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!
My Great Grandmother was one of eleven children. My mother was one of six children. After the financial devastation of the Great Depression, my mother and my aunts and uncles moved to Bunyip, a small town in Gippsland Victoria, where my Grandparents started over – again, farming sheep, dairy cows, and crops. In the early 1900s in rural Australia it made sense to have a big family because farming was so labour intensive and every farmer depended upon their children to help out on the farm. Today, families of six or more children is far less common. In fact, some couples are now getting married with the intention of having just one child, and even some are telling me that they do not intend to have any children. I wonder what this apparent trend might do to our culture? I wonder whether some of the problems that beset young men who struggle to interact in a wholesome way with young ladies might be due to their lack of growing up with a sister or sisters? While sociologists who study the effect of family compositions on societies examine some of these dynamics and how they maybe contributing to the “me generation”, I think there is also something deeply spiritual and theological to consider as well.
Something very unique in human history happened part-way through the twentieth century and it has had a devastating impact on local churches all around the world! The concept of ‘family’ went nuclear. A ‘nuclear’ family (dad, mum, and the kids, living in a house with a white picket fence) somehow became regarded as the family. What made this concept of the family so out-of-step with how nearly all cultures for time-immemorial have viewed what a ‘family’ was, is that this twentieth-century Western concept of family completely dismissed the role that grand-parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even great-grandparents have played in the understanding of family.