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I have heard that the Prodigal Son was not truly repentant because in Luke 15:17-19 he was still making demands of his father such as "make me like one of your hired servants":

‘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! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” — NIVUK

Is this theory supported by the original text and Jesus' likely intention? That is, did the son plan his speech simply to get food and lodging?

One part of the text that (I think) supports this theory is that the father does not even let him finish his speech and get to his demand: Luke 15:21-22 (NIVUK):

‘The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

‘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.

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Short Answer: The prodigal son appears to have been repentant.


A Disrespectful Demand?

I don't think the explanation you heard holds water, for two reasons. First, the imperative mood has a "grammatical range" (similar to how vocabulary words have a semantic range); it can be used to indicate a command / demand, but it isn't always used this way. Sometimes it was used for pleas (i.e. requests). For example, in The Lord's Prayer it would be a mistake to read it as "Heavenly Father . . . give us our bread NOW!" It is of course just a plea, which the imperative mood was regularly used for in their day. It only sounds strange because we are so detached from their language and culture.

Second, if you study the general reaction of the father in the parable, he is presented as a very longsuffering, loving, merciful, gracious father who is quick to overlook his son's mistakes and is going overboard to receive him back. If the author had intended to present the father as rebuking his son here, we would need some very clear indicators of this since it would represent such a shift in the way he is being presented -- and we don't see that.

Keep in mind parables are very short and yet are meant to be very powerful. Part of the way an author would accomplish this is by presenting the characters as one-dimensional. If the characters get too complex, the parable gets confusing and loses its punch.

Was The Prodigal Son Repentant?

The entire parable is framed around a young naive lad who leaves his father, suffers, and then comes to his senses and returns to his father, and of course the father happily receives him back. This is a textbook illustration of repentance. In order to claim that he was not truly repentant we would have to move beyond the story and investigate this hypothetical person's actual spiritual condition, mental processes, motive, etc. I'm not sure that's how parables were meant to be handled! The whole idea behind this literary device was to tell a natural story to illustrate more unfamiliar truths, so interpretation starts with understanding the very surface-level story.

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  • I agree with your comments about the Lord's prayer - good point. But I don't doubt that the Father is merciful and gracious - my doubt is whether the Son is 100% repentant. – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE Dec 19 '14 at 6:47
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    @Wikis Understood. I only mention it because one of the alleged evidences appeared to be that the father seemed to be correcting the son by cutting him off. I wanted to show that this is also unlikely, and thus, not a good support for the theory. – Jas 3.1 Dec 19 '14 at 6:55
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I've always believed this parable should have been titled the "Gracious Father" and not the "Prodigal Son." Why? Well, let Scripture interpret Scripture. Luke 15:17 NIV states: “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!"

Can anyone tell me when hunger or food became a virtue? Yes, the Father does later state in the parable that the younger son "was dead and now he lives". However, clearly, the initial motivation for the younger son's repentance is hunger (in his own words) and not a sudden change in the moral condition of his heart.

This is why I think this parable is more about the Father. Perhaps, Jesus is trying to get us to see that when the younger son saw the breadth and depth of the Fathers love when he returned, he was so overwhelmed that that heart of stone simply melted? Just a thought!

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The point of this story is the contrast between the joyless elder son and the joyful father. It was spoken in response to the way the Pharisees and scribes begrudged the welcome that Jesus gave to sinners who out of destitution resorted to Jesus:

Luk 15:1 And all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near to him to hear him; Luk 15:2 and the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, This man receives sinners and eats with them. Luk 15:3 And he spoke to them this parable, saying,

Actually, he tells 3 parables on this theme:

  • the return of the lost sheep

Luk 15:4 What man of you having a hundred sheep, and having lost one of them, does not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness and go after that which is lost, until he find it? Luk 15:5 and having found it, he lays it upon his own shoulders, rejoicing; Luk 15:6 and being come to the house, calls together the friends and the neighbours, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep. Luk 15:7 I say unto you, that thus there shall be joy in heaven for one repenting sinner, more than for ninety and nine righteous who have no need of repentance.

