I’ve been co-leading a class on Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God. He explained something I had never considered before. When we hear the word “prodigal” we think of it as “wayward.” The word has the connotation of wild and reckless behavior. And in a sense that is true. But what Keller points out is that the actual definition of the word is “recklessly spendthrift.” The sense here is of pursuing your goal with reckless abandon.
So, in the story of the Prodigal Son we are not looking at a wayward son who runs off and then is welcomed back. I mean we are, but that isn’t all we see. We actually see three examples of a prodigal nature. All three of the main characters of Jesus’ story are prodigal in their own way. Prodigality is, like most things, not a matter of being the wrong way to be. It’s a matter of being prodigal in the proper way. The issue is not even that their ultimate goal is wrong. What is wrong with both sons is that their prodigal nature leads them to miss out on their goal.
If we take all sin and suffering out of the Bible we are left with four chapters. We have the first two chapters of Genesis, and the last two chapters of Revelation. We are left with a book that starts with a garden with no suffering, and ends with a city filled with God’s light. This is ultimately what every one of us is after. We may not really know it, but every time we work to end suffering in the world or in our own lives it is because we have a deep seated sense that things aren’t meant to be this way. Somewhere in our bones we realize that life is not meant to be about suffering and pain. So we pursue ways to end that suffering in the most prodigal way we know how. Each example in the parable Jesus tells represent one of the ways in which we do this.
The first example in Jesus’ story is the example we are familiar with. The youngest son goes to the father and says, “give me all that is mine.” This is shocking to the consciousness of first century Palestine. He is basically saying to the father, “I wish you were dead.” He is recklessly casting aside any love for the father, any love for his brother, and any love for his community. All he wants to do is to get out and party. He takes the ostrich approach to pain. He buries his head in the sand. He stays numb. He buys friends. He sits in front of the television. He goes out to clubs. He does anything he can to avoid any real questions about his life and where he fits in the world around him.
The elder brother is the opposite, but the result is exactly the same. The elder brother follows all the rules. And he follows them with a reckless abandon as well. He is so committed to following the rules that he won’t have anything to do with anyone who doesn’t. It would have been his responsibility to go out looking for his younger brother when he took off. But he didn’t. He was all about keeping up the status quo. He wanted the father’s things as much as the younger brother. He was just placing his bets that the best way to get those things was to play nice and follow the rules. So he was furious when the father gave the younger brother his inheritance. And he was even more furious when the father accepted the younger brother back as a son. The elder brother also wanted to avoid opening his heart to those around him. The younger brother built a wall of licentiousness around his heart. The elder brother built a wall of laws around his.
So we are left with the third way. The Gospel is always the third way. The father is prodigal in his love for both sons. But unlike the sons he recklessly casts aside his own status and self-interest in order to pursue the love of his children. When the younger son says, “I wish you were dead…give me what is mine.” He does not run him out of town or have him stoned to death as the Law would have prescribed for such a thing. He makes the sacrifice himself. He sells off part of his land. He gives up a portion of his wealth so that the youngest son can have what he asks for. And when the elder son refuses to come in to the celebration of his brother’s return the father does not force him to do anything. He takes the public humiliation, and he leaves the party so that he can beg his son to come in. And when the elder son is berating him for his prodigal love of the youngest son the fathers reply is this. He says, “All that I have is yours, and has always been yours. All I have ever asked of you is for you to love me, and love your brother.”
Many of us hear this story from the perspective of one son or the other. We might be younger brother types who focus on Jesus’ teaching that the elder brother is equally wrong if not more-so. We might be elder brother types who focus on the fact that Jesus gives a very clear example of what happens when the younger brother gets exactly what he wants. But either way, if we read this story and find ourselves saying, “Yeah! That’s right! You tell ’em Jesus!” Then we are missing the point completely. The point of the story is to understand the prodigal love of the father. If we can find ourselves beginning to read this story and feel our heart break for both of the brothers, then we are starting to get it. And if we can look at those around us, especially those who are the opposite from us, and not be angry, but be heartbroken for the ways in which they are broken, we are starting to get it. And if we can truly want what is best for those around us no matter what the cost is for us, then we are finally beginning to see with the Father’s prodigal eyes.