Lessons From the Story of the Prodigal Son

I spent time preparing a sermon so I could fill in for our pastor at church this last Sunday. I have always related to the story of the lost son (Gospel of Luke, Chapter 15) and I thought it could be a good platform to share my story.

But, while I was studying the text I started to recognize some patterns that I really appreciated about the father character.

If you’re not familiar with this story then read below: (text from Bible Gateway)

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 propertybetween them.

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.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants 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 servants.’ 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.

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.’

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.

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.’

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!’

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.’”

What are your feelings towards the father character? Is he a good dad?

I actually want to be this kind of dad; I really see the value in it.

Here are characteristics I saw in the father’s behavior. I think it’s the same way God treats people. It’s the same way I want to treat my kids.

God gives freely

If God is there and He created everything then these gifts seem to come at no cost to us. We didn’t ask to be born. We didn’t ask for our bodies to work the way they do. He gives these gifts to us without any expectation of repayment.

But Didn’t God Curse Adam and Eve?

Yes. God cursed them. But what if it wasn’t a curse so much as it was a consequence of living outside of God’s garden. Inside the garden, there were only good things while outside of the garden thorns and weeds grew. It’s just an idea. We don’t really know how it went down. We only know what was shared through the generations.

God grants autonomy 

People are generally free when you look around the world today. It’s difficult to point anywhere and say, “God is oppressing those people.” Wherever people are oppressed it is because someone else is abusing their perception of authority or power, not because God is oppressing them.

God allows natural consequences

God even allows us to suffer the consequences of other people’s choices, which doesn’t always make sense.

Why Does God Allow Natural Disasters?

In short, I don’t know. Many have pointed to God’s apparent ambiguity toward mankind as evidence that He does not exist. I respect that choice. I certainly wouldn’t ask someone to believe something that they see no evidence for.

God waits for repentance

There will be some people who spend their whole lives angry at God and never actually repent. When I say, “repent,” I really mean to recognize that God is the giver of all good things and that He is the only one capable of sustaining our life. But maybe you’re not interested in living forever. Maybe that’s not appealing to you. I’ve met at least one person that said the idea of living forever in a place called heaven doesn’t sound interesting at all.

My point is not to convince you that it is good or isn’t good; I only want to show what I see.

God Created Humans With the Same Characteristics of Himself

Maybe none of this makes sense to you though. Maybe you don’t understand who God is and why it matters. I think it matters because God made us like himself. The rules which govern our bodies are like the characteristics that he portrays. We smile because he does. We love because he does. We rage because he does. We communicate because he does. We are selfish because he is.

If you don’t recognize who God is then maybe you’ll recognize who he isn’t. I’ll describe the characteristics of many parents that I observe in our world today. Maybe you could decide which person you like more, and the person you’d like to become.

Ungodly Parents

Parents’ Gifts Come with Strings Attached

Instead of giving freely parents often attach a string to their gifts and demand that children behave in certain ways to get those gifts. Those aren’t gifts by the way. The father in the story didn’t say, “Now Henry, I need you to be careful with this money and make daddy proud,” did he? Wouldn’t that feel condescending? But I hear it all the time. If I’m going to give a gift I want the receiver to know that it is completely free of any obligation. If it isn’t then it’s not a gift; it’s just a wage.

Parents Often Hover

Instead of granting autonomy parents often oversee every minute detail and criticize every step along the way. This criticism turns into this nagging voice inside our heads. We start to memorize that voice and make it part of our own. Before you know it, we’re talking just like they are. Why do you think so many children think they can’t do anything? The father in the story doesn’t follow the son to make sure he stays safe. He recognizes that there’s only so much he can control about how his son lives. He may have not liked the fact that the son took the inheritance to live far away but he knew that trying to control every choice could push him even further.

Parents Do Not Allow for Natural Consequences

Instead of allowing natural consequences parents shield children from things they’re afraid could hurt them, even though they lived through similar mistakes and even admit to being better people because of those mistakes. Trying to protect someone from making a mistake is great but if the mistake is already made then shouldn’t they experience the consequences?

As far as we can tell, the father didn’t send out a search party when a famine hit the land. He must have figured that whatever the son was doing that he would do his best to survive.

Parents Often Demand an Apology

Instead of waiting for repentance, parents demand an apology. I hear parents demand apologies from children all the time. But what would you rather have? Would you rather have a fake apology now or a real apology later?

I’d prefer the apology to be heartfelt. I’m willing to wait for it too. If I spend time demanding an apology from someone then I feel they might resent me for it later.

It’s All About Relationships

I’ve spent some time reading some classic books lately about relationships. The two big ones are Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I feel like these two writers would agree with the principles exhibited by the father in this story. I see many of the same principles highlighted in their writings.

The reason these principles work is because they take into account the other person’s basic psychology. Regardless of age, we all want to be treated with respect.

A respectful person doesn’t bribe you with gifts. They give gifts out of the kindness of their heart.

A respectful person doesn’t hover and criticize your behavior. They give you space to work freely and at a reasonable pace.

A respectful person doesn’t punish you. They allow you to experience the consequences of your choices.

A respectful person doesn’t demand your apologies. They wait and allow your character to develop to the point that you recognize how you hurt them.

I hope you found this helpful. It was certainly enriching to me to write it!


Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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