Thinking it through, working it out

A cross-curricular activity idea that uses a classic Bible story about forgiveness to generate questions and discussion.

Introduction for teachers

This interactive lesson explores a key Christian parable about forgiveness, explores how different people's attitudes could lead them to interpret the same story in different ways, and demonstrates how Christians can use questions and discussion to explore the meaning of Bible texts.

Aims and objectives (by subject)


  • What Christians believe about forgiveness

Religious education

  • How Christians use the Bible
  • How Christians live out their faith


  • Reading comprehension: using questions and discussion to create deeper understanding of a text
  • Traditional tales: parables


A model or picture of an elephant.

Copies of the listed Bible passages in a child-friendly translation (or use the example provided here), enough for the whole class to access.


There’s a classic story about some blind people who encountered an elephant for the first time. Each person touched a different part of the elephant, then each one thought they knew what an elephant was really like. One touched the trunk and thought an elephant was a kind of thick snake. Another touched the tail, and thought an elephant was like a piece of long rope. Another touched the ear, and thought an elephant was a like a giant sheet of paper. Another touched a leg, and thought an elephant was a kind of tree. Do you get the idea? (I wonder what the elephant thought about all this?)

We’re going to have a little roleplay experiment to see if we can read a Bible story like those blind men - to see how people might understand it differently.


Think of this story as a word picture. It’s a parable of Jesus that tells the story of three people: a farmer and his two sons.

But first, I’m going to organise you into small discussion groups. Three groups are going to be those three characters in the story. The other groups are different types of people listening to the story for the first time.

As I tell you who you are, try to imagine yourself ‘in role’ as you listen to the story.

  1. You are the father in the story who is becoming elderly. You own a big prosperous farm. The two sons are your children. You care very much about both your sons.
  2. You are the younger son in the story, who lives on the farm.
  3. You are the older son in the story, who lives on the farm. You’ve been working on the farm for longer than the other son.
  4. You are people in the crowd who are listening to the story. You have made a lot of mistakes in your lives, and are not very religious at all. You might even be foreigners of a different faith. The local religious people don’t like you. They call you ‘sinners’ and wish you weren’t here today.
  5. You are Jesus’ disciples: Simon Peter, James, John and the rest. You’ve left your homes and families to be on the road with this teacher who is saying very different things to everybody else. You’re a bit puzzled at the way Jesus makes friends with people whose lives are in a mess. Why doesn’t he mix with only the good people - like you?
  6. You are the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (very religious people), who think that a good life is all about keeping God’s rules and being good, for example, eating the right foods and not mixing with foreigners or ‘sinners’. You’ve worked hard at keeping God’s rules and think everybody else should do that too. Anyone who doesn’t do that is letting the side down!

Tell the story of ‘The man with two sons’ (Luke 15:11-32), using an appropriate version of the Bible for this audience or the one provided below.

(As an introduction, we have included some earlier verses to provide context for the story.)

Many tax collectors and 'sinners' came to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to complain: 'Look! This man welcomes sinners and even eats with them!'…

Then Jesus said, 'A man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, "Give me my share of the property." So the father divided the property between his two sons. Then the younger son gathered up all that was his and left. He traveled far away to another country. There he wasted his money in foolish living. He spent everything that he had.'

Point out that this was a shocking thing to happen. It would mean breaking up the family farm, as though the father was already dead.

Questions for everyone:

  • Do you think this is the right thing for the father to do?
  • What do you think about the younger son for doing this?
  • What might his older brother say to him?
  • What would you want to say to the father, or ask him?

'Soon after that, the land became very dry, and there was no rain. There was not enough food to eat anywhere in the country. The son was hungry and needed money. So he got a job with one of the citizens there. The man sent the son into the fields to feed pigs. The son was so hungry that he was willing to eat the food the pigs were eating. But no one gave him anything.'

Point out that, for a religious Jewish audience, looking after pigs was not done! It was completely against Jewish religious laws because pigs were ‘unclean’ animals.

Questions for groups 3, 4, 5 and 6:

  • What do you think about the younger son for doing this?
  • What would you want to say to him?
  • What do you think could happen next?
  • What do you think should happen next?

