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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Will the Real Prodigal Please Stand Up?

This past Sunday, we had a guest speaker preach on The Prodigal Son. It was a captivating talk, and I learned a ton. Strangely enough, though, as much as I learned from the speaker, I found myself thinking about another aspect of the parable. It stemmed from the actual meaning of the word "prodigal"--one of the points the speaker made about the word's real meaning struck a chord and made the parable more meaningful to me than perhaps ever before. So, buckle your seatbelts, Dorthy, because Kansas is going bye bye!

In common use, the word "prodigal" has come to mean "wayward" or "errant," "lost" even. But the original meaning is quite a bit different. Prodigal actually means "recklessly extravagant, wasteful, or lavish." Wasteful and reckless, we get. It makes sense. After all, the son, took his portion of his father's estate and wasted it on carnal pleasures: food, drink, fair-weather friends, and female companionship. But "extravagant" and "lavish" bring to mind the provision of absurd luxury or giving in abundance. Maybe we can apply that to the son and therefore call him prodigal. But I got to thinking someone else in the story might actually be more prodigal. I was thinking that someone might be the father…who is symbolic of God. Before you cry "Blasphemy!" or start gathering flaming brands and pitchforks, hear me out. 

First, let's look at the actual text from Luke:

11Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
 13"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
 17"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20So he got up and went to his father.
      "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
 21"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.[a]'
 22"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
 25"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
 28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
 31" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

Mannn, is Jesus a great storyteller or what! I love this story. It is SO rich and SO full of hope. And I think for too long, the focus has been on the son who left and came back home. We often call it the prodigal son or the "lost son." Maybe the son is one of the main characters, the protagonist even? But he's not the hero of the story. The father is.
In the narrative of the story, the father allows his son to take his portion of the estate--early. This was to be the son's inheritance. However, the father lets the son take it and leave. In essence, saying, I will not force you to stay. I will not withhold this from you. I won't force my will upon you. The father represents God, and isn't this just like God? He won't force us to love Him. If we choose to run off and spend our time and talents on stupid stuff, God will let us. He doesn't force us to love him. He will allow the consequences of our sin to wise us up, though. And that's just what happened to the son. The son comes to his senses and returns. Do you see the point I'm building here? The father sets aside a certain portion of the estate. Think of this as riches, wealth, material, etc. The father sets this all aside for the son. It's a substantial sum too. The son was able to PARTY it up in the most lavish ways. And the father gives this to the son WILLINGLY. There's no fight. Even though it likely hurt the father's feelings, the father still let the son go. That is reckless, lavish love. 

But even more so is the son's return...or rather, the father's welcome. When the son comes home, thinking he's blown the possibility of sonship, hoping just to be a hired hand, a servant…the father runs to him. RUNS TO HIM. Have you heard that song? The father runs to the son. That's ridiculous, reckless love. And not just that, but the father throws a new robe on the lad, slaps a suh-weet ring on his finger, and calls the entire estate to a halt for a HUGE "welcome home" party. Talk about wasteful. Even the older son recognizes the excess. Anyone else hear the ring of Judas' voice in the older son? But if the word prodigal originally meant excessive, lavish, extremely extravagant, who in this story was more lavish than the father? No one. First he sets aside a portion of the estate, then he gives up the portion to the son, then after the son has wasted it and comes home, the father uses up even MORE resources to welcome the son home in GRAND fashion. Holy cow! What a wasteful father. What a wasteful God. And aren't we glad that He is. 

See, in our eyes, the son was a screw up. He blew it...BIG TIME. He wasn't worth the time of day, wasn't worth even a servant's position. But to the father, the son was more precious than ALL of the estate put together. To the father, the son was so precious...the only thing that mattered was having the son back home with him.

Jesus told this parable. There is no authority greater.  The kingdom of Heaven is like this. God is like this. God is good. He is a better kind of good than we can imagine or identify with. If we think we love our own children, God loves His more.

