much and was essentially a death penalty, because whoever finds him would kill him.  And God puts a mark on Cain and promises that if that happens, He will avenge the death of Cain seven times over.
  • The parable of the Lost Sheep – where we see the shepherd, and The Father, will go after the one who is lost.

Why the emphasis only on the lost?

The one thing we see that all of these examples have in common is an emphasis on the lost.  

Not so much about preventing them from getting lost.  Very little, in fact.  To be sure, there are passages about that – but there seems to be so much more about rescuing the lost.

And that’s why it’s Parenting 501.

People haven’t walked, literally, with God since Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden.
Jesus’ ministry on earth lasted a mere three years.
Considering the thousands of years that have passed since the incident in the Garden – that’s not a whole lot of face-to-face time with God.

Based on the timing we have in the Bible, if “days” is taken literally (I believe mistakenly – see Is evolution a concept of Satan? ) to mean each day in creation is a 24-hour day – then the fall would have been about six thousand years ago.  That means that  Jesus’ time on earth is about 0.05% (five one-hundredths of one percent) of the time since the fall.  That’s a really, really small amount.  So small that there’s no time for Parenting 101.

It’s got to be Parenting 501!

And how is that done?

Well, we got that from Jesus as well –

The Great Commission

Mt 28:16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

It’s something I’ve written about before.
For better or for worse – Jesus left it for us to tell others about Him.  In other words – Jesus left it for us to do the Parenting 101 stuff.

He didn’t leave us alone to do it – He did leave help, if we bother to take advantage of that help –

Jesus Promises the Holy Spirit

Jn 14:15 “If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

There are familiar themes here – The Father, who is good – the “helper”, the Holy Spirit to be with us after Jesus leaves the earth, who will help counsel us on this Parenting 101 task we have – Jesus and The Father being one, the community.


In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes this, in a segment the NIV titles Ministers of The New Covenant

2Co 2:14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. 15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? 17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.
2Co 3:1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. 3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

That sums it up quite nicely.  We have the Spirit of God within us.  We are to spread the Word of God.  As Paul says – we are to be a “letter from Christ”.

But still – how come the sons – and us today – don’t see the goodness of the Father?

God’s Wrath Against Mankind

Ro 1:18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

This is why.  And it goes all the way back to The Fall.  God’s goodness is “obvious”.  However, Satan has blinded us to the “obvious”.

The two sons with the father in the Prodigal Son parable – They had no one to tell them about their father.  They didn’t know what they had – either of them.  And they didn’t talk to him.  They didn’t even realize how good the servants had it.  Do you remember that part?  It’s maybe not the one you’re thinking of.

Lk 15:22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

Yes – the servants were involved in enjoying the feast and the celebration.  
The servants were treated as part of the family.

But notice what’s missing.  
Had the two sons talked with the servants – they very likely would have learned about their father – how good he was.  But the servants – as far as we know – didn’t speak of the father to the sons.  And the sons, a far as we know – never talked to the servants about their father.  Further – while we don’t know for sure – this probably wasn’t the first time the servants were treated as part of the family.  And if it wasn’t – the sons obviously didn’t notice, just as the older son didn’t notice at that time..
Gee – that sure sounds a lot like what Paul wrote in that God’s Wrath Against Mankind passage.

It’s like this, I believe, if we fully look at this parable –

  • We aren’t supposed to be like the cardboard people in the image, but too often, we are exactly like them.
  • We are in the position of being the lost son – to start with.
  • Then, one of the servants talks to us about The Father.
  • We become curious (hopefully) about this Father that we’ve heard about, but didn’t consider all that “good”.
  • After talking more with the servants – and checking things out for ourselves – and praying – we realize the Truth about this Father.
  • Now – we are a servant.  
  • And now – our task is to begin Parenting 101 with other sons and daughters.
  • We’ll have the Holy Spirit to help us – if we accept His help.
  • And when one of us – the servants – get’s lost – God will go into Parenting 501 mode – to get us back.

Evidence of that last point is right here, in the NIV section titled Jesus The Bread of Life

Jn 6:35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

So – 

If you don’t know about The Father – find a servant, who will be happy to tell you about your Father.  
Find a Parenting 101 parent.

If you do know about your Father – tell others who don’t.
Be a Parenting 101 parent.

And – if you’re lost, knowing about your Father but out of touch for any reason – know that He is looking for you and reaching out to you.
Your Father is being a Parenting 501 parent.

And that – I think – is a more complete look at The Parable of The Lost Son – from a different point of view.

I pray that this helps you see your Father better.

The update

Here’s the main part of the comment I received –

He knew that his father was generous to his hired men.  John Macarthur states that “hired men were day laborers who were generally unskilled and poor, living day to day on the temporary jobs they could find at whatever wages that were offered.”   Luke records that the son recollects that his father provided more than enough bread for them.  He was not obligated to do that, but the father showed generosity to the temporary help.

I don’t disagree with what was said, either in the email, or from what John MacArthur said.

However, there is still a question of timing – and when the prodigal son knew / realized these things about his father.

The passage on which the statement above was made is this, just to be sure we’re all on the same page –

Lk 15:17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’(NASB)

The thing is – verse 17 starts off with – But when he came to his senses.

That begs a question.  We know the son came to his senses when he was away from home – feeling envious of the pigs for what they were eating.  But we don’t know exactly when he “lost” his senses.  Certainly, it was before he left home.  So the question becomes, when this son lost his senses, did he also bury any memories of the good things his father did?

Speaking for myself, I have way more bad memories than good ones from both of my parents.  Having said that, I didn’t end up in jail, I’m not the good for nothing bum they told me I’d be, and unlike my father – God is very important to me.  It couldn’t have been all bad.  But at what point does our mind bury things, good and bad, in order to try to preserve “us”.

For me personally, if I had been in the situation of the prodigal son, I can totally see how someone could lose their sense of what their parents were really like.

When we take this to God, as the Father, there is so many negative things people say about God – so many who say He doesn’t even exist – so many things from Satan to tell us that God isn’t good.  It’s not surprising that someone could lose track of something they had previously know for truth.

All of this rally takes us back to the parenting 101 / 501 discussion.

Had the prodigal son taken time, anywhere along the way, to interact with the servants – he would have know his father better.  Apparently, interacting with them would not have been out of the ordinary either.  It seems like the father did exactly that.  It’s the two sons who didn’t.  That’s the parenting 101 part – and it didn’t happen – because the sons and the servants (the 101 parents) didn’t talk.

Since the prodigal son didn’t take the time to interact with the 101 parents, it was time for the 501 parent – God – to step in.  And bring the son back to his senses.

For some one who had good parents, maybe all of this is hard to relate to.

For those of us who didn’t – it’s much easier.

Given that Jesus’ parables were for all of us, I think it’s important to be able to look at it from both perspectives.  Maybe even especially from the point of view of the ones who need help relating to God as a good Father, when their own earthly father didn’t set a good example.



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