'The son realized that he had been very foolish. He thought, "All of my father’s servants have plenty of food. But I am here, almost dying with hunger. I will leave and return to my father. I’ll say to him: Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am not good enough to be called your son. But let me be like one of your servants." So, the son left and went to his father.'

Questions for groups 3, 4, 5 and 6:

  • What do you think about the younger son for doing this?
  • Do you think he deserves this or not?
  • What would you want to say to him?

'While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. He felt sorry for his son. So the father ran to him, and hugged and kissed him. The son said, "Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am not good enough to be called your son." But the father said to his servants, "Hurry! Bring the best clothes and put them on him. Also, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get our fat calf and kill it. Then we can have a feast and celebrate! My son was dead, but now he is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!" So they began to celebrate.'

Questions for groups 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6:

  • What do you think could happen next?
  • What do you think should happen next?
  • What do you think about the father for doing this?

'The older son was in the field. As he came closer to the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. So he called to one of the servants and asked, "What does all this mean?" The servant said, "Your brother has come back. Your father killed the fat calf to eat because your brother came home safely!" The older son was angry and would not go in to the feast.'

Questions for groups 1 and 2:

  • What do you think about the older son for doing this?
  • What would you want to say to him?

'So his father went out and begged him to come in. The son said to his father, "I have served you like a slave for many years! I have always obeyed your commands. But you never even killed a young goat for me to have a feast with my friends. But your other son has wasted all your money… Then he comes home, and you kill the fat calf for him!"'

Questions for groups 1, 2 and 4:

  • What do you think about the older son for doing this?
  • What would you want to say to him?

'The father said to him, "Son, you are always with me. All that I have is yours. We had to celebrate and be happy because your brother was dead, but now he is alive. He was lost, but now he is found."'
Luke 15:1–2, 11–32 (International Children’s Bible®, copyright ©1986, 1988, 1999, 2015 by Tommy Nelson. Used by permission.)

Use some of these questions with everybody:

  • What do you think about the father for saying this?
  • What do you think could happen next?
  • What do you think should happen next?
  • Who is your favourite character in the story? Why?
  • Who is your least favourite character in the story? Why?
  • What might it be saying about people who make mistakes?
  • What could it be saying about forgiveness?
  • For Christians today, what do you think this story is saying about God and people?

Afterwards, set pupils the task of recording their discussion as follows:

  • In the story of 'The man with two sons', our group played…
  • I think the most important moment of the story was when… because…
  • My biggest thoughts and questions about the story are…
  • I think the key message of this parable was…
  • Today, a Christian might think the key message was…

Plenary (by subject)

Religious education, Values

Explain that Christians today see this story as a powerful picture of God’s forgiveness at work, but that it’s also a picture of proud people who don’t understand God’s forgiveness. Christians use Bible texts like this to help them think more clearly about God and God’s world today.


Share some responses, reminding everyone that Jesus usually didn’t explain the key message of his parables; he left that to his audience. I wonder why? What do you think is the message of this parable?

Background information for teachers

The great world faiths all have their own sacred books, each understood and used in very different ways. There is a long Christian tradition of weighing up the relative importance of different parts of the Bible, interpreting the older sections in the light of the later New Testament sections that describe and explain what Jesus Christ said and did. Around the world, many Christians meet in small groups to regularly read and discuss Bible passages like this.

'The man with two sons' is one of the best-known stories of Jesus. It is popularly known as the parable of the prodigal son, but that title doesn’t do justice to the role of the older son. Note how Jesus deliberately left the story unfinished, leaving his audience to draw their own conclusions about what might happen next. This story can be interpreted as a massive ‘dig’ at the religious people of Jesus’ time (Luke 15:1-2), who shunned those fellow citizens whose lives didn’t match their own sense of religious correctness.

Forgiveness might not seem to be a popular value today, but it is fundamental to understanding the Christian idea of God and God’s world. For Christians, God (the father in the story) is always ready to forgive when people ‘turn from their sins’, as the younger son did, and seek him out again.

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Photo by Markus Knöll on Unsplash