Lavish. Extravagant. Excessive. Wasteful. Reckless. Wanton. Prodigal. The question of the parable, is who or what is the real prodigal?
These seem apt descriptors of the younger son’s behavior in this famous story Jesus tells the religious leaders who are grumbling about the way he associates with the losers of society. The Pharisees and the scribes believe they have earned the right to engage with the young rabbi—they are the cream of the cop and do not understand why Jesus would waste his time with sinners and tax collectors and other such good-for-nothings.
Jesus spins out his story about how truly terribly the younger son acts—in addition to his dissolute living, he also behaves shamefully— he treats his father as if he were dead and severs the relationship by asking for his inheritance as he heads out of town for a new life. Of course, it is not easy being the second son—ask any second son you know. In ancient times, it meant he would get only 1/3 of the inheritance, no property, and would always be destined to live in the shadow of his older brother. The only way to make a different future for himself is to leave; and because he has dishonored his father, he should never return.
But making a name for himself is not as easy as it first appears, and his self-indulgence leads to failure. The good times last as long as the money does, and when a famine hits, the younger son has no savings, no plan, no family network to rely on, and he sinks rapidly. He languishes in a foreign country feeding pigs forbidden by his own people; he is starving and alone, and hits bottom realizing the error of his ways. Extravagantly wasteful. Excessively reckless. Lavishly wanton. Prodigal does sound like an apt description.
He prepares his confession and his apology to his father and makes his way home. He is prepared to be nothing more than a servant in his father’s household.
The father as it turns out, has also been wasting time scanning the horizon for the son who declared him dead. Finally, one day he sees his son’s figure approaching off in the distance. The father does what men never do in his culture—he behaves like a woman or a slave—and he runs out to meet his son as he approaches the property. Fathers would normally sit and wait to receive the one visiting after someone else brings them into the house. But no, this father, is so moved with extravagant love and excessive compassion, that he leaves all custom and male dignity behind and runs out to welcome his son home.
Before his son can speak his confession and apology, the father hugs and kisses him—the son is forgiven before he confesses, he is loved before he apologizes, he is honored before he humbles himself for dishonoring his father.
The son finally gets out his confession and apology “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
But the father is too busy planning a party to celebrate his son’s return and treats him, not like a slave, but like royalty—a feast and a robe, a ring, and sandals, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
Extravagantly wasteful. Excessively reckless. Lavishly wanton. A father showering his lost younger son with prodigal love. Forgiveness before confession. Love without apology. Acceptance for just showing up. Joy at being found. Love and honor that cannot be squandered no matter how spectacularly hard he tried. That is the prodigal love of the father.
The dutiful older brother does not seem so excited that his brother is back safe and sound. Or maybe he is glad that he is safe, but not that his dad is throwing a good party after bad choices. Prodigal love makes no sense to those who play by the rules, work hard, show up every day, and do what they are supposed to do. Parties are earned, rewards are accounted for, celebrations are the result of daily toil, and paying your dues.
This is the system the scribes and pharisees understand—they share the anger of the older brother and refuse to join the party where the lost have been found. The older son argues with 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
Might we say, Extravagantly resentful. Excessively prideful. Lavishly burdened. The prodigal older brother has lived with blessing and family, the promise of a 2/3 inheritance, all the land and the love of his father his whole life—and he has not experienced it, he has not received it as blessing, has not enjoyed it.
His father says to him, as if to explain the obvious: ‘”Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” “There is nothing to earn. Goats and parties, and fatted calves and forgiveness and prodigal fatherly love have always been and will always be yours. You cannot earn it. It is already given—it is your inheritance as my child. You are already living in it, on it, with it, from it, through it—receive it, enjoy it, use it, experience it as blessing and life—with all of my love.”
The prodigal love of the father has always been showered on the older son in the same way it is now poured out on the younger son—can the older brother, can the pharisees, can we see, that this is how God has always loved us? That it never came from getting anything right—but simply because we are God’s sons and daughters? God’s love cannot be lost, manipulated, earned, or controlled by misguided waste or prideful labor.
The younger son cannot squander away the father’s prodigal love and he cannot confess his way back into right standing—because the Extravagantly wasteful, Excessively reckless, Lavishly wanton love of God runs out to meet us when we stray and turn our hearts toward home.
The older son cannot earn the prodigal father’s love by dutiful hard work and perfect service—because all that God has to offer is already ours—a full inheritance of forgiveness, freedom, and joy through Jesus Christ. The Extravagantly wasteful, Excessively reckless, Lavishly wanton love of God invites us into the party of the resurrection where we see that all we have, and all that we are from beginning to end, comes from God’s gracious prodigal hand.
We do not know if the older brother went into the party because we finish the story by joining the party and inviting others in!
So join the party –the Lord’s table is set—all sinners are welcome –and that means you! When you stray—come home and receive the party! When you are prideful and judging others—let it go—all you have has already been given by God—join the party!