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Customs in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Rev. Margaret Minnicks is an ordained Bible teacher. She writes many articles that are Bible lessons.


You can read the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32; however, there is no way you can understand it completely unless you understand the customs that are found therein. If you read this article all the way through, I promise you will learn more about the Parable of the Prodigal Son than you knew before

  1. First of all, you must understand that a parable is a story with a beginning, ending, and a plot conveying one main idea. It is just a story. It didn't really happen. Jesus told parables to teach a moral or spiritual lesson.
  2. Secondly, you must understand that Jesus was provoked to tell these three parables when the Pharisees complained that Jesus was socializing with sinners and tax collectors.
  3. Thirdly, you must understand that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the last one of the three parables. All three parables have the same theme: lost and found. Jesus told all three parables at one sitting, but preachers usually preach only one and that one is the longest one about the prodigal son. All of them must be taught together for effectiveness.
  4. Fourthly, you must understand that the word "prodigal" means "wasteful."
The shepherd leaves the 99 sheep and goes after the one lost sheep.

The shepherd leaves the 99 sheep and goes after the one lost sheep.

Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7)

The first parable is about 100 sheep and one wanders away leaving the 99. Then the shepherd leaves the 99 to go after the one. That which was lost is now found.

The woman sweeps her dirt floor trying to find her lost coin.

The woman sweeps her dirt floor trying to find her lost coin.

Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10)

The second parable is about a woman who had ten coins and lost one. Therefore, only 9 were left. Like the sheep, the set was incomplete with one missing. The woman searched to find the missing coin because it was not just a coin.

It was part of a charm bracelet that her husband had given her. It was grounds for divorce if she didn't find it before he came home. She did find it and rejoiced with her neighbors because that which was lost was now found.


Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)

After understanding the first two parables, you are now ready to focus on the third and longest of the parables in the trilogy. This parable is loaded with customs. Understanding the customs will help you understand the parable.

Custom #1 was when the younger son said, "Father, give me my share of the estate." (Luke 15:12) This request was both disrespectful and irregular because normally an inheritance is given only after the father has died. By asking for the inheritance, the younger son broke the family ties and treated his father as though he was already dead. When the father divided his inheritance, it was equivalent to dividing his life.

By receiving the inheritance, the younger son gave up any further claim on his father's life or estate, as he himself acknowledges later.

Custom #2 was when the younger Jewish son set off for a distant country -- to a Gentile country. After he spent everything, in a Gentile country, away from his Jewish family, he goes to the only source of survival that he could -- to a Gentile who orders him to feed his pigs. This was an abomination to Jews.

For a Jew to even touch a pig meant defilement. For a Jew to feed a pig was great humiliation. For a Jew to eat food that the pigs had touched was to be degraded beyond belief. When the prodigal (wasteful) son comes to his senses about his situation, he returns home.

The prodigal son returns home and his father receives him with opened arms.

The prodigal son returns home and his father receives him with opened arms.

Custom #3 When the father sees the son afar off, he runs to meet him. The father pulls up his garment from around his legs and runs. It was regarded as a loss of dignity for a grown man to run.

Custom #4 The father kisses his son on the neck as a custom of greeting and an expression of forgiveness.

Custom #5 The father gives the younger son the best robe, a ring, and sandals. These gifts are public indications that this son was no longer a servant but a son who has been welcomed back into his house.

Collectively, the items represented the father's best for his son. The ROBE belonged to his father, so this was symbolic of the father honoring the son and treating him like royalty and giving him the clothes off his own back.

The RING represents the father's authority and a symbol of reinstatement to sonship.

The SHOES or SANDALS illustrate that the son is not considered a slave or a servant any longer. Slaves and servants didn't wear shoes but would go barefooted. The prodigal son returned home as a slave. His father changed that by giving him sandals to wear.

Slaves carried and tied their masters' sandals. (Remember John the Baptist said he wasn't worthy to tie Jesus' shoes). The father was indicating to his son that he was receiving him back not as a servant but as a beloved son.

Custom #6 A fatted calf was killed to celebrate. Meat was not a part of the daily diet. It was normally reserved for special celebrations.

The moral of this parable is the same as the moral for the other two that came before it. However, this parable is different because in the other two the owner sought the lost because they were not human. The father did not go after the son because the son had the capability to "come to his senses" and return on his own.

When Jesus told this parable, He devoted the first part of the story to the younger son who left home and wasted his possessions with riotous living. The real lesson is that the loving and forgiving father took the lost son back. He forgave him and celebrated his return. The real "hero" of this story is NOT the younger son. It is the loving and forgiving father.

The father represents God who receives His children back into the fold.

The Older Brother (Luke 15:28-32)

The older brother became angry and refused to go into the celebration. He complained that all those years he had been slaving at home and in the fields and was obedient. Yet he claimed the family never gave him anything, not even a young goat so he could celebrate with his friends. Then the older son reminded his father how he was treating the younger son who had squandered his money. (Luke 15:28-32)

It was hard for the older brother to accept his younger brother when he returned. In this part of the parable, the father's response is contrasted with the older brother's. The father forgave because he was filled with love. The older son refused to forgive because he was bitter about the younger son's return.

In this parable, the older brother represented the Pharisees. Like the Pharisees, the older brother was resentful that sinners were being welcomed. Like the Pharisees, the older brother thought he had sacrificed and done more and was treated unfairly. The younger son got a fatted calf and the older brother didn't even get a goat. Like the Pharisees, the older brother was self-righteous who thought he deserved the recognition; yet it was his younger brother who received special attention.

It was fitting to celebrate because the lost was found. Like the Pharisees, the older son did not want to associate with sinners (his younger brother). This entire parable, like the other two that came before it, was told in response to the Pharisees murmuring about Jesus eating and gathering with tax collectors and sinners.

Hopefully, you have learned something about the Parable of the Prodigal Son that you did not know before. Keep these things in mind when you read it again with fresh eyes.