Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 11b“There was a man who had two sons. 12The 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. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But 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! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20So 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. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But 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. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But 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. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.’ ”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s a well-known story, isn’t it? This story in our Gospel reading today has been told and retold so often that it almost takes a life of its own. And, from the time when we are small, many of us hear this story titled as, “The Prodigal Son,” even though the word, “prodigal” does not occur anywhere within the telling of the story.
It occurred to me that the title may have sprung from the Latin version of the story, since “prodigal” derives from Latin, but I looked through the Vulgate and saw nothing that resembled the word there, either.
We don’t use the word, “prodigal,” very often, do we, at least not in regular conversation. When we do use it, I’m guessing we often use it wrongly.
You see, when we learn to speak, and to read, we don’t usually run to a dictionary every time we encounter a new word. We learn “Mommy” and “Daddy” very early, with an understanding that probably cannot be fully captured in the pages of a dictionary. Many other words are the same, we learn them from context, gleaning their meaning from the ways in which they are used. This serves us well most of the time, so that it is only the more complicated or unusual words that drive us to the dictionaries.
Because of this, I believe, many of us have misconceptions of what it means to be prodigal. I know I did. I thought being prodigal meant to be rather naughty, to demand an inheritance early and then run away and do all kinds of things I wasn’t really supposed to be doing. That’s the way everyone seemed to be using the word, so it was many years before I actually took the time to go to a dictionary, and I can’t remember why I did it, but I do remember being shocked at how wrong I had been for so long.
One of my friends had thought that “prodigal” meant “repentant,” that it described the younger son returning in shame, ready to work as a slave for his father, if only it meant that he would have enough food in his belly and clothes on his back and not smell like the pigs he found himself feeding in order to survive.
Another thought that “prodigal” described any kind of disobedience, and that it should refer to both sons, because the elder refused to partake of the banquet of thanksgiving for the return of his brother, even when his father came out to beg him to join in the celebration.
So now, to the dictionary! “Prodigal” means to be “extravagantly generous,” or “wastefully extravagant.” The younger son was prodigal only in the part of the story where he’s spending his inheritance lavishly… until it runs out. Then, he is no longer prodigal. He can’t be. He has nothing to spend.
In that vein, I have many colleagues who maintain that this parable should be called, “The Prodigal Father,” for it is the Father who is most generous to both his sons, as the first is leaving, and when he returns, and finally with the elder who just seems to be owly!
Our misunderstandings are understandable. This story does have an element of encouraging us to come home when we’ve been naughty or lost, and an element of encouragement to join in celebration when others come home to where we might have remained faithful. This story also reminds us of how wonderfully generous the father is to both sons, scolding neither son, but rather opening his arms to receive them.
It’s a parable to help us to see: not to see what we might do in some sort of quest to earn God’s favor, but to see God’s favor and unending love—no matter what.
So what does that mean for us? What does this mean for those of us who are gathered here within these walls right now?
I’ve often likened those of us who gather for worship regularly to the elder son of the parable, not really wanting to welcome the younger son home in fear that doing so would encourage wild oats or something like that. Of course sometimes that fits, and we do need to remind ourselves not to refuse God’s party of joyful welcome!
The problem with that is we are not called to represent the sons in this parable, at least not forever. Once the younger son is welcomed home, he’s at the party, and no longer starving or misbehaving in any way. Once the elder son joins the party, he’s no longer refusing to celebrate the reunion. If we’re here, we’re not here to represent either of the sons any longer. We’re here to represent the father.
In other words, we are to welcome the repentant with open arms and to encourage all to celebrate the reunions with joy. We are to spend God’s love as if there is no end to it… because there isn’t.
So, when I titled today’s message, “Being Prodigal,” I wasn’t suggesting we strive to be naughty or lost. I wasn’t going for the coming home part, because people who are listening are already here!
What I was hoping is that we can learn to look a little deeper, even when we’re quite sure we are right about something we’ve known our entire lives, like the meaning of the word, “prodigal.”
I was hoping we could be as generous with God’s love as the father in the parable is generous with his.
I was hoping we could live God’s love in ways that entice people to come through these doors, to join the party of praise to a God whose love never quits. Can we love one another without condemnation, without prejudice, and without bigotry? Can we hear the good news of God’s love for the sinners of creation, realizing that includes everyone? Can we be lavish in sharing God’s love? Can we be prodigal in Jesus’ name?
I hope so! Amen.