Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
This parable is so familiar to us, perhaps the most well-known parable in the Bible! It has been drawn, painted and sculpted countless times! Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” is one of the most recognized works of art. Coming to this reading today, one wonders if there is anything fresh we can learn, any new challenge, anything new at all.
We all know a lot about this story, so we are going to see if we can teach each other about this story. In the coffeehouse style, let’s talk with each other about this story.
There are three characters in this story. Get into groups of three….
The person to the south is the younger brother; the person to the north is the older brother; and the other person is the father.
Each of you has 1 minute to tell the others what it feels to be you in this story. Adopt the personality, talk in the first person. I will sound the singing bowl at the end of your minute. Go.
Would you like to share anything about your observations from your conversations?
I have always known this story as the Prodigal Son. And I don’t think I ever thought about that word, prodigal. It is just there. It is not a word I ever use in any other context. I realized that I don’t really even know what the word means! If asked to use it in a sentence, I wouldn’t know what to say. The word isn’t in the Biblical text. I haven’t been able to find out who first gave it that name. But it happened and has stuck.
So what does the word, prodigal, mean? Spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant; having or giving something on a lavish scale. One thing I notice from the definition is that it does not necessarily mean the action is immoral, or evil. It is seemingly unwise however, lacking foresight.
So, who is the one in the story who uses resources recklessly? Who is the prodigal? We may have missed so much of what this parable has to teach us by calling the younger son the prodigal.
A case could be made for each of the three characters being wastefully extravagant. The first two are obvious.
In verse 13, the younger son is described as squandering his property in dissolute living. So it is easy to see how he has been identified as prodigal. He spent thoughtlessly, with no care for the future. The older brother said he used his money with prostitutes, but that could be jealousy speaking. The story only says that he spent the whole estate like a spendthrift. Yes, there is prodigal behavior in the younger son.
It is also easy to see that the father is a prodigal, spending recklessly and extravagantly. That is exactly what the older son has against him. He has wasted the fatted calf on a huge party – a calf would feed 200 people! A huge party for a brother who also wasted his money on spendthrift living. Like father, like son! The two parables which preface this one are about someone who loses something, then finds it, then gathers the neighbors to celebrate together. The celebration in each of these parables is more than is called for. If you lose your keys and find them, do you call together the neighbors for a celebration? The woman who lost a coin, the shepherd who lost a sheep, and now the father who lost a son are all prodigals. Their joy is extravagant! Their focus on each little or big reunion, is lavish.
The younger son has done nothing to deserve this kind of celebration.
What if we think about the older brother as prodigal? This one takes a little more digging perhaps. Turn to your groups of three and talk about how the older brother might be considered prodigal, wastefully extravagant.
What did you think of?
What has the brother extravagantly wasted? The love of the father. He did his duty, true. He was righteous and respectable, yes. But in all of this time with his father, as the only son, he just did not seem to revel in the love he was offered. He worked for it. He needed to deserve it. But that was his own choice. He wasted all the love available to him, by being rigid and perfectionist. When the younger brother got a party, something burst inside him. Perhaps anger at himself, that he never enjoyed the good things around him. He only worked to please, like a slave.
He never enjoyed the fruit of the labor, nor the love of the father. Because he could not accept the love, he too, was a prodigal, spending his life in wasteful extravagant righteousness, which robbed him of joy and of the love of his father.
The Pharisees and the Scribes, too, had everything! They are God’s covenant people. God has promised to take care of them, love them, hold the in God’s arms, protect them under God’s wings! And yet they waste their wealth in petty righteousness and comparing themselves to others. They, too, waste the love the father had for them, by not accepting it. By thinking they must earn it, they were wasting their lives in slavish effort, when it was all free for them to enjoy.
Perhaps we can each find the prodigal in ourselves. Today we gather at this table. We have a little bit of bread and a little bit of juice, beautifully displayed in silver and hand-made pottery. These bits have been carefully and lovingly prepared for us. I encourage us not to let these little symbols get in the way of the huge extravagance of God’s love which they represent. This is the extravagant love of God, throwing an lavish party to draw us to God’s heart! This is your party!
Are you the younger child, the one who yearns to enjoy what the world has to offer, the one who loves to party and enjoy the day? This table is for you.
Are you the older child, the one who works hard today for a reward in the future, the one who is willing to sacrifice for future blessing? This table is for you.
Are you like the father, extravagant in love; you feel the pain in every loved one’s heart? You would make this table a huge feast? This table is for you.
There is something timely that today, we get a little taste here, which only makes us hungry for the greater meal we will share with each other downstairs in a little while. But every time we have these small bits of bread and juice, they are only a small taste of the party, which we can enjoy every minute of every day. Small bits of God’s extravagance are offered us at every turn. Will we turn to each other and say, did you see that? Share a smile, a high five, a hug? These small tidbits are always there for celebrating. Always.
God’s love is so extravagant that God doesn’t care if people might think God to be foolish, prodigal. God’s very essence is love – wasteful, excessive and whole-hearted love. This table is for you. Revel in what God offers here