Your Daily Lenten Devotional
April 4, 2012
Into the Wilderness
The Lost Son and the Father’s Love Luke 15:11-24
Neither Jesus nor Luke use the word prodigal in telling or recording this parable. It is a label the church only later superimposed upon it. And with great success. Say aloud “prodigal son” in a congregation, and you will likely see heads nod in recognition and familiarity. “Oh, yes, the prodigal. My cousin’s nephew was such a boy. Wandered off. Got himself good and lost doing you know what with you know who. Made a mess of his life. But just like the story, he came to his senses and returned home. Got his act together. Made amends. And now that prodigal is part of the family again. Thank God!”
There is nothing wrong with that story, that joy, that thanksgiving. Would that all those whose faces and memories come to mind with the mention of “prodigal” turn out that way. But that’s not the whole story of this parable. Lo and behold, there’s more than one prodigal here! I should tell you up front that we don’t get to the elder son until the next reading–so that’s not the other prodigal I mean. The other prodigal is the father.
Prodigal: “recklessly wasteful…profuse in giving…a person given to luxury or extravagance” (The American Heritage Dictionary). The church imposed “prodigal” on this parable out of that first understanding of its definition. The younger child took all he had and “squandered his property in dissolute living.” But sometimes the church acts just like the first disciples and misunderstands Jesus. We want to talk about seats in glory and positions of privilege, when Jesus wants to move the conversation to service and humility. We want to pull out our swords and hack away at the opponents, when Jesus knows violence begets violence…and love eventually begets love. We want to tell everybody about a prodigal son, when Jesus wants to tell us about a prodigal parent.
“Profuse in giving.” This parent divides up the shares of the family property, an act usually reserved until after death. For the younger boy, his dad can’t die soon enough; and the father goes along with it. Is giving profusely a good way to teach responsibility?
“A person given to extravagance.” The boy is walking back home, destitute, a failure. He has his speech of remorse duly memorized and rehearsed. Nothing in the text suggests any insincerity on his part. Now is an ideal time for this young man to learn a hard lesson about humility. And who else should be in charge of hard lessons but a parent? How else can we make sure our children understand the gravity of their mistakes? How else can we restore the authority that belongs to this relationship? The boy has acted as though the father couldn’t die quick enough. So now we stand alongside that father as he waits and watches the youthful prodigal slowly walk toward the house and kin once abandoned. We would understand the father if a gate swings closed or a door locks tight. We might even understand if the father receives the wanderer only after listening to every heart-wrenching word.
But how can we understand the extravagance of this old prodigal? What do we make of someone who acts as though the apology is secondary to the return, who runs to meet the one who should be crawling through the mud for what has been done? Years ago I heard Kenneth Bailey speak of this parable’s affront. Even more shameful than what the son has done is how the father now caves in. Such an act undermines authority, not just in family but in community. For if such a one returns home and receives such honor and extravagant welcome, what will that mean for the village, for the society?
In Dr. Bailey’s estimation such an act in that time merited punishment–not of the son, mind you, but of the father. The parable runs deeper than just a story of family reunion. Recall the complaint against Jesus that Luke identifies at the beginning of this chapter: “‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”‘ This parable arises out of conflict in that community over respectability and community standards. Jesus has gone outside those bounds. In the narrative, and subtly within the parable, we are on the way to Jerusalem. At stake is what will be done with one whose love and grace is prodigal.
We are not done with this parable, for another character stands on its edges. This portion closes by asserting that the dead live and the lost are found. The order of those statements implies that death and life may not be as consequential as whether one is lost or found. The movement between death and life, lost and found occurs in the parable through a prodigal’s love for a prodigal. The movement between death and life, lost and found occurs in our lives by the prodigal love incarnate for us in Jesus’ ministry and passion.
You find and enliven me with such extravagant grace, 0 God: given in creation, affirmed in redemption, promised in hope. Help me remember I am a child and heir of such prodigal love. Amen.
Remember times when you may have had cause to approach God as did this younger son. As you remember those times, imagine the scene of this parable’s welcome of the one returning. God has welcomed you. God has graced you. Even before you start “home,” God’s arms open wide in embrace. Consider how God’s embrace of you invites your welcome of others.
Parables and Passion: Jesus’ Stories for the Days of Lent
Retail Price: $15.00
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Parables and Passion offers a disciplined encounter with the parables of Jesus in the season of Lent. The book allows reflection on one parable each day arranged around relevant themes. The Prologue offers a reading for Ash Wednesday, and the Epilogue provides readings for the final days of Holy Week.
Used with the kind permission of our friends at Upper Room Books.