This story we just heard has got to be one of the most famous of Jesus’ parables. The title that is most often given to it is “The Story of the Prodigal Son.”
Do you know what the word “prodigal” means?
I’m sure many of you are smarter than I am.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I never use the word “prodigal” in everyday language unless I am somehow alluding to this story. So, in my head, using context cues, I’ve always thought the meaning of Prodigal was something like “wayward” or “rebellious” or maybe even “lost”. But I finally looked it up.
Like… just this week, I finally looked it up.
You would think, having been ordained for almost 19 years, and in bible studies for a decade before that, I might have actually looked it up before, … but I hadn’t.
Prodigal means “wastefully or recklessly extravagant;”
“characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure;”
“giving or yielding profusely,” as in “a tree with a prodigal fruit.” Or
As a noun, it means a person who spends, or has spent, his or her money with wasteful extravagance. A spendthrift.
So, the title often given this story in indeed an apt one in many ways. The younger son was wastefully extravagant. He’d asked for, and received, his inheritance early, then he went off, travelling the world, blowing his money prodigally, without thinking about the future.
“He squandered his property in dissolute living.”
Or as other versions say,
he “dissipated his property, living in debauchery.” (Darby)
Or, he “wasted his substance with riotous living.” (King James)
or he “squandered his wealth in the wildest extravagance” (JB Phillip’s)
The parable of the Prodigal Son
It is interesting how the title of a story in the bible can shape our understanding of it. Of course, when the bible was written, there were no titles for the subsections of the stories. There were no chapters or verses either. Heck, there weren’t even capital letters or punctuation, in either the Hebrew or the Greek.
But today, many study bibles do give headings to the different sections, and those headings are themselves interpretations.
In the NIV version of the bible, the New International Version, (the version in your pews) this story is called, “the story of the Lost Son.” It comes right after the story of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, those omitted verses in today’s passage. The young man was lost, off pursuing his own way. He had forgotten who he was. After prodigally losing all his money, he ends up, a Jewish boy, feeding the pigs on some foreigners farm, yearning to eat the pig slop himself, and he finally “comes to himself.” He had been lost, not only to the Father, but to himself.
Remember, Jesus was in the middle of teaching the crowds, and our passage says, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Then Jesus told them this parable.” And he goes on to tell them three parables, but our reading today picked up with the third. First, Jesus tells the story of the parable about the Lost Sheep, and how the owner of the sheep leaves the 99 sheep and goes after the one lost one, and when he comes home, he tells his friends, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
Then Jesus tells the story of the Lost Coin. A woman lost a coin, but doggedly looked for it, sweeping and cleaning her little house until she found it. Then she threw a big party with all her friends to celebrate.
Jesus says, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
So the stories are not just about what was lost – the sheep, the coin, the son – but also about the parties that followed once they were found. So the parables are also about the rejoicing. That’s why the Common English Bible translation entitles this chapter “Occasions for Celebration.” There is much rejoicing in heaven when one of these that was lost is found.
Jesus’ parables in response to the Pharisees and the Teachers of the law were basically saying, “Look, you might be complaining that I’m hanging out with these tax collectors and sinners… these people who you think are lost… but God’s throwing a party in heaven because they’ve been found…. Don’t be a stick in the mud like the older brother.”
Ah yes… the older brother. Many bible’s titles for this story include the older brother.
The Parable of the Prodigal and his Brother says the NRSV.
Or A Father and his Two Sons,
Or The Parable of the Lost Sons.
The story of the older brother is the whole other half of the story.
I’ve heard one person call this story, “The Lament of the Responsible older Child.”
I can relate to that title.
In our household, I was the eldest child. My brother, two years younger, was always getting into trouble. I was the responsible one. I was the one who followed all the rules. I was the one who actually did the chores our mother left us while my brother goofed off. I was the good one, and I was always ready to inform my mother about all the ways my brother had fallen short, and I often had ideas about how she might want to execute justice.
My mother was not impressed.
Often times, I got into trouble along with my brother because I was the one complaining. That didn’t seem fair. And often times, in my opinion, she let him off way too easy. Again, it didn’t seem fair.
Maybe the parable should be called “The Squandering Sons”
In Jesus’ parable, both the younger and the older brother are loved by the Father. Both have inherited the Father’s Riches. But Both have, in a sense, squandered their inheritance. The younger son in dissolute living in a foreign land, but the elder not realizing the treasure always available to him to celebrate with his father. He’s squandered the opportunity for joy. He squandered the relationship he could have been having with his father and with all of his father’s riches. Instead, he carried his duty like a weight. The party he’d been wanting with his friends didn’t include the father. He thought it was owed him. He thought he’d earned it, instead of receiving all that the father had for him as a gift.
This parable is such an enduring story because it invites you and me to situate ourselves in it. Jesus’ parables are rich because they point to a multifaceted reality and truth about who God is and who we are. I think most of us find we have a little bit of the older brother AND the younger brother in us. Some of us with more of one than the other.
The parable of the rebellious son and the resentful brother.
The parable of the runaway and the captive.
We sometimes think if we run away from our father’s household we could do much better on our own. Why labor in our father’s vineyards when there are oats to sow in the world?
Others of us wouldn’t dream of leaving the comfort of our family compound… life with God in the community of the church, but we forget that we are not merely servants. We are heirs of the kingdom. The father’s household is a place of rejoicing.
And so, let’s think about a few other titles for the story. Because really, this story is not just about the sons. It’s also about the Father.
The parable of the Welcoming Father.
The story of the Waiting Father.
The story of the Forgiving Father.
The parable of the Prodigal Father.
If a prodigal is one who is wasteful, then The Father was also prodigal. This son had been away, squandered all his money, and came home, not intending to be accepted as a son again, but merely to have a place to live, and earn his keep as a hired hand. But the Father prodigally embraces him, gives him a fine robe, and sandals, and a ring for his finger. The Father makes a huge Barbeque Party out of the fatted calf, probably the calf the older brother was hoping to get the 4H prize for at the state fair.
The Father throws an extravagant party for a son who doesn’t really deserve it. In fact, the scandal is that the younger brother has already wasted his half of the property. Everything else that’s left belongs to the older brother, and the Father is generously giving that away to the younger son as well!
But God’s love and forgiveness is lavish. Giving profusely. Exceedingly extravagant. And that extravagance is shown to the son who was lost in a far off land, as well as to the son who was lost in his own soul right at home.
In this parable of the prodigal father, we see the picture of a God who is wasteful with his love and blessings. Jesus tells these stories over and over. It’s like the sower who scatters seed wastefully on paths and rocks and thorns, as well as on good soil.
What kind of a farmer is that?
Or what about the landowner who hires workers not only at the beginning of the day, but all the way up to the last hour, and then gives them all a full-days worth of pay.
What kind of a manager is that?
Or what about the father who had two sons, who waits for the wayward one, and embraces him lavishly upon his return, and invites the petulant one into the party.
What kind of a father is that? He’s a Prodigal Father.
Squandering his riches on us. Wastefully spending his love and care on the undeserving. Lavishing his children with his riches and grace.
And Always waiting for us to join the party.