The Prodigal God

Many weeks ago I was considering the story of the prodigal son.  I identified more with the older brother, and I didn’t really want to be the older brother.  That is because I thought “prodigal” meant “rude, rebellious, selfish, wasteful, and mean”.  Turns out that’s not what it means.  It means… 

prod·i·gal

[prod-i-guhl] 

–adjective

1.     wastefully or recklessly extravagant: prodigal expenditure.
2.     giving or yielding profusely; lavish (usually fol. by of  orwith ): 
              prodigal of smiles; prodigal with money.
3.     lavishly abundant; profuse: nature’s prodigal resources.

This changes everything.

Now, there is a noun definition that probably came from the story of the son in  Luke 15…and Jesus never uses the word prodigal.  He didn’t open by saying, “Let me tell you the story of the Prodigal Son.” The story is not about the son at all.  It is about the Father.  I am not saying anything new.  I stole my post title from Greg Boyd’s sermon of the same name, and he stole it from someone else.  (Now before you start thinking I’m an open theist, it’s a good message.  Just take the message for what it’s worth.)  It is the story of a man who has two sons.  The younger asks for his inheritance early and squanders it on the high life, then ends up feeding pigs for a living.  The older remains.  One day as the younger son is quite literally starving, he decides to come home.  The father sees him, hikes up his garment and comes running to his son.  It’s a good story.  Greg Boyd tells it better (follow the link above).  Jesus tells it better still.

The thing that stood out to me today was Mr. Boyd’s description of the Father’s household.  In verse 17, the son remembers his father’s hired servants…not the household servants, but day hires–homeless fellows who waited around until someone hired them for the day.  The household servants would go into town, find these folks waiting, then hire a few to do the menial tasks in exchange for wages.  Culturally they would provide their own food, be paid in cash at the end of the day, and then be sent on to make the best of what they could.  So the idea that they had food enough seems to imply that the Father provided food for them.  To provide food was to provide a form of acceptance, to say, “You belong here.  You are welcome.”  This would have been scandalous, according to Mr. Boyd.

I got to thinking about the younger son and why he left the farm for the city.  I thought about how embarrassing his father’s generosity might have been to him.  I thought about the kindness that ignores status and how boring that is for someone who longs for a shiny, fast-paced life-style, for recognition and esteem.  I don’t want the same things as the younger son in this story.  That’s why I don’t identify with him.  People always talk about the cultural implications of working with pigs, and how that would have been detestable to him.  I don’t understand that, and I don’t detest the same things my culture detests, so I have a really hard time wrapping my brain around the significance of the pigs.  But what I see is a man who became the thing he hated most.  I am imagining that he hated farming, hated the hired hands–the day workers, and hated that his father treated them with regard.  So I wonder what he must have been thinking as he stood there, smelling like a sewer, with the Father lavishing kisses on him…

“No…you’re not…supposed…to love…me…you’re…supposed…to despise…me…”  I wonder if he was embarrassed for his father’s public display of affection and yet broken by his need for the father’s love.  I wonder if he was embarrassed by his own need, and then in turn embarrassed by his arrogant judgement of all the hired hands, all those years.

His speech…his famous interrupted speech.  He was all ready to say, “I have sinned against you and against God.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Treat me as one of your hired servants,” when the Father interrupts him and throws the most lavish party ever, dresses him in his own robes, puts the signant ring on his finger.  This is where I identify with the younger son.  The God of the Universe seems to be hopelessly, extravagantly in love with me.  I stand here, wanting to studder, “But I don’t…derserve…” as He interrupts with joy and love.  The paradox of God’s love is that, no matter how “underserving” we are of His love, the love itself makes us worthy. 

Blessings and peace,
Beth

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