It is always dangerous when we come across passages in the Bible with which we are extremely familiar. The so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is just one such passage. The prodigal son has become somewhat of a folk-hero in our culture. We’ve all heard the stories of the young son or daughter who sets out on their own to “sow their wild oats,” only to come home later all grown up and having finally made something of themselves. Or maybe it doesn’t turn out quite so neatly and they come home after hitting rock bottom and having nowhere left to turn. It is a story that it told over and over again in our cultural conscience.
A couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time studying, meditating, and teaching through this famous parable of Jesus. I came to the conclusion that calling this a parable of “the prodigal” was probably an accurate moniker. However, just which prodigal are we talking about? It seems to me that there are multiple candidates to carry this title. A quick dictionary definition of the term prodigal lends the following results:
1. Rashly or wastefully extravagant
2. Giving or given in abundance; lavish or profuse
With that in mind, let me tell you a little about a family I call “The Prodigals.”
The Younger Prodigal. This seems to be the most obvious choice to wear the label. You can’t really get around the fact that this is a real jerk. When he comes to his father to ask for his share of the inheritance, he is essentially saying to his dad, “I wish you were already dead.” Surprisingly, the father gives it to him and he takes his inheritance and wastes it in “reckless living.” Things get so bad that the young man ends up tending the pigs of a Gentile - a double no, no (working for a Gentile and touching such an unclean animal). He is at rock bottom when he comes to himself. He has squandered everything that his family has worked hard to earn and has essentially flushed it down the drain.
The Prodigal Father. Let me say that if one of my sons came to me and said essentially, “Dad, I wish you were dead. Give me my money now,” I don’t think I would have had the same reaction as this father. I think it would have been something more along the lines of, “You ungrateful little . . . How dare you come to me and ask for your inheritance now!” But he does. And when that son hits the bottom and drags himself home, I’m not so sure that I would be pulling out a new robe, a new ring, and throwing a party for him. How is that going to teach him the consequences of his actions? Yes, this father is prodigal in his love for his son, going way over the top time and time again.
The Older Prodigal. In reality, this is the one I identify with the most. The responsible child who does what he is supposed to do. He works hard, keeps the family business going, works the fields, and doesn’t cause his father any trouble. I wonder about this brother’s reaction to his brother’s request. Did he object? Did he try to talk his father out of it? And when his brother comes home, having wasted all that he had worked so hard to earn, the older brother is furious. “You’re throwing him a party? A robe, ring, and calf? I’ve never even gotten a goat to have a party with my friends!” This elder brother has been just as prodigal with his father’s love as his brother has, but in a different way. Instead of wasting it on reckless living, he has wasted it on resentful living. He has wasted his fathers love thinking that he has to earn it, to slave away at doing the right thing, the expected thing. He has become a slave instead of a son.
The Prodigal God. The deeper reality of this story is that it is a story of God and God’s chosen people. In this simple story, Jesus is essentially retelling the story of the Israelites, a people who have continually wandered away from God and wasted the rich blessings God has given them. The history of the Israelite people is a history of exile and return - of running away from God, hitting rock bottom, and returning once again. It is a story of a God who has been prodigal with his love towards this chosen people - a God who will be true to the covenant God has made. The New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright put it this way:
“Exile, as some of the greatest prophets had seen, was itself part of the strange covenant purposes of Israel’s father-god. Israel could be allowed to sin, to follow pagan idolatry, even to end up feeding the pigs for a pagan master, but Israel could not fall out of the covenant purposes of her god. She could say to her god, ‘I wish you were dead’, but this god would not respond in kind. When, therefore, Israel comes to her senses, and returns with all her heart, there is an astonishing, prodigal, lavish welcome waiting for her.”
(N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p.129)
You see, this is a story about God, who is lavish in loves towards us. So, regardless of where we find ourself in the story - the younger prodigal who has run away from home and wasted the father’s love in wild living, the older prodigal who has stayed home and wasted the father’s love in resentful, or you are the father who has given over and over again (only to be taken advantage), there is good news: God is faithful. Healing is available. Come home now, the banquet is just getting started.
Prayer: God, I am a member of The Prodigals. I know that I most closely identify with the (younger/older/father). I need to feel your covenant love surrounding me and beginning the work of healing in my life. May your prodigal love always surround me. Amen.