  • the return of the lost drachma

Luk 15:8 Or, what woman having ten drachmas, if she lose one drachma, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek carefully till she find it? Luk 15:9 and having found it she calls together the friends and neighbours, saying, Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost. Luk 15:10 Thus, I say unto you, there is joy before the angels of God for one repenting sinner.

  • the return of the lost son

Luk 15:11 And he said, A certain man had two sons; Luk 15:12 and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give to me the share of the property that falls to me . And he divided to them what he was possessed of. Luk 15:13 And after not many days the younger son gathering all together went away into a country a long way off, and there dissipated his property, living in debauchery. Luk 15:14 But when he had spent all there arose a violent famine throughout that country, and he began to be in want. Luk 15:15 And he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. Luk 15:16 And he longed to fill his belly with the husks which the swine were eating; and no one gave to him. Luk 15:17 And coming to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have abundance of bread, and I perish here by famine. Luk 15:18 I will rise up and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee; Luk 15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. Luk 15:20 And he rose up and went to his own father. But while he was yet a long way off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell upon his neck, and covered him with kisses. Luk 15:21 And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee; I am no longer worthy to be called thy son. Luk 15:22 But the father said to his bondmen, Bring out the best robe and clothe him in it , and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; Luk 15:23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry: Luk 15:24 for this my son was dead and has come to life, was lost and has been found. And they began to make merry. Luk 15:25 And his elder son was in the field; and as, coming up , he drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. Luk 15:26 And having called one of the servants, he inquired what these things might be. Luk 15:27 And he said to him, Thy brother is come, and thy father has killed the fatted calf because he has received him safe and well. Luk 15:28 But he became angry and would not go in. And his father went out and besought him. Luk 15:29 But he answering said to his father, Behold, so many years I serve thee, and never have I transgressed a commandment of thine; and to me hast thou never given a kid that I might make merry with my friends: Luk 15:30 but when this thy son, who has devoured thy substance with harlots, is come, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. Luk 15:31 But he said to him, Child, thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine. Luk 15:32 But it was right to make merry and rejoice, because this thy brother was dead and has come to life again, and was lost and has been found.

In the first two the loss is not the fault of the sheep or coin but the son has behaved reprehensibly and he returns with deep shame, earned poverty and his return is an act of desperation.

There is no suggestion in the 3rd parable that the returning son's fortunes are restored. In fact it is clear that all he gets from his father is a ring, a robe and a job:

Luk 15:31 But he said to him, Child, thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine.

It is the extravagant party, the robe and the ring that sticks in the craw of the elder son in the same way that the joyful feast Jesus was throwing for the repentant IRS agents and other sinners. Jesus is driving home the point that penitents should be received with joy rather than focusing on their being undeserving.

So to answer the question, indeed the return of the son is not because of a change of heart but because of a change of circumstances... he was desperate:

Luk 15:14 But when he had spent all there arose a violent famine throughout that country, and he began to be in want. Luk 15:15 And he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. Luk 15:16 And he longed to fill his belly with the husks which the swine were eating; and no one gave to him. Luk 15:17 And coming to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have abundance of bread, and I perish here by famine. Luk 15:18 I will rise up and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee; Luk 15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

Ultimately his poverty should be presumed by the reader to not just be the winds of chance but rather the providence of his heavenly father driving him home as we see in God's dealings with Israel:

2Ch 7:13 If I shut up the heavens that there be no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people; 2Ch 7:14 and my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from the heavens, and forgive their sin, and heal their land.

Some background on the parable can be found in Esau's squandering of his birthright:

Heb 12:16 lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one meal sold his birthright; Heb 12:17 for ye know that also afterwards, desiring to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, (for he found no place for repentance) although he sought it earnestly with tears.

And Jonah's gourd:

Jon 4:5 And Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. Jon 4:6 And Jehovah Elohim prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to deliver him from his trouble. And Jonah was exceeding glad because of the gourd. Jon 4:7 But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd, that it withered. Jon 4:8 And it came to pass, when the sun arose, that God prepared a sultry east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, so that he fainted; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live. Jon 4:9 And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, unto death. Jon 4:10 And Jehovah said, Thou hast pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: Jon 4:11 and I, should not I have pity on Nineveh, the great city, wherein are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

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