Luke 15: 22-24 "But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’"
We know the story as "The Prodigal Son." If not the most famous, it is surely among the most famous of the parables of Jesus, well known to Christians and non-Christians alike. It is the longest of the parables and with good reason -- it is an extraordinary story about the human condition. Foolishness and forgiveness; helplessness and hypocrisy; jealousy and joy -- all are found in this short tale.
Members of the religious establishment had questioned the company Jesus liked to keep. "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'" Jesus confronts their complaints with three vivid parables, first, that of a lost sheep, then of a lost coin, and finally, a lost child, the prodigal son. Through these stories he aimed to point out that God wants to save sinners, not merely tend after saints.
The story is a familiar one. An impetuous young man wants to go off and live an independent life. He asks for his portion of his father's inheritance, receives it, and wanders off, to foreign lands. But he does not carry his values along with his valuables. He spends his money unwisely at best, wickedly at worst. A famine overtakes him, leaving him destitute,and he can only work tending hogs and longing after the scraps they are fed. At last, he "comes to himself," and, deciding that he needs salvation, he "arises." He gets up from his situation of sin, dusts himself off, and begins the trek homeward.
The young man is completely unprepared for the level of grace his father will exhibit upon his return. And, quite frankly, his older brother is completely unprepared as well. After the son is received with joy and effusive celebration and emotion, the spotlight turns to the elder brother, who asks what we might expect him to -- what about me? He has been the good one, the responsible one, the hard worker. He has known and followed his duty. Yet his father celebrates not this model of sonship, but instead the wretch who has finally come home in rags? Why? How?
And then comes the whole point of the story -- the unfailing and unlimited grace of the father. He is willing to forgive, and he is ready to love. "It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found."
"Prodigal" is a word we normally only hear in relation to this parable. It is so inextricably linked to the parable that it seems unusual to hear it in any other context. What does the word in fact mean? Related to words like "prodigious" and "prodigy," it means, "recklessly extravagant," "lavish," or "luxuriant." Given that, I would argue that the parable is inaptly named. This is not a story of a prodigal son. True, the younger son went off and lived a lavish life, squandering his money, but he is not the center of the tale. The father is. And it is the father, just like our heavenly Father, who is truly prodigal. His grace is "recklessly extravagant." His love is "lavish and luxuriant." Jesus is pointing out here that we indeed have a "prodigal Father," who is waiting for our return.It is up to us to come to ourselves, to arise, and to leave that faraway country, and return, finally, to home.