The story of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15: 11-32 is one of the most iconic parables in all of Scripture. There is arguably more artwork (sculptures, paintings, literature, stained glass) focused on the Prodigal Son than any of the other 30 parables in the Bible. It’s an epic story, praised for its beauty, extravagant grace, surprising narrative and simplicity.
But do you know the story as well as you think you do?
Here are 22 insights from the Prodigal that could surprise you, but even if they don’t, it’s a powerful reminder about God’s extravagant grace toward us—his sons and daughters.
1. The word “Prodigal” doesn’t mean rebellious or lost—it means “wasteful” and “extravagant.” The word origin refers to a person who’s reckless and squanders their wealth.
2. The parable is fictional. The events in the story didn’t happen, but they’re meant to unpack a powerful truth through storytelling.
3. The story wasn’t told to encourage Christian parents with rebellious kids—it was told by Jesus to Pharisees and scribes to unpack the lavish love of God for sinners.
4. The parable of the Prodigal is the last of three parables Jesus shares about loss and redemption—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Lost Son—and it’s best read in that context to understand the full force of Jesus’ narrative.
5. When the prodigal son asked for his inheritance, it was like saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” It was a huge insult, weighted with shame and guilt.
6. In the Jewish culture at this time, doing something like this would’ve likely cut you off from the community forever. And being a part of the greater community was critical for survival, health and overall quality of life.
7. In reality, the father would’ve had to split up the land and sell a portion of his assets to give his son the requested inheritance.
8. When the prodigal son was done partying and found himself alone and hungry, he took a job feeding slop to pigs. Why is this significant? In the Jewish culture pigs were “unclean” animals. If a Jewish man longed for the food of pigs it was definitely hitting “rock bottom.”
9. The prodigal son decides to head home—thinking that maybe his father would receive him as a servant. This is proof that the son didn’t understand the depth of his father’s love and compassion.
10. The prodigal son rehearses a speech, but he never gets to use it.
11. When the father sees his son return, he runs to greet him. Running in the Ancient Near Eastern culture was taboo at that time. It required a man to pull up his tunic to his hips and expose his legs (to keep from tripping). The practice was frowned upon and typically brought shame and embarrassment.
12. If a Jewish son squandered his money, giving it over to the Gentiles, he would’ve been cut off from the community upon his return. The father likely ran to meet his son to reach him before anyone else in the community had a chance to confront him. The fact that the Father runs to receive him is scandalous and shocking and goes against the cultural norm.
13. We title the story “The Prodigal Son,” but it could be just as easily titled “The Running Father,” says New Testament scholar N.T. Wright.
14. The father didn’t scold the son but gave him a lavish welcome home party—calling for his servants to prepare the fattened calf, a ring, a robe and shoes. This is God’s stance toward repentant sinners, and it’s always bold, surprising and overflowing with joy.
15. The father gave his son a robe to restore his dignity in front of the community. No doubt the son was tattered and dirty from feeding slop to pigs and the father clothes him as an act of love and compassion and to honor his son in full view of the village.
16. The father also gave the son a ring. Wearing rings during this time in history was a sign of both wealth and position. The power of this symbol reflects the father’s desire to restore his son as a family member and a respectable member of the community—under the shadow of the father—once again.
17. Next, the father asked his servants to get his son a pair of sandals. This, perhaps the most practical gift, was a gesture that said, “I want you around for a while.” The sandals prepared him to walk with the father without fear of cutting or soiling his feet from the ground.
18. But there was one last gift—the fattened calf. This kind of extravagant feast was reserved for incredibly important occasions. No longer would his son settle for the pods of pigs—he would now dine on the best meat available in the presence of his family and, likely, everyone in the village.
19. The story has a part two about the older son, that often gets overlooked, but it’s just as important.
20. The older son represented the Pharisees and scribes—they felt disrespected by God’s scandalous grace to the sinner and the outcast. Besides, they’ve been keeping the rules since day one—why didn’t they get a party?
21. The father’s response to the older son? “All I have is yours too, but this requires a celebration—my son was dead and now he’s alive again!” This is a great picture of God’s stance to the self-righteous sinner—kind, direct, generous, but still focused on the power of repentance.
22. The parable ends with the refusal of the older brother to attend the feast. We don’t know what happened, but Jesus left the story hanging, open-ended for questions and discussion, as he often does.