Becoming Prodigal

"The Return of the Prodigal Son", Rembrandt, c.
“The Return of the Prodigal Son”, Rembrandt, c. 1667

This Week’s Lectionary Passage: Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable:…“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.’”

This is truly one of the world’s best-known and best-loved parables.  In fact, it shows up even in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition as well as others, so I would surmise that everyone has a hard time figuring this out.  The truth is, we humans like the image of one being welcomed home.  And even though those of us who try to do everything right, try to be who we’re supposed to be, are a little bothered by our identification with the older son, we like that image of the safety net that no matter how badly we mess our lives up, we can always begin again.

But when you delve a little deeper, there’s always more to the story.  (Oh, come now, you didn’t think that there would just be one level to a parable told by Jesus, did you?)  So, think about the fact that in this time and in this culture, there were expectations.  Land and resources were viewed as a gift to be handled responsibly.  They were ancestral lands and were meant to stay together, to stay within the family, rather than being split apart and divided.  So, this was a shocking parable, far from anything that its hearers could have imagined.  This father who gave away resources to a younger son that then leaves the family was going against all that the culture prescribed.  And a father that welcomed him back was just being duped.  And then to essentially take him back into the family and heap more abundance upon him was just unthinkable.  Good grief, when will this father ever learn?

We have come to equate the word “prodigal” with one who returns.  But if you look up the word, it means one who is recklessly spendthrift.  It also means yielding abundantly.  So how can those two definitions refer to the same word?  Because the notion of abundance, the notion of offering all that you have and all that you are, the notion of being this prodigal father is deemed irresponsible in our world’s view.  And yet, this image of one who offers all as abundance is the image of God that we get over and over again.  God does not dole out riches or rewards based on who we are and what we do; rather God offers everything, pouring as much of the Godself into our lives as we can possibly hold (and then more that we might spill it out into the world around us).  This is a God of abundance.  We don’t understand it.  We can’t control it.  We can’t even really accept it half the time.  We look for a catch.  After all, the world tells us that we cannot get something for nothing.

But “something for nothing” is exactly what God is offered.  God’s only desire is that we open ourselves to this prodigal abundance that God offers.  You’ve probably often heard a description of this parable ending with something like “head home to the open arms of God, the feast is waiting.”  What if the ending was something more like “just open yourselves to the abundance that is right there.  You don’t have to go anywhere.  You don’t have to do anything.  You just have to desire in the deepest part of your being the incredible blessings and abundance that God is already heaping into your life.”

Here is the God I want to believe in:  a Father who, from the beginning of Creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders.  His only desire is to bless. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 95-96)

So in this Lenten season, open yourself to this Prodigal God, this God of Abundance.  Think what it would mean to become a prodigal, spending lavishly the abundance that God offers and, then, becoming that very abundance yourself.

Grace and Peace,


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