On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, the gospel reading is the famous parable of the “prodigal son.”
It is a moving story that teaches us about God’s love for us and his willingness to forgive us no matter what we have done.
But there is more to the story than meets the eye . . . much more.
Here are 12 things you need to know.
1. What does “prodigal” mean?
The word “prodigal” is mysterious to us. Almost the only time we ever hear it is in the title of this parable.
It’s basic meaning is “wasteful”–particularly with regard to money.
It comes from Latin roots that mean “forth” (pro-) and “to drive” (agere). It indicates the quality of a person who drives forth his money–who wastes it by spending with reckless abandon.
That’s what the prodigal son does in this story.
2. Why does Jesus tell this parable?
This question is answered at the beginning of Luke 15, where we read:
 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him [Jesus].
 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
 So he told them this parable . . .
Actually, Jesus tells three parables:
- The parable of the lost sheep
- The parable of the lost coin
- The parable of the lost son (or, as we know it, the parable of the prodigal son)
All three parables are on the subject of recovering the lost, which is the implicit explanation of why Jesus receives sinners and eats with them: They are lost, and he wants to recover them.
Interestingly, the parable of the prodigal son (and the parable of the lost coin) occur only in Luke.
3. What’s happening in the parable?
Jesus’ parables are based on real-life situations, though they often veer off from the expected course of events in surprising ways. Those surprises teach us lessons.
Here, Jesus relates the situation of a father who has two sons, one of whom can’t wait for his inheritance.
In Jewish society, there were laws regarding how inheritances were typically divided. The oldest brother got a double share (cf. Deut. 21:17), while the other brothers got a single share.
When there were two brothers (as here), the older brother would get 2/3rds of the estate, and the younger brother would get 1/3rd.