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 have 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 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. So as we read the parable and follow the son’s journey from his restlessness at home to eating pig slop as a result of his reckless and wasteful spending, we see how it is that the young son earns the name: 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 when the young son returns, hoping that his father will hire him as a servant, the father does the unthinkable. He 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.[i] 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.
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.[ii] But we very often have been wasteful of this trait and spent our inheritance on things that will not satisfy; we have handed over our love to idols, throwing it all away. But 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.[iii]
Second, no matter how far away we’ve wandered 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 return home. In a way, this is what our Lenten pilgrimage is all about: coming to our senses and returning home where God is keeping watch with expectant hope, waiting for us to come into sight where He can run out to greet us.
Perhaps this is where you find yourself today: lost, tired, hungry, and knee deep in a pig sty. Jesus is beckoning us to come home. 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 a piece of bread and a sip of wine; his body and blood. These are not the scraps we have become accustomed to but rather a foretaste of the Heavenly banquet that our prodigal God is calling us to enjoy. Receive it freely with joy and hear Jesus say: Welcome home!!!
[i] Barclay, William. The Gospel of Luke. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001. Print.
[ii] 1 John 4:19
[iii] 1 John 4:7
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