Yes, The Parable of the Prodigal Son Is Unfair and Uncomfortable.

It’s customary for believers to praise the parable of the prodigal son.

“Isn’t that amazing?” we ask each other, overjoyed.  “Look at that father’s grace!  It’s exactly how God responds to us!”  You are a prodigal son and I am a prodigal son and we are all of us prodigal sons.  Isn’t that wonderful, we say.  Isn’t that such amazing grace?

And it is wonderful.  And it is amazing grace.  But I’d like to be honest and say that if the parable of the prodigal son doesn’t sometimes irritate you just a little, you might be missing another truth inside it.  Because along with being a story about a father’s grace and unconditional acceptance and love, the parable is also a story about how love violates the very principle of fairness.  It is a story about how audacious and sometimes uncomfortable God’s love and forgiveness can be.

Because the prodigal is, of course, the typical wastrel: he squanders his inheritance on hard living and indulgence, then winds up slinking home after he hits hard times to beg back into the family as a servant.  He is undeserving, a family embarrassment, a maker of bad choices.  He has done everything wrong that it is possible to do wrong.

But the prodigal’s older brother hasn’t.  His older brother is a study in contrast.  This older brother did not ask for his share of the inheritance early.  He remained home with his father as a good son was supposed to and was diligent in his work to the point that he is out in the fields the day his younger brother arrives home.  He acknowledges to his father that he has worked hard, has never disobeyed, and has not, apparently, been indulged – not even to celebrate with his friends.

The prodigal earns a feast, the fatted calf, and his father’s embrace.  The good son, on the other hand, earns a few words from his father:

My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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 (Luke 15:31-32).

I hope this makes you at least a little uncomfortable.  And I hope that it does because I see it make believers uncomfortable when it plays out in real life.  We’re fine with the father’s embrace of the prodigal in theory, but in practice it’s another matter entirely.

  • If you’ve ever cringed when a “sinner” marched back into church post-sin and expected to be welcomed as though nothing ever happened, you’re sitting with the prodigal’s brother.
  • If you’ve ever wondered why nothing good seems to come your way, even though you’ve done everything right (and good things always seem to come the way of people who have done nothing right), you’re sitting with the prodigal’s brother.
  • If you’ve ever felt bitterness that good guys seem to finish last and the ones who make the most mistakes receive the highest reward, you’re sitting with the prodigal’s brother.
  • If you’ve ever differentiated between “the really good Christians who don’t cause much trouble” and “the Christians who mess up all the time,” you’re sitting with the prodigal’s brother.

It’s a human response, because the father’s welcome of his son is not human.  It’s not fair, or deserved, or earned.  It isn’t “right” in the sense that we see “rightness.” It doesn’t match our standards of justice or fairness.

The same grace is given to all when it is requested: to those who have many sins, and to those who have few.  To those who have been “good” in our understanding of the term, and to those who have been bad.  That can be daunting to those of us who try to do our best, always – even at cost to ourselves.  To those who struggle to do the right thing, always, even when others don’t see.  To those of us who feel as though we somehow “deserve” more for our longtime efforts to please God over those who have, as my grandmother once put it, stumbled through the door to heaven still smelling like smoke.

As believers, we must recognize that we have to put those ideas of “fairness” and “deserving” aside, because grace obliterates them.  Our walk with God and our relative reward is not about who has been the best for the longest.  It is about joy that all of us – longtime followers or new believers, the ones who make the least mistakes to the ones who make the most – get to be there at all, to share in the same family, the same love, the same grace.

And don’t despair.  The God who rejoices over the returned prodigal is the God who remembers you, too – you who feel invisible and passed-over in spite of your continued, earnest efforts to please Him and to do right by Him.  It’s easy to pass up the father’s words of encouragement to his eldest son for the fatted calf and the feast, but take a moment to pause just for those:

You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.

To you who are faithful and feel unrecognized, that is your ultimate comfort.  Return to it.  Memorize it.  Embrace it.  And remind yourself of it frequently as you re-calibrate your thinking to remember that is is by grace alone we are all here together: prodigal, responsible brother, or otherwise.

By grace, always by grace, and nothing more.


8 thoughts on “Yes, The Parable of the Prodigal Son Is Unfair and Uncomfortable.

  1. High school students in my neighborhood have used this story to justify sex and rug user noting that God will forgive all, and as long as you repent, sin is permissible. It is very hard to refute this because the message does indeed seem to say, hire prostitutes and go on drunken orgies, just come back to me eventually and all is fine. Why live the pious life if it is not rewarded any more than the down trodden sinner?


    1. God will certainly forgive all, but I find it a misreading of the text to say that everything is “fine” once the prodigal comes back. That discounts what he suffers during his estrangement: clearly unbearable physical circumstances, as well as emotional guilt and regret and a severing of his relationship with his father (as he comes back initially in hopes of being welcomed as a servant, not a son). The vices in which he chooses to indulge take a very real and meaningful toll, and though God forgives all, I think the son rightfully grieves and laments what he has lost: years with his father and his family that he spent on folly. To those teenagers I would offer that God’s forgiveness comes freely, but doesn’t erase the natural consequences and suffering we experience from sin.

      Also and most importantly of note: we know that the father joyfully welcomes back the son with unconditional love. But the father was also deeply grieved by his leaving. To those teenagers I would also offer that what we do when we deify our own wants can also cause others pain – and though they may welcome us back unconditionally, it doesn’t erase the hurt others have suffered because of our choices, either.


  2. I concur with SYRIN. It is very difficult to preach obedience, but yet emphasize the grace in this story. I think the church tends to focus on the grace more because it resonates as the testimony of many born again believers.

    To what you said about the consequences of sin. If you look at this story, there were none – Jesus said – the son was restored .. What he experienced in the world was not a lasting consequence but rather a temporary setback. Were not even sure if either sons motives were genuine. So how do you reconcile that with consequences for sin ? This is the danger of highlighting the grace-only aspect of this story, it sends a confusing message that we can sin and come back to God without consequence – in fact we may be rewarded !. It also sends a message that there is no real value in obedience.

    When presenting this text, it is important to explain that Jesus used extreme examples to break down complicated spiritual topics, but it is up to us to apply them to everyday life. Human relationships and standards do not always work as described in this story. People need to understand salvation is through faith and grace, but that God also honors obedience. When we disobey there may or may not be consequences. We are guaranteed a smooth transition home, like that of the Prodigal Son. There may be lasting consequences for our actions.


    1. Oh, I am certain there were consequences. I am certain the the returned prodigal lived with them. Perhaps not visibly external ones, but I am sure there were internal reckonings he dealt with long after, as we all do.

      Salvation that comes through faith and grace is valuable, and obedience is valuable too, as an act of love for God and a desire to grow close to him and recognize who He is. I agree! Thank you for your thoughts.


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