March 6, 2016
Ah yes, The Prodigal Father – one of Jesus’ most famous stories … Er, don’t you mean The Prodigal Son? And what does ‘prodigal’ mean anyway?
It’s one of those weird words that we only come across in one place – like manger, (Away in a … ) – so we can lose the meaning. Plenty of people think manger means cradle or cot, when the nearest thing most of us know is dog bowl.
So, prodigal. What does it mean? Another name for this story is ‘The Lost Son’, and that’s a good name. The younger son was lost and then was found. So does prodigal mean lost?
No, because the father was not lost in this story, it was the son. Or rather, both sons. The older son, despite always being at home and always dutiful, was, in many ways, much more lost than his younger brother. But that’s a story for different time.
No, prodigal does not mean lost; it means generous, extravagant, even wasteful. The younger son was extravagant and wasteful with his inheritance, and it led him to ruin and humiliation. But I’ve called this story ‘The Prodigal Father’, so how is the father extravagant and wasteful?
At the start of the story the father gives a half the family farm to a lad who clearly has not got much financial sense. From a businessman’s point-of-view that certainly looks wasteful. But let’s just think about what ‘wasteful’ means. Was it really a waste of his money? His son learnt a great life-lesson and returned to his father because he wanted to, not because he was forced to stay or out of duty like the older brother. Wisdom like that cannot be bought. I’d say the father got good value for his money. Happy shareholders but a son who is ‘dead’, or an OK business with the son ‘alive’. I know which I’d choose.
So if that’s not the prodigal bit, which is? What about the extravagant welcome home? The older son certainly thought that the huge party was far too good for his wayward younger brother.
But in this regard, God’s ideas are often different from ours. Look at the parable of the workers, where the owner pays them all a full day’s pay, even if they didn’t ‘deserve’ it. It ends with him saying “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” Matt 20:15.
Wasteful? Certainly. The owner could have paid far less and no-one would have complained. But that’s how God works. He gives far more than is ‘fair’. He is wastefully generous with his mercy, grace and love. He throws mercy around like there was a never-ending supply available. He gives away his grace without ever finding out if the person deserves it or not. He pours love on us without any measuring or means-testing or noting it down on a spreadsheet. How extravagant! How wasteful! How wonderful!
Like the father in the story, God is generous even to people who don’t deserve it. Like the younger son. Like me. Like you.
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us” 1 John 3:1
“He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Ps 103:10-12
Who do you feel more like in the story? Are you the wayward younger son, amazed at the father’s accepting love that you don’t deserve? Are you the older son, doing faithful duty without realising that the father’s extravagant love extends to him as well?
You will need a pen and sticky notes (5 each), a helium balloon with a string and access to outside.
We are going to write different types of things that we love on the sticky notes. For example, on the first you could write something that you love to eat. On the second, something that you love to do. On the third, something that you love to have. On the fourth, the people you love. Keep the fifth note for later.
Stick your notes on the wall, higher or lower to show how much you love the various things. Now write your own name on the fifth note. Looking at yourself from God’s perspective, how high up the wall do you think you deserve to be?
Go outside and stick your note around the string of the balloon. Release the balloon and watch as God’s wonderful, extravagant, prodigious love for you rises higher than you can see. Read these words from Ps 103: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.”
I stand amazed at your overflowing love for me.
I don’t deserve it; I really don’t.
And even this love beyond my understanding is only a tiny fraction of your grace and mercy and forgiveness toward me.
Please help me to grasp the amazing truth of your extravagant love and to love you back in some tiny measure.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 New International Version
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
New International Version (NIV)
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