Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Wasteful, extravagant, profligate, spendthrift. These are all words that are synonymous with the first definition in the dictionary of the word prodigal. I have to admit that it was only recently that I learned that word’s true meaning. I grew up in the Baptist church and all my life have been steeped in scripture. I estimate that I’ve heard this parable from Luke’s gospel thousands of times in my lifetime. But I never knew the true meaning of the word prodigal. I had always just assumed it either meant ‘lost,’ as in the parable of the lost son. Or perhaps ‘repentant,’ as in the parable of the repentant son. These certainly could fit. But after finally looking up the word, it all makes sense. Prodigal: spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.
There is not anything particularly unusual about the younger son’s request for his inheritance. In William Barclay’s commentary on Luke’s gospel, he says that when a patriarch was of a certain age, he could go ahead and settle his affairs early. By law the eldest son would get two-thirds of his father’s estate and the youngest would get one-third.[i]Jesus places no judgments on the younger son but simply implies that the he wanted to go live his life and asked for his share of inheritance and left. It seems perfectly normal for a young person to desire this. In my own life, I remember I couldn’t wait to leave the hills of southwestern Virginia and experience what life had in store for me in a bigger, exciting city.
But Jesus says that the younger son gets into trouble when he runs out of money. He squanders his property in dissolute living which simply means he didn’t spend wisely. To make matters worse, a famine takes place and he is forced to find a job as a swineherd. Jesus’ audience would have found this repugnant because this was no career for an upstanding first century Jew. Pigs were unclean and not only forbidden as food, but were unlawful even to touch. The younger son was so desperate he was eating the pigs’ food right out of the slop buckets. And Jesus says he comes to his senses and remembers that his father’s hired hands had plenty of food and lived better than he was living at that moment. So he resolves to go home and humbly ask for a job as a hired hand on his father’s property. Jesus says he returns home and even when he is still far off his father sees him coming and runs to meet him overjoyed that his youngest son has returned. This presumes that in the son’s long absence, the father has been keeping vigil, waiting expectantly for his return. It is here that we learn something startling. The father is also a prodigal.
Generous, lavish, liberal, bounteous. These are all words synonymous with the second definition of the word prodigal which reads: having or giving something on a lavish scale. Jesus says that the father orders his slaves to bring out the finest robe for his son and to put sandals on his feet and a ring on his finger. To be given a robe to wear was to be honored and only members of the family wore sandals. Slaves and hired servants were required to be barefoot. And probably the most shocking of the father’s prodigality was the giving of the ring. In that culture if a man gave a ring to another man it was the same as giving him power of attorney; an act so generous it defies common sense even in our day.[ii] How many of us would hand over everything we owned to someone who could not exhibit proper stewardship of just a fraction of that. But this is what the father does and orders his slaves to kill the fatted calf and to throw a huge party to celebrate his son’s return.
It seems to me that the eldest son’s reaction to his brother’s return and father’s generosity is perfectly normal. I imagine that not only was he faithful in fulfilling his duties to his father, but most likely he had to pick up the slack when his younger brother abandoned the family and left. It reminds me a little of Emery House, our rural monastery out in the country, and hour north of Boston. There are only three brothers who oversee that property and ministry. When one brother goes away on vacation, retreat, or mission, the other two brothers take up his responsibilities in addition to their own while he is away. If there is house full of guests and a full list of chores to do on the property, this can be a challenge. The good thing is that it is only temporary and our brother will return to take up his share of responsibilities again; not to mention that all of us will have time away and so we will all have the opportunity to return the favor.
But when the younger brother in the parable leaves, it is presumed that he will be gone indefinitely, so the eldest brother takes up the role as the primary caregiver and sole heir of his father. When his brother returns, he learns that his father and younger brother are cut from the same cloth. He complains that in all his years of duty to his father, he never as much as gave him a goat in order to celebrate with his friends. Then he says, “But when ‘your son’ came back after spending everything you have and living immorally, you react by killing the fatted calf.”It is with these words, your son that he identifies himself as the true outsider. His years of service to his father were more grim labor than loving service. It is with this that Jesus gives a nod in the direction of the religious authorities of his day who would have rather seen a sinner destroyed than saved. But the father’s prodigality doesn’t end with the lavish celebration of the youngest son’s return. It is here that we learn how truly generous the father is. The assurance he gives his eldest of his love is in spite of the hardness of heart he shows to his brother and father. It is with this assurance that he turns his loving gaze towards his eldest son in the hopes that he too will return home and share in the lavish wealth and love of his father.
So, what can we take away from this story that Jesus tells his followers? Let me suggest two things. First, we are all prodigal sons and daughters. Prodigality is a part of our spiritual DNA because we were created in the image of God. The first letter of John says: We love because he first loved us.[iii] But we very often have beenwasteful of this trait and spent our inheritance on things that will not satisfy. And it is no wonder because everywhere we turn in our modern consumer culture, someone is trying to sell us the latest thing that will make us happy. In his book The Way to Love, Jesuit priest and author Anthony de Mello speaks to this. God has created us with everything we need to be happy, but we have been persuaded that we do not have enough. He gives this example: A group of tourists sits in a bus that is passing through gorgeously beautiful country (perhaps like the hills of West Virginia). But the shades of the bus are pulled down. And all the time the passengers are squabbling over who will have the seat of honor in the bus. And so they remain till the journey’s end.[iv] God loves us and desires for us to be happy and will provide everything we need if we will just trust him. God is the prodigal father and he calls us to be a part of this divine life. Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.[v]
Second, no matter how far away we’ve wandered away from God, no matter how selfishly we have taken his love and provision for granted, God is on the front porch keeping vigil, waiting expectantly for our return, with the promise of giving us the best robe, shoes, food and to give us everything that is His. All we have to do it come to our senses and come home. Perhaps this is where you find yourself today, lost, tired, and hungry. Hear Jesus’ joyous welcome as he beckons you home. And when we come to the altar in a few moment, raise your hands and give him all that burdens you in exchange for the nourishment of his body and blood. Jesus is our advocate and His grace is but a foretaste of the Heavenly banquet that our prodigal God is calling us to enjoy. Welcome home!!!
[i]Barclay, William. The Gospel of Luke. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001. Print.
[iii] 1 John 4:19
[iv]Mello, Anthony De. The Way to Love: The Last Meditations of Anthony De Mello. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Print.
[v] 1 John 4:7
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