In Luke 15:11-32, a parable is told by Jesus to a large crowd. A father has two sons, one of which asks for his share of inheritance to go out into the world. After spending all his money on partying and women, he is forced to scrounge around for food, stooping so low as to take food scraps from a pig's trough. Then he remembers his father, so he returns home and offers to be his father's servant. Thinking his was son was dead, the jubilant father has a celebration and kills the fatted calf. The older son, the son who was responsible, becomes jealous. He says, "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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!" The father responds with, "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."

I know this is a parable about forgiveness, but from an objective standpoint, it also says we should celebrate apologetic irresponsibiliy and neglect hard work. That would be like getting a raise for accidentally burning down the office building and saying you are sorry, but getting fired for doing good work. It would be more logical to have the son become a servant and work his way back to his previous esteem position.

Another problem I have with this parable is when the father says "everything I have is yours," but according to the brother, he never even permitted him "to have a young goat." No one ever appreciates the hard worker. Does this mean if there actually is a Heaven that those people who were good all their life will be admitted but not celebrated, while those who convert on their death bed will be given a huge party?

Where does one draw the line? Wouldn't you be able to plead at the pearly gates that you "meant to be a good person," you just didn't have enough time? Why does being physically dead prevent you from trying to reach salvation? If God turns souls away after they have lost their body, what kind of forgiver is he/she? And if he is allowed to be a mediocre forgiver, why not everyone else? Why should I forgive people that have wronged me if God only forgives bodies. Maybe God is a vampire, and only bodies are useful to him... This parable is like a hint, telling us we don't have to live good lives, we just have to ask for forgiveness when we can't make it on our own. Do whatever you want, just be sure to ask forgiveness of the Almighty, NON-Contraditing Lord before you die!

Inevitably, it doesn't make any difference. This parable is one of the Catholic faith's staples. Any attempt to question its other meanings would be shut down quickly in an attempt to keep the lambs blindly following the shepard.

I've had a problem with the parable of The Prodigal Son ever since first hearing it in Sunday School. Look at it from the good son's perspective, and there's no reward for being good; look at it from the perspective of the errant younger son, and there's license to screw up as long as you want, as long as you recant in the end. But what if you look at it from the father's perspective?

I'm a school-teacher; I work in a small private school. We use a lot of incentive programs and token economies with the kids. One day last year, one of my students who has a horrible track record with turning in homework actually turned it in on time. I quickly praised her and gave her a gold star (literally. My kids are big on stickers.) Of course, this started an uproar from the rest of the class. They had done their homework, and they wanted stickers, too. Without really knowing where I was headed (and feeling a little weird about bringing up a Bible story), I asked if anyone knew the parable of the Prodigal Son. One kid did, and was happy to relate it, casting himself and his friends in the starring roles. (In his updated version, the younger son ends up working at McDonald's, not for pay but for scraps...)

When my student finished telling the story, I told my kids how I'd never liked it, and always thought it was unfair. But thinking about it in terms of my classroom, I found it suddenly made sense. Pupils who do well, and get good grades, and complete their homework are rewarded; they know that they're successful, they feel good about themselves, and they don't constantly have that sinking, guilty feeling that they're about to get in trouble. I don't value my honor roll students any less than the ones who don't do well, but I do make more of a fuss over the underachievers when they are successful. They need the positive feedback. They need reinforcement of their good behavior. They aren't getting the subtle, intrinsic rewards that the good students take for granted.

So maybe this is the point. Maybe the older brother just wasn't aware of how good he had it. Maybe it's not about how much squandering you can fit in before you have to come crawling back, looking for forgiveness. Maybe the parable is supposed to be viewed from God's perspective, from the point of view of a shepherd who wants all of his flock safe and close by.

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is an interesting and sometimes difficult parable, but to say that the Church will attempt to shut down any questions about it is unfair, and patently false. In fact, the Church has already answered many of the questions in serendipitous13's writeup, through Sacred Scripture and through other documents, and through the teachings of tradition. (If you attack the Catholic Church, please learn her positions first.)

