home > Pastor’s Desk > 2022 > August 12th > The Prodigal Father
Does anyone know what the word prodigal means? Perhaps most people assume that it means: “wanderer”, or “rebel”, or perhaps even “backslider” or that it only applies to sons. This seems to be based on the story that Jesus told in Luke 15 to which most Bible Publishers assign the division title – The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But the word prodigal does not occur in this parable. Interestingly, there are three lead characters in this shocking and famous parable: the father and his two sons. One of these was genuinely ‘prodigal’, and, as Tim Keller points out, it was neither son! To appreciate what Keller means we might need to take another look at what the word prodigal actually means. It comes from the verb prodigious which means remarkably great in extent, size, or degree (New Oxford American Dictionary). It is a word often used to describe an author who regularly writes books – John Grisham is a prodigious author. A prodigal person is therefore, prolific, extravagant, excessive, and, lavish. Keller points out that even though most people ascribe this to the wayward son in the parable, it is more appropriately a designation for the lead character in the story, the father!
Jesus told this parable to grumbling Pharisees and scribes who resented that Jesus was welcoming “tax collectors and sinners [who] were all drawing near to Him” (Luke 15:1-2). Christ tells these religious folk three “lost” parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The twist in the last of these parables comes at the end when it is revealed that it is not the formerly wayward son who was lost, but the upright, dutiful, rule-keeping, son instead! The older son seems to be representing those who were keeping the Heavenly Father’s Old Covenant, while the formerly wayward but repentant son seems to be representing all those who have turned to the Heavenly Father in faith and repentance and accepted the New Covenant of God’s grace and forgiveness.
But it becomes clear from Christ’s parable that the Father loves both boys dearly (revealing His love for both Jews and Gentiles). The father’s deep love for both of his sons was also tinged with the hope that each of them would return that love toward him, but initially, neither did. This tells us a lot about who the lead character in this story represents. God the Father is immeasurably loving and kind toward each of us and, like the father in this parabolic story, He too longs for each of us to return that love to Him.
And the younger of them said to his father,
‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’
And he divided his property between them.
The demand by the younger son in Christ’s story would have been shocking and scandalous to Jesus’ original Jewish audience. No Jewish father would have tolerated such perfidiousness from their son! But not only does the father grant his younger son’s demand, he actually also divided his property between the older and younger sons! The father had given away everything he had to his two sons!
Initially, the listener would have been given the impression that it was the younger son who had rejected his father. But by the end of the story they would have learned that it was both of the father’s sons who had rejected him, yet it was the younger son who had turned to his father in an acknowledgment of his guilt and shame and sought his father’s forgiveness.
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had
and took a journey into a far country,
and there he squandered his property in reckless living.
While his wayward son was off breaking his father’s heart and trashing their family name, the father was ever hopeful that his son would soon realise the truth – that he was loved, cared for, nurtured, and provided for by his loving father – and always had been. Sometimes it takes the wayward to hit rock-bottom before they look up.
Things got so bad for the younger wayward son that he stooped as low as he could go just to survive. Again, in a shocking twist, he got a job feeding pigs (Lk. 15:15)! This was something no-self-respecting Jew would even countenance! Yet it was at his lowest point that the wayward came to his senses and realised what a fool he had been. He was prepared to return to his father and plead for him not to accept him back as a son, but as a hired-servant (Luke 15:18-19). Ironically, this was already the self-perceived status of his older brother.
The father in this story again did something completely unthinkable to any betrayed Jewish father – he ran to meet his perfidious son! And to make matters worse for the Pharisees and scribes, the father gave his son five symbols of love and acceptance: (i) An embrace; (ii) A kiss; (iii) a robe; (iv) a ring; and, (v) a pair of sandals. The younger son had taken the time spent in the long journey home to rehearse what he would say to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants” (Lk. 15:18b-19a). Despite his repeated rehearsal of this plea, all he was able to say when eventually reached his father was, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But this was enough. It expressed his repentance and contrition. And with that abbreviated plea for forgiveness instigated not by words but attitude and action, his father ran to him, welcomed him, and restored him. Since this father is a portrayal of our Heavenly father it reveals a treasure-trove of insights of what He is like as well.
The fact that the father, despite having given away all he had as a premature inheritance to his two sons, was able to recover financially in a relatively short period of time – so that he could put on a lavish (prodigious) celebration feast for the return of his formerly wayward son, should tell us a lot about our heavenly father. Just as the father in this story was generous, gracious, merciful, optimistic, loving, kind, and diligent, so is our Heavenly Father.
There is, though, a warning in this story, which is embodied by the attitude of the older son. He treated his father as his master, his employer. His relationship with his father was purely functional requiring him to dutifully serve his father. This older son deprived himself of his father’s love and ended up the way of all father-deprived children. He became angry, resentful, judgmental, and bitter. This older son represents all that is bad about the Old Covenant.
The older son was angry. He was angry at his father. He was angry at his brother. The father was grieved when his younger son betrayed him. But the father was also grieved that his older son would not eat a meal with him. The prodigal father loved to celebrate. He enjoyed music, dancing, feasting, happiness. The return of his repentant younger son gave him the reason to once again celebrate because their relationship had now been restored. The fact that the father and his younger son were now reunited had never meant that there was no room in the father’s heart to celebrate his relationship with his older son. In fact, he had longed for his older son to celebrate this with him. And this should once again teach us something about God our Heavenly Father that is worth us celebrating together this weekend.
This is why Tim Keller says that this parable of Christ reveals something gloriously magnificent about our Father God, that He is, in the best sense of the word prodigal, our Prodigal Heavenly Father!
Let me know what you think below in the comment section and feel free to share this someone who might benefit from this Pastor’s Desk.
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