Now, I know some have interpreted this parable and have identified the "lost son" as a nonChristian who comes back to the father and is "saved." Some say the indignant older brother represents "Pharisee-like self righteous folk." After all, Jesus had a slew of Pharisees listening to Him tell this parable. Maybe the lost son represents the Gentiles and the older brother, the Jews. It might be. But regardless of the other characters, I think we need to focus on the Father. He is the One we should draw near to. He is the one willing to waste everything just to bring us home and welcome us to the place we MOST belong. He is the One who is so generously good that we very well can call Him prodigal.

So what's the take home on this? First, if you're a believer, stop and thank God right now for His goodness. For He gave us this life; He gave us all the good things in this world; He gave us a portion of everything. Praise Him. If you're not a believer, remember how much this Father loves you. He is waiting, not with blame, not with guilt, not asking for an explanation. God wants you to come home. He wants to embrace you and robe you. He wants to give you the family ring and throw a big party for you. And who says Christians don't party? Turns out, no one, but NO ONE throws a party like God's parties! See the invite below:

Who: You (whoever you are, no matter where you've been or what you've done)

What: Welcome Home Party!  (Abundant life on earth and eternity to boot)

Where: Your real home  (Heaven)

When: Right NOW (and much more after this life)

Why: Once was lost, but now are found (God is good. He loves you forever)


Eldra said...

Another interesting thing is that when the father throws the party for the younger son, he's using a portion of the older son's inheritence.

Anonymous said...

My youth pastor just talked about this exact same thing!

Celebrilomiel said...

That's a good bit to chew on. I've never thought about the story being about the father, as he seems as a sort of minor character. I really like the way you put it, and it gives me a whole new take on the story, and another way to see God.
Thank you. =)

Galadriel said...

We had "prodigal" as one of our vocab words in English...raised similair thoughts in my mind.

Jake said...

Awesome post, Mr. Batson!

You mind if I add a few things? One of them is that the 'estate' is also known as the land that is right underneath the father's feet. So whe the son goes and squanders his wealth, that means he went and SOLD a third of his father's estate-- right out from under him! Once the father dies, one third of the land would belong to the buyer.

As I heard this (it was in a sermon a month or so ago at my church), I though, "Wow, was this guy terrible or what?"

And then I realized; "Wow, was 'I' terrible or what?"

Jesus was using this to illustrate how sinners can come back to him, and everyone is a sinner. That means that WE were all just as bad as the son who sold his father's estate, before Jesus Christ saved us from our sins.

Again, great post, Mr. Batson!

Cora said...

That was a great post!

Don't worry - I RSVPed for the party over half my lifetime ago. ;-)


P.S. to Jake: Interesting thought about the land!

Galactic Overlord-In-Chief said...

I remember I attended a talk about the Prodigal Son some years ago. The man presenting his sermon pointed out that in Jewish culture, it would be considered embarrassing for a Jewish man to just run out and embrace his son like that in public. He also mentioned that the ring was symbolic of the man's personal wealth (my memory's hazy on this, so I apologize for being vague). The robe probably has similar meaning.

I'm not sure I would describe God as wasteful, as waste denotes that what is expended came to nothing. If God expends a lot to bring sinners to him, then all of it served a valuable purpose. (Even the stuff used for the party-enjoyment is a good reason, right?) Lavish, abundance, I think those are good descriptions.

- Jason

Nathan R. Petrie said...

My dad has a sermon called "The Prodigal Father". Very much like this :) Excellent post!

How excessive and ridiculous he was! Especially to the culture back then. The father was crazily prodigal.

And I'm stoked for the party! See you on New Earth!

Eldra said...

Nathan - Is The Prodigal Father a DVD? (Table being split in half?) Because I think my church watched it several months ago. It certainly gave me a new way of looking at it.

~Never Alone~

Nathan R. Petrie said...

LOL The order of the posts is messed up haha

@Cora, See you there! :)

@Eldra,It might be o.O That was just what he called the sermon because instead of the Prodigal Son it was the father. Like the afore read post ;)

@Jason, I see what you mean. I think he meant wasteful as in seemingly wasteful. ;) Certainly looks crazy to me :)

Megan E. said...

Has anyone read The Prodigal God by Tim Keller?
It really hits all of this and more about the elder brother, which is what I needed to hear most. :-)
I highly recommend it!