First of all, Jesus in this parable does not say that we should "celebrate apologetic irresponsibiliy and neglect hard work."
Clearly in the parable, the father is happy because his wayward son has returned, and it is the returning that gives him joy, not the sin he has committed. This is analogous to giving a child a reward for improving her grades. Are we rewarding her for having poor grades in the first place? Of course not! Also, this parable was given in the context of many other discourses. The same God in the same Gospels told people not to commit any of the sins the wayward brother committed, to follow the commandments, love God, and be faithful (e.g. Matthew 19,16-21; 23,37-39).

Regarding the question over who will be more celebrated in heaven, the devout follower or the deathbed convert:
First of all, Christ has made it clear that some will be higher in heaven than others, and it has nothing to do with this parable. God is overjoyed when a lost sheep returns, but in terms of place in heaven, after the Father and Christ at his side, the lowest now shall be highest then. The Gospel is clear that what gets you merit in heaven isn't waiting until you are about to die to convert; rather, it is being humble, poor, meek, constant, and ever-forgiving (e.g. Matthew 19,30). The student who improves her grades might get rewards, smiles, handshakes, and congratulations (and rightly so). But her overall GPA will still be lower than the student who worked hard throughout (also rightly so). The Gospel repeately supports this position; taking one parable out of the context of others is misleading.

Regarding the forgiveness of people after they die:
To clear up confusion, The Catholic Church does not hold the perverse view that God will not forgive you just because you are a soul whose body has died. If you are not ready for heaven but have sin, you will be cleansed in purgatory. That is why we pray for the dead. God is not a vampire who only cares for your body; in fact, the Gospel says (paraphrased): do not fear those who can take your life, but fear God, who is in control of your soul. Because God wants to forgive anyone, dead or not, and only sends those to hell who are stained with mortal sin and choose of their own free will to permanently reject him, He is the ultimate forgiver. Such a great forgiver that we who read the parable of the Prodigal Son are sometimes shocked by how generous He would be to the son who returned, when we weaker, unenlightened humans would seek revenge, or hold a grudge, or make him accountable (See the Universal Catechism, paragraphs 1030-2, 1855-8, 1861). Note: the situation is more complicated when the person is question is unbaptized, see my writeup in the node: Limbo.

Finally, regarding waiting until before death to ask forgiveness:
You cannot fool God! God will be overjoyed if you return to him with repentence, but there are two factors that prevent you from getting away with converting to God at the last minute. First of all, you are still responsible for all the sin you have committed. You must confess, if not to a priest than at least personally; you must repent; and you must go through penance, either on Earth or in Purgatory. Secondly, if you purposely wait to ask forgiveness in order to have more fun sinning, that itself is a sin! And you have to honestly repent of it and do the extra penance! (See the Universal Catechism, Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 2, Article 4: Penance and Reconciliation).

To me this parable is the epitome of all other Lucan parables, because it exemplifies the way in which Jesus communicated difficult concepts. If the idea was: do good and you are rewarded, do bad and you are punished, there would be no need for parables. There would be no need for a New Testament and Covenant! All that stuff was covered in the Old Law. Jesus' teachings go against the grain. He ate with sinners and prostitutes, talked with and taught women, praised the compassion of a good Samaritan (a foreigner of a nation hostile to the Jews), taught to forgive and reward people even when it doen't make sense according to human societal values, taught to sacrifice one's self for His cause rather then fight with arms. There is a reason that the "upright," rich, confident, law-abiding people on top wanted to crucify him. Not that we shouldn't be upright and confident also; be wary of trying to oversimplify Christian teaching.
For more on this line of reasoning, see the great node: Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.

Tiefling suggested citing the Anglican prayer (from Prayer C, used during Lent in Rite I, according to my research, but I'm not Anglican):

Although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins,
to offer you any sacrifice,
yet we pray that you will accept this
the duty and service that we owe.
Do not weigh our merits, but pardon our offences,
and fill us all who share in this holy communion
with your grace and heavenly blessing;

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most willfully misunderstood stories in the New Testament. It does not teach that there is no reward for being good. Indeed, the prodigal soon never regains his inheritance. As the father tells the good son, "everything I have is yours".

The moral of the story is that one should forgive. The father forgives the son, and welcomes him back. Indeed, he sees it as a kind of resurrection. What the father does not do is forget. The prodigal son is left to be a workman.

This ties in with the trancendental nature of Christianity. The works of this world are irrelevent to salvation. God does not care about matter. What He does care about is love. At the end of the parable the Prodigal Son is penniless (irrelevent) and loved (invaluable).

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