Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”’
We know this story well: The Prodigal Son. But just what is a prodigal? It’s one of those words, like manger and Samaritan, that is mostly used in the context of a Biblical story and so has lost its meaning.
Unless you work with horses, you might think that manger means cot, and most folks today associate Samaritans with kind, helpful people. And prodigal? The Cambridge dictionary has ‘prodigal: spending large amounts of money without thinking of the future, in a way that is not wise.’ But that’s not what the word really means, and anyway, I’d argue that the title is wrong: it’s not the son who is prodigal in this story, it’s the father!
Jesus told the story as part of a series – the lost sheep, the lost coin and this, the lost son – each ending with ‘rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents’. The Pharisees were complaining because Jesus was welcoming sinners. These stories were Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees, and it is clear to see who is who. The lost sheep, the lost son, the lost coin is the sinner. The jealous son, the 99 who (think they) have no need to repent is the Pharisee, the religious person secure in their own righteousness. The shepherd, the housewife, the father rejoicing over what was lost, is God.
So who is the prodigal? Who squanders his riches on the undeserving? Who spends freely without thought of return? Who lavishes his grace on those who can never possibly repay his generosity? Who gives without limit to those who have never done a thing to deserve it?
Our Prodigal Father in Heaven, who ‘wastes’ his love those who do not deserve it. That’s me, and that’s you. All of us.
It’s so good to be home.
O Prodigal Father, we feel welcome in your arms, undeserved. We hear forgiveness in your voice, unearned. We see warmth in your eyes, unmerited. May we reflect that warmth to those around us, May we return that forgiveness to these who wound us. May we respond with warmth as we love, because you first loved us.
Fay Rowland, graduate student at Wesley House, Cambridge Theological Federation, St Botolph’s Church, Northants.