Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Prodigiously Prodigal (Luke 15:1-2; 11-32)

Everybody knows why this guy is the prodigal son, right? Because he ran away, of course, since that’s what “prodigal” means.

But did you know that “prodigal” was originally a word that described his spending habits, rather than his travel habits? It’s related to the word “prodigious,” which means large or big. Originally, if I were giving something away lavishly, in large amounts or without any thought of running out, then I would be labeled “prodigal.” Sometimes we still use the word that way today.

When we look at our story with that meaning in our minds, something interesting happens to it. Junior is no longer our only prodigal – now his father becomes one as well.

Junior, of course, spends his money on “riotous living.” I imagine you have to spend both prodigally and prodigiously in order to qualify your standard of living as “riotous,” and I can’t imagine it pays well. Which is why he runs out of money. But look at the father now.

He gives his son a pretty substantial gift – if he only has two sons, then accord-ing to the inheritance laws of the time, the younger one is entitled to one-third of the estate on his death. A third is a pretty good chunk of the family business, especially if it’s all converted into cash, which is what Junior wants done.

Seems pretty wasteful to me, as well. Junior doesn’t want the money to start his own business, or buy land or travel to Rome or Athens to study with the great philosophers. Nope, he takes his check and heads for Vegas to get the party started. That might be a good idea if you’ve got six months to live, but here not so much.

It’s hard to believe that Dad didn’t know what kind of son he’d raised, and didn’t know what he’d do with a lot of money on his hands. And considering that Junior has just told him that he’d rather have the money than a father, the message is pretty clear: Giving this boy money is a Bad Idea. Wasteful, you might say, or “prodigal.”

I had an interesting conversation once with a man who insisted the father in the story wasn’t prodigal, because the father was supposed to represent God. Since God is flawless and prodigality is a flaw, the father couldn’t be prodigal! Actually, he had a series of long monologues which were broken up by someone trying to get a word in edgewise. So I’ll give my ideas here and win the argument, 12 years later.

Like I mentioned, I’m pretty much sold on the idea that the father is prodigal with his money. He gives extravagantly, and in light of what happens, he gives wastefully.

Does that mean he can’t represent God? Yes, if you insist that being prodigal is a flaw.

Most times, of course, it is. If I spend prodigally, like Junior does, then I run out of money. Using any resource without thinking about the future can cause shortages. Farmers ration their irrigation water, marathon runners ration their pace, etc., in order to make sure they have enough to finish what they started. But how about those resources we don't worry about running out of?

We don’t caution each other, “Don’t breathe so much. You’re wasting air.” Except maybe in Los Angeles, where good air sometimes is harder to find. Generally, when we’re not worried about running out of something, we don’t mind using a whole lot of it.

See the father’s prodigality now? He gives to his son like there’s no tomorrow. Not money – if he cared about that, he would have sent Junior packing and told him, “Wait till I’m really dead instead of just wishing I was.” No, he gives his love like he has some kind of endless supply of it, like he’s got so much he doesn’t even consider whether or not Junior’s really reformed or if he just got tired of being poor.

Does that sound like God? Yeah, I think it does. Among God’s infinities is surely his endless love, and he has shown us over and over again that he will give everything in order to win us with that love. Jesus first sacrificed to enter this world as one of us and then sacrificed even that in order to heal our broken relationship with God. If no one had listened to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning and she was the only one who believed, he would have given himself. If everyone turns away from God but you, he would have given himself.

And if you were to then turn away, but somehow come to yourself and realize you wanted to come back, you’d find him running towards you, wanting to welcome you home and shouting the good news of your return to any who would listen.


Sista Cala said...

Excellent post. Not many folks realize that it was indeed the father that was the original prodigal.

Todd M said...

Wow. I had no idea that that was the root meaning of "prodigal". Fascinating. Thank you.