The Problem with the Prodigal Son

Jen Bradbury
Aug 06 · 5 min read

Over the last several months, my small group and I have been slowly making our way through Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son , a book that has helped me to better understand and appreciate the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

To be honest, this is a story that I have always loved. At various points in my faith journey, I have seen myself in both the older and younger brother. What's more, I love the image of the Father in this story, unashamedly running towards his rebellious son. This stunning picture of grace has always captivated me.

I thought for sure it would also captivate my students.

Boy, was I wrong.

When we discussed this passage as part of our recent Mission Trip to the Quad Cities, what I learned is that for teens, this story is confusing.

The Prodigal Son confuses teens who have been taught by our American culture that you get what you deserve; That we should, above all else, value fairness and equality.

To such teens, the story of the Prodigal Son is not about extravagant love. It's about a boy – the younger son – who did something very wrong and got away with it. It's about an older brother who did everything right and yet never got a party.

To students, the story of the Prodigal Son is far more about unfairness than it is about grace.

If this is true, then as youth workers, what does this mean for us?

First, it means that when it comes to reading Scripture, what matters is not our experiences, but those of our students.

Secondly, it's important to remember that much of the trouble students have with this story is simply not their fault; It's a result of where they are in their cognitive development. Most junior high students (and even many underclassmen in high school) still think in concrete, not abstract, terms. This means their thinking is characterized by a predominance of actual objects and events and the absence of concepts and generalizations. In short, it means their thinking is governed by logic.

And let's be honest. The Prodigal Son is not a story that follows modern-day, American logic. If it were, the older son – the one who followed all the rules, honored his father, and did everything right - would have gotten the party, not his younger brother.

No wonder this story seems unfair. It is unfair, especially to students who are still thinking largely in concrete terms.

This means that as youth workers, we need to shelve our typical questions about this story (For example: Are you more like the older brother or the younger brother?) and instead acknowledge our students' confusion. We must enter into it with them by giving them the opportunity to articulate the questions a story like this actually raises for them.

If the father in the story is supposed to be God and he behaves unfairly, then is God unfair?
Why should we worship and follow an unfair God?

We don't necessarily have to answer these questions for our students, but we must be willing to hear, acknowledge, and sit with them a while. We must be willing to guide our students' search for the answers.

Once we've done that, we can shift our focus back to the parable itself. After all, a story like this one gives us an incredibly opportunity to explain an abstract concept – like grace – in concrete terms.

Let's face it. Grace is one of those Christianese terms we in the church throw around a lot. We even teach our students to do the same. Yet, the reality is that because so many of our students are still thinking concretely, grace is pretty much an impossible concept for them to understand.

It makes no sense.

Until that is, they come face to face with a story like the Prodigal Son. 

As youth workers, rather than attempt to explain and define grace, the best thing we can do to help students understand grace is to point it out when we see it; To acknowledge that when the father chooses to celebrate rather than give his son the punishment he rightly deserves, that's grace. That's love.

And yes, it's unfair.

By definition, grace is unfair. It means we get something we don't deserve.

But that's what makes Christianity so incredible.

Through Jesus, we all get something far better than we deserve.