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The story is found in Luke 15:11-32 of the New Testament of The Bible. It refers to a son who returns home after squandering his fortunes, and the term "prodigal son" has passed into wide usage to mean a son or other dependent who does not live up to the expectations of those who have launched him (or her) into life or career.
In the story told by Jesus, a man has two sons. The younger demands his share of his inheritance while his father is still living, and goes off to a distant country where he "wasted his substance with riotous living" and eventually has to take work as a swineherd. There he comes to his senses, and determines to return home and throw himself on his father's mercy. But when he returns home, his father greets him with open arms, and does not even give him a chance to express his repentance; he kills a "fatted calf" to celebrate his return. The older brother becomes angry. But the father responds:
- It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
Although the story is traditionally referred to as "The Prodigal Son", this title is not found in the gospel, and many commentators have argued that it would be better called "The Lost Son", showing its parallels to the parables of the "Lost Sheep" and "Lost Coin" which immediately precede it in Luke 15: in all three the theme is the concern of God for the repenting sinner rather than the unfailingly righteous. Indeed, many people with no other exposure to the word "prodigal" mistakenly believe it means lost: it actually means extravagant (as in Charles Darwin's description in Origin of Species of nature as "prodigal in variety, though niggard in innovation"). Others have argued that the parable might be better called the story of "The Two Sons", to emphasise the role of the elder son, and the lesson against envy and narrowmindedness that it contains.
The story is one of several very well known parables of Jesus that are only found in Luke's gospel, and like the others, it expresses Luke's distinctive theology of the unconditional love and grace of God. The forgiveness of the son is not conditional on good works, since he has plainly done nothing good from start to finish of the story, nor even on any expression of remorse of his sins, because the story does not report that the Prodigal expresses any. However, most Christian theologians would argue that Jesus was not suggesting that repentance is unnecessary, because remorse for misdeeds is only one part of repentance. The correct understanding of the term as it is used in the New Testament (and, indeed, in the Hebrew Bible) is a change in the direction of one's life—which the Prodigal Son literally demonstrates.
The Eastern Orthodox Church traditionally reads this story on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, which in their liturgical year is the Sunday before Meatfare Sunday and about two weeks before the beginning of Great Lent. One common kontakion hymn of the occasion reads,
- I have recklessly forgotten Your glory, O Father;
- And among sinners I have scattered the riches which You gave to me.
- And now I cry to You as the Prodigal:
- I have sinned before You, O merciful Father;
- Receive me as a penitent and make me as one of Your hired servants.
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