From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, prodigal is defined as "recklessly extravagant; characterized by wasteful expenditure". In the parable of the prodigal son, we are presented with a very interesting scenario. Feeling an urge to "sow his wild oats", the younger of two sons asks his father for his half of the inheritance - now. Instead of following the normal course of events and waiting for his father to die and pass-on his wealth to the two sons, the younger one gets impatient, and demands his half.
Shortly thereafter, he gathers up his gear, and heads out on his own, away from family, friends - even away from his own country and customs - and goes into a "far country". From the text of the parable, "there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country." Realizing now his folly of having spent all he brought with him, he resorts to working feeding pigs, desiring to be fed with the slop the pigs were eating.
After continuing in this sorry state of affairs for some time, he comes to his senses, realizing his "father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!" He thus determines to return to his father's house, and throw himself on the mercy of his father, planning to work as a hired servant: "I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."
To his amazement, though, when he is yet "a long way off," his father runs to meet him! His father is described as to have "felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him." The son, however, is apparently untouched immediately by his father's overtures, and confesses to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." After such an extended period of time away from his home and family, he has presumed that, at best, his father will take him on as a hired servant - he can't imagine what his father does next. "But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.'" Not only did his father forgive his previous squanderings and prodigality, but he lavishes love and favor upon him!
Through this, though, the older son is grousing. As he's coming in from working in the field he hears a party going on. When he discovers that his younger brother has returned, and the celebration is for him, he gets angry. He's upset, not because his younger brother, who went off and wasted half of his father's wealth on profligate living, is back, but because his father is making an enormous fuss over him. "Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!"
But the father's response to his older son is as gracious and celebratory as his joy over his missing son's return, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found."
There are at least three meanings that can be derived from the parable. The first, simplest, and most obvious, is a father's enduring love for his children, even when they have wasted opportunity, time, money, and position on personal passions. The father's portrayal shows an eagerness to receive his son back to himself. Beyond eagerness, the wording seems to indicate that the father was on a constant look-out for his son, hoping that he would return home. And when that joyous day did come, the father is shown to be eager to receive his lost son back into full familial fellowship.
In a sermon delivered on the evening of 29-03-1891, C.H. Spurgeon says of this passage that it reflects the "overflowing love of God toward the returning sinner." [CHS]
"Before the prodigal son received these kisses of love, he had said in the far country, "I will arise and go to my father." He had, however, done more than that, else his father's kiss would never have been upon his cheek. The resolve had become a deed: "He arose, and came to his father." [CHS] Indeed, not only had the son come up with a plan to return, he actually followed-through with his intentions, and did head back to his father's home. As a picture of God's willingness to forgive sin, Spurgeon deftly says, "when you give God an inch, He will give you an ell." [CHS] God's willingness to forgive in this parable is contrasted with our innate reticence to do the same. People tend to be unwilling to forgive each other for even the slightest grievances, let alone for the mammoth infractions we each have committed against God's perfect and holy self.
As a picture of forgiveness, this parable is beautiful: God, the supreme ruler of all things in time and space, determines to come down and receive poor wandering sinners. Much more than that, He doesn't just say to the returning sinner, "you are forgiven," and leave it at that, but embraces him, and celebrates with all the rest of his servants about this returned, soul who was lost but now is found. John Calvin writes, "But because they despised the good precepts of God, He forsook them; and they being thus forsaken of God, fell away into evil statutes, just as that prodigal son, being forsaken by his father, or rather having forsaken his father, fell into luxury and every evil." [JC]
Even through all of this, though, when the sinner comes to realize what has happened to him, and begs his Maker for forgiveness, God is ready there by him to grant forgiveness and restoration. God's readiness is reflected in Revelation 3:20, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me." And in John 3:16-17 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." Spurgeon again says, "The compassion of God is followed by swift movements. He is slow to anger, but He is quick to bless." [CHS]
The third meaning that can be understood from the parable is that of God's different 'families' which He is working to bring together again, those of the original chosen race of God, Israel, and those chosen in the new covenant amongst the gentiles. Philip Culbertson says, "The parable of the prodigal son has long been interpreted by those involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue as concerning the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. This reading holds that God the Father has two sons: the Jewish elder brother and the Gentile younger. The Gentile, having squandered his inheritance and learned the ways of the world, is welcomed home by the Father God, while the Jew is assured, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours'" [PC]
Matthew Henry writes, "He had two sons, one of them a solid grave youth, reserved and austere, sober himself, but not at all good-humored to those about him; such a one would adhere to his education, and not be easily drawn from it; but the other volatile and mercurial, and impatient of restraint, roving, and willing to try his fortune, and, if he fall into ill hands, likely to be a rake, notwithstanding his virtuous education. Now this latter represents the publicans and sinners, whom Christ is endeavoring to bring to repentance, and the Gentiles, to whom the apostles were to be sent forth to preach repentance. The former represents the Jews in general, and particularly the Pharisees, whom he was endeavoring to reconcile to that grace of God which was offered to, and bestowed upon, sinners." [MH]
It must be kept in mind that Jesus was speaking to a contemporary audience of Jews, who did not yet (and to a great degree still do not) understand that God's plan of salvation went far beyond just the nation of Israel, that it extended to gentiles who would believe on His son. The picture, then, of gentiles coming to the knowledge of God's mercy and grace in repenting of their ways to Him and being welcomed into His family, but being despised by the Jews, who for centuries had been God's people, is very poignant. The older brother, the "original" chosen sons of God, is understandably miffed about the new (or rather, returning) members of the family being welcomed with such openness. Since the time of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they had known that God's special presence was with them, as long as they followed His word.
Interestingly, when the parable is reinserted into its proper context (the whole of Luke 15), it is obvious that the surrounding parables and lessons are all about seeking for the lost. In the preceding parables, Jesus uses examples of a shepherd losing 1 sheep from his flock and going on a search for it, not resting until he has found it (Luke 15:4-7). Likewise, the parable of the woman losing a coin and searching for it in her house, leaving no cranny unchecked shows a great diligence and priority associated with searching for that which is lost.
In the context of His immediate audience, the younger son's job during the famine would have been especially offensive. Among the animals listed in the old testament that were unclean to the Israelites were pigs (Leviticus 11:7-8). Being forced into working feeding pigs was about the most detestable labor a Jew could imagine undertaking. By using such an illustration, Jesus could deliver his point far more forcefully than if he had picked some other menial, but not abhorrent, task.