When we hear the word “prodigal” today, we tend to think “wayward” or “wandering.” However, the word actually means “wasteful” or “extravagant.” As a joke, people will often greet someone who returns after an absence with “the prodigal returns!” I doubt very much they mean they have been wasteful, only that they were, for a time, absent. The title given to this parable, The Prodigal Son, seems to be describing the son’s attitude with regard to his father’s (and his) wealth, not that he left for a time.
The fact that we have redefined the term “prodigal” from this parable possibly shows that the emphasis that most teaching on this parable is on the son’s being lost and subsequently found. This is certainly fitting, as the parable is the 3rd in a series of three parables on this theme of finding lost things. First there was the lost sheep—the sheep was not bad or sinful, just stupid. The shepherd leaves the 99 to find and retrieve the stupid lost sheep, and he rejoices to bring him home. Next we had a lost coin; again, not the coin’s fault. The woman cleans house to find the coin, and she, too, rejoices.
In both circumstances, there was a loss experienced to someone other than the lost items themselves. In fact, we don’t even know that the stupid sheep knew he was lost; certainly the coin didn’t care. While the third story is a bit more complex, I believe there is some continuity in all three of these stories: There is a loss suffered to the main character—the shepherd, the woman, and the father. There is action on the part of the main characters to retrieve that which was lost. The shepherd left the flock to go search, the woman cleaned house, and the father ran to his son. Then, of course, there was rejoicing.
It is important to keep in mind the context for this teaching. Jesus was telling these stories for the benefit of Pharisees who were complaining that Jesus spent his time hanging with sinners; in other words, people who were “wasteful,” or perhaps merely “lost.” They thought that any “good” Jewish teacher should spend time with those who were, in their minds, not lost. Rather than being wasteful with God’s mercy and grace, the Pharisees were anything but extravagant; if anything, they were quite stingy.
One of the points Jesus was making was that God does not “help those who help themselves.” God—the good shepherd, the woman, the good father—willingly and purposefully goes after those who are lost, and invites all who are around to be extravagant with him in rejoicing at their return.
There have been many times in my life where I have been, perhaps, a bit too extravagant when it comes to God’s grace (don’t everybody yell “Amen!” at once…). And, there have been other times when I have doubted God’s extravagance, especially concerning others who, in my opinion, don’t deserve such extravagant treatment.
It often seems that God’s mercy and grace are wasted on those who don’t deserve it. But then, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
- What has been your understanding of the meaning of the word “prodigal?”
- Considering the definition “extravagant” or “wasteful,” have you ever considered yourself a prodigal?