Through all the flannel graph retellings and VBS skits and heart-wrenching life stories of the selfish prodigal son, I envisioned God having mercy on me. Isn’t that what the story is about? Self-centered, self-serving, immature whippersnapper goes off to prove he (she) knows best. Enjoys independent, riotous living until the funds run out. Learns hard moral of own life story. Returns home with remorse and wisdom. Greeted with unconditional paternal love. Goody two-shoes brother is jealous. Happily ever after. The end.
Well, yes, that is what the story is about…but there’s more to it than that. This past Sunday, Pastor John presented insight I had never known before regarding this story: ‘prodigal’ has two meanings.
1. recklessly extravagant
2. lavishly abundant
Both of the sons were prodigally selfish: the younger with his desire to have what he wanted, when he wanted, and the elder child was thinking only of his loyalty to his father, not the joy of his brother’s safe return. Both sons were prodigally immature, neither thinking of the eventual effects of their behaviors. The young whippersnapper took his money and ran to pleasure without a plan for his future, and the self-absorbed elder missed the point of his brother’s return.
The parable does not tell how long the young son was gone. He may have quickly spent his inheritance on wine, women, and song, or he may have rollicked in revelry for years. We know that it was several seasons because he had to endure a famine and survive on his own for a while after.
The son who stayed at home must have been aware of his father’s worry for the lost child. But rather rejoice upon the child’s return, the elder brother begged for his father’s attention. Luke 15, verses 28 and following recount, “Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ ” I imagine this son blocking the father’s view of the homecoming party, waving his hands in front of his dad’s face, begging for attention. How lost this son was, too, lacking so much compassion. Lacking in joy for the revelation his brother had experienced. So prodigal in his ignorance.
Oh, but the prodigal father. The lavishly abundant father. So patient with both sons in their impatience. So wise in the midst of their ignorance. So gentle in the midst of their tumult. Oh, precious prodigal father.
I know that I screw up. Daily, I want to smack myself in the forehead or on the wrists or otherwise punish myself for my own stupidity. I react in ignorance instead of waiting for discernment. I respond to momentary circumstances instead of considering enduring outcomes. I am selfish and ungrateful for what I have, and I seek more of what I don’t really need.
But for as rotten as I am, God is prodigally good. He regulates my imbalanced selfish scale. He erases my stupidity with his hugs of grace. He welcomes me into his perfect presence with open arms rather than shunning me for my foolish humanity.
Lamentations 3, verses 22 and 23 remind me
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Prodigal Father, I beg protection from my own prodigal self. Daily. Amen.