Jesus didn’t have a good reputation with the religious people he met. He spent far too much time with the not so nice people of this world, those who didn’t follow the rules of good living. He ate with them, talked to them, taught them and healed them. This was shocking but it was what God wanted. In order to explain what he was doing, Jesus told three parables about things that were lost and then found: a sheep, a coin and a son. It was the third parable which was in the gospel today.
The readings were Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. My reflection is given below.
In English, the well-known parable of Jesus in the gospel today has often been referred to as ‘The Prodigal Son’. If you don’t speak English as a first language, it’s unlikely you will have come across the word ‘prodigal’. I suspect many native English speakers are unsure what it means. It’s not a word we would often use in everyday speech. Occasionally we might hear someone say: ‘I see the prodigal has returned’. This generally seems to refer to someone who has wandered away but has now come back.
The word ‘prodigal’ could come from two possible Latin words. One suggestion is from ‘prodigus’ which comes from the verb ‘prodigere’, meaning ‘to drive away or squander’. Alternatively, it is derived from a late Latin word ‘prodigalus’ which also comes from ‘prodigus’ but had taken on the meaning of ‘lavish’. From these two roots we get two rather different nuances of meaning in English, one negative and one positive. The negative meaning is ‘recklessly wasteful’, or slightly less negative ‘extravagant’. The positive meaning is ‘lavish’ or ‘extremely generous’.
If you will bear with me as I study the words a little further, ‘lavish’ is a very rich word. The verb means ‘to give or pour forth unstintingly’. The word comes from Middle English ‘lavas’ meaning ‘an outpouring’. That in turn comes from Old French ‘lavasse’ meaning ‘a torrent or deluge of rain’.
I’d like you to bear those meanings in mind as I examine the parable which tells of not one, but two prodigal people.
In the parable, the prodigal son showed his reckless wastefulness clearly. He obviously belonged to a family which had money, an estate, enough to allow him to inherit some wealth and land when his father died. His longing for freedom, for independence, a new way of life, being his own man, caused him to squander his relationship with his father. In asking for what would one day be his, the son was effectively saying: Father, I wish you were dead, now! All the aspects of the relationship which had built up over the years with his father were set aside, counted as of no value. He broke his relationship with his elder brother. He also cast away, squandered, the security of a known future, safe, dependable, predictable. All in the name of freedom.
The money the son received was half of what his father had built up as an estate for his sons to inherit. Half a working lifetime was given to the younger son of the household to walk away with, no questions asked. All that work was turned into money which we hear was squandered; recklessly, wastefully disposed of in ‘dissolute living’. In his search for freedom from the constraints of his father’s household, the son spent his money on flouting every rule of good behaviour. Had he had a plan to use the money to set up a business of his own, it’s possible he would have gained profit on what he was given and respect in the community. However, it seems his only plan was to experience whatever the world could offer him beyond the constraints of his father’s estate and his native land. As a result eventually he used up his future, with nothing to show for it.
Actually he did have something to show for all that he’d done. The son had a huge load of regret. There came a day when empty pockets, empty stomach and a lack of freedom to choose anything – apart from perhaps where to lie down to die of starvation – brought him to his senses. While he was starving, even his father’s servants were well fed and housed. Suddenly freedom and independence, which had seemed so much better than the life of a dutiful son, didn’t look good even when compared to the life of a hired servant. He decided to return home and beg for a job, any job, on his father’s estate.
Now it’s time to consider the second prodigal person in this story, the father. The father was prodigal in the positive sense. He was lavish, generous in the extreme as he showed from the moment he appeared in the parable.
The father didn’t have to give the son his share of the property. Many would have accused him of being a fool, a soft father, instead of imposing discipline and sending the son away to get on with his duties. I would argue that this showed a lavish love for his son, a love that was prepared to suffer the pain of letting the son make his own mistakes.
We have no idea how long the son was away from home. However, in that time of separation the generous love of the father had not abated. Either the father had looked out every day in the hope of seeing his son returning, or his love was such that something made him look that day, something told him his son was on his way home. What else but love could recognise in a bedraggled, half-starved beggar the proud young man who had walked away from that same place with the value of half an estate in his pocket and a lust for freedom in his soul. What else but love would set aside convention and allow the father to run towards his son, disregarding the spectacle he was making of himself.
There’s one more detail in this story that really struck me on reading it this time. Before the son had a chance to utter a word he was enveloped in a hug and kissed. Do you remember the meaning of ‘lavish’? A deluge, a torrent of love poured over that young man and washed him clean of all that his bid for freedom and independence had burdened him with.
When the son stuttered out his carefully rehearsed confession, it was not done from a distance as some formal application between potential employer and employee, or between judge and accused. There was no space between father and son. The son could feel the heartbeat of his father. When the son said, 21“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” the words were muffled by the father’s robes. They didn’t need to be heard by all, to be a public confession and humiliation. It was enough for the father to hear the words before he took public action to restore his son – the one who was dead and now alive, was lost and now found – to his former position in the household.
I wonder, have you ever made a bid for freedom from the constraints imposed by being in God’s household? Have you wished at times that God didn’t exist or decided to act as though he doesn’t exist? Have you gone your own way, flouting the rules of good behaviour? As you look at your life now, do you have regrets about what you have done and where it has led you?
I would like to invite you, if you are ready to do so, to close your eyes and put yourself in the place of the prodigal son. See yourself turn around and head back to God, the Father. See the family estate in the distance with a figure running towards you. Feel the arms around you, holding you tight and close, never to let you go. Sense the lavish love of God pouring over you. Feel God kiss you.
Now, while you are held there, close to God’s heart, I invite you to say, with your own voice in the privacy of wherever you are in real life, for the ears of God alone, what the son said to his father:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
I am no longer worthy to be called your son or daughter.
Witness God the Father’s response to you:
Let us eat and celebrate;
for this child of mine was dead and is alive again;
was lost and is found!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor