A captivating photo of a desolate wasteland, featuring a lone figure returning home, symbolizing the biblical concept of prodigal, representing repentance and the journey back to God's embrace.

What Does ‘Prodigal’ Mean In The Bible?

The story of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known parables in the Bible. If you’re looking for a quick answer, the word ‘prodigal’ means wasteful or spendthrift when describing the younger son in the story who squanders his inheritance.

In this comprehensive article, we will examine the full meaning of ‘prodigal’ in context, analyze the prodigal son parable, and see how it represents God’s grace and redemption.

Defining the Meaning of ‘Prodigal’ In the Bible

The Dictionary Definition of Prodigal

The word “prodigal” most commonly means wasteful or recklessly extravagant. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the adjective “prodigal” means:

  • Wastefully or recklessly extravagant
  • Giving or yielding abundantly; lavish
  • Profuse, unconstrained

So in general usage, when someone is described as “prodigal,” it means they are spending resources, money, time, etc. in an abundant and extravagant way, without restraint.

Use of ‘Prodigal’ in the Bible

In the Bible, the term “prodigal” is most famously used in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This story, found in Luke 15:11-32, recounts the tale of a young man who asked his father for his inheritance, then went away and squandered it all in wild living.

Once the money ran out, he returned home in repentance to his forgiving father.

So in this context, “prodigal” is clearly referring to the reckless extravagance and wastefulness with which the young man spent everything he had. He did not restrain his desires but indulged in unrestrained self-pleasure until he had nothing left.

Understanding Prodigal as Wastefulness and Recklessness

When we think of “prodigal” in light of the biblical usage, it carries the meaning of reckless abandonment and imprudent lack of restraint. To be prodigal is to spend resources on fleeting pleasures in the moment at the expense of one’s long-term wellbeing and future security.

The prodigal son’s wastefulness led him into a pitiable state of destitution and despair. As Jesus’ original audience would have understood, his only option to survive was to return in humility to his father and hope for mercy and grace.

In this story, “prodigal” signifies willful rebellion and short-sighted indulgence that ends in ruin.

So when Christians use the term “prodigal,” it invokes this symbolic backstory of desperation and gracious restoration. All human beings have been “prodigal” at some point, spending our spiritual inheritance frivolously while indulging sinful desires and ignoring God.

But our merciful Father waits, ready to joyfully welcome us home when we come to our senses in repentance.

Examining the Parable of the Prodigal Son

The Story of the Two Sons

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most well-known stories that Jesus told. It starts out by introducing a father who has two sons. The younger son decides he wants his inheritance early and leaves home, squandering his money in wild living.

Eventually he finds himself destitute and working to feed pigs. The young man “comes to himself” and decides to return home to his father, hoping to work as a servant. Surprisingly, the compassionate father warmly welcomes his wayward son back with open arms and even throws a celebratory feast.

Meanwhile the older son harbors resentment over the gracious treatment of his sibling.

The Younger Son’s Selfish Choices

The younger son’s initial request for early inheritance and departure from home reflects great selfishness, entitlement, and disrespect on his part. He essentially wished his father was dead! As bible scholar John Gill notes, “One would think this was enough to pull down the resentment of his father upon him.”

Yet amazingly, the father grants the disrespectful demand.

After claiming his portion of the estate, the young man leaves home for a distant country where he “squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13). Clearly the son chooses instant gratification over prudence and hard work.

His loose living leads him to poverty, hunger and envy over the food even pigs are eating. This depicts an incredibly low point for a Jewish man. Truly his selfish choices led to a miserable outcome.

The Father’s Unconditional Love and Forgiveness

Despite the younger son’s supremely insulting request for inheritance and subsequent descent into destitution from his own vices, the father’s love and concern for his wayward boy persist. When he sees his son returning home, the patriarch is “filled with compassion” and runs to embrace and kiss him (Luke 15:20).

There are no lectures or recriminations over the son’s previous sins, only joy and restoration of relationship. What an incredible picture of unconditional fatherly love!

The father also generously restores his repentant son with the fine robe, ring, and sandals of family membership. On top of this he commands the fattened calf be prepared for a great celebratory feast.

Bible teacher GotQuestions.org notes this imagery would have been unheard of in that culture – almost like “a king who greets a beggar as his long lost son.” Truly we see lavish forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration initiated by the gracious father, not the son.

Significance of the Term ‘Prodigal’ in Christianity

Represents Sin and Estrangement from God

The term “prodigal” in the Bible refers to someone who is wastefully extravagant and spends resources recklessly. It comes from the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, where the younger son asks for his inheritance early and squanders it away in a distant land.

This represents how humanity has turned away from God and lives in sin. Like the prodigal son, people have taken the blessings God has given them and used them for selfish purposes instead of honoring God. There is a separation and estrangement between God and man due to sin.

Highlights the Joy in Heaven Over a Sinner’s Repentance

When the prodigal son returns home repenting, the father receives him back joyfully and celebrates his return. This mirrors how God rejoices when a sinner repents and turns back to Him.

As Jesus says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). The parable highlights heaven’s joy over a sinner coming back into relationship with God.

Emphasizes God’s Grace, Mercy and Redemption

Despite the prodigal son’s reckless behavior, the father forgives him completely and restores him when he returns. This symbolizes God’s immense grace, mercy and willingness to redeem humanity.

No matter how badly people have failed, God is eager to run to meet them, embrace them, and restore relationship with them when they repent. The parable powerfully conveys God’s redemptive love for the lost.

As author Tim Keller notes, “Jesus is the true and better Prodigal Son who takes onto himself our sin and squandering.” Through Christ’s sacrifice, the redemption of sinners is made possible.


To summarize, the term ‘prodigal’ means wasteful or recklessly extravagant, as depicted by the younger son’s choices in the well-known parable. But even more significantly, it represents the immense compassion and grace of God toward sinners who repent and return to Him.

This beloved story provides hope of forgiveness and restoration to all who have drifted from their heavenly Father.

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