Most of my readers all know the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) but I, being one who didn't grow up with any knowledge of the Bible, remember how surprised and confused I was when I first heard it. I was touched by the fathers reaction to his irresponsible and disrespectful son when he wanted to come back home, but I also remember feeling like the father was himself being a bit irresponsible and maybe somewhat enabling. Then, when the text seemed to indicate that the older son wasn't doing much better, it threw me a bit. I felt a little like a prodigal after accepting Jesus as my Savior and thought that behaving and doing everything right was what, as a new Christian, I was supposed to now be doing.
It's been a little hard for me to see what this story is really all about and I have decided that maybe the prodigal isn't the disobedient son at all, or even the older son, but the father himself. Let me explain. I heard a speaker not long ago give the definition of what the word "prodigal" means. It actually means "reckless extravagance". We can all agree that the disobedient son was reckless. To have the audacity to go to his father and ask for his inheritance ahead of time is pretty cocky and selfish to be sure. He obviously thought he would be happier living a life of debauchery and revelry and needed to fund the venture. I picture him going off to an environment a bit like Vegas today, blowing all of his money on expensive food, excessive alcohol, strip clubs, prostitutes, buying gifts to win admirers and who all knows what, while deceiving himself into thinking that the "friends" around him weren't simply along for the ride. We've seen examples of this extreme behavior in movies and reality tv shows and are a bit sickened by the extreme extravagance.
It's all good while it lasts but as the story goes, it all catches up to him. He runs out of money, his "friends" are now nowhere to be seen and he's hungry, lonely, humiliated, and probably a bit confused at why his plan didn't seem to give him the satisfaction that he thought it would. Reckless and extravagant. It was now costing him greatly.
Now, on to the older son. How could he be seen as "recklessly extravagant"? He seemed to do everything just right, or at least it seemed so to me. As the story goes, the older son was none too happy when his little brother seemed to waltz right back into the family after causing so much shame and heartbreak. Not only was he allowed to come back but his dad even threw a party for him! It just didn't seem right and I'm sure his mind raced with jealously. Did all the years of obedience mean nothing to his father? Now that the other son was back, would he have to share some of his well-earned inheritance with him again later? That didn't seem fair. What then was the payoff for doing things the right way? All good questions.
What I see his recklessness to be is this: He was reckless to think that obedience was what built the relationship between he and his father instead of the relationship creating the foundation to express the obedience. He was serving his dad (he actually uses the word "slaving" ) out of obligation instead of love so when something came along that challenged that motivation he reacted. The disobedient son was honest about his misguided mindset and even expressed to his father that he knew he had blown it and didn't expect much from him. He didn't expect sonship but simply wanted him to give him a job.
The older son however, was caught up in the extravagance of his pride and flaunted it by always doing just the right thing and then expecting his father to act out of obligation. It had made him angry, bitter, jealous, and a bit confused at why his plan didn't seem to give him the satisfaction that he thought it would. Reckless and extravagant. It was now costing him greatly.
Now, onto the father. The things that the father in the story experienced would have caused those hearing the story to gasp as Jesus spoke. They would have been put on a roller coaster ride of emotion as they heard one heartbreaking event after another about this parents' experience with this ungrateful child.
First of all, he had been terribly disrespected. In the Jewish culture at that time, the inheritance was only given out after a father had died. To ask for it early would have been an abomination and could have resulted in the community coming together to stone the offender.
Second, the son had gone off and spent his inheritance on vile, perverted activities which would have caused great embarrassment to the family. The son would probably have not traveled very far and those involved would have known exactly who he was. The "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" cover wouldn't have worked in this case.
Then, to make matters worse, the son ended up working with pigs. According to Mendy Kaminker, "There is probably no animal as disgusting to Jewish sensitivities as the pig. It's not just because it may not be eaten: there are plenty of other animals that aren't kosher either, but none of them arouse as much disgust as the pig. Colloquially, the pig is the ultimate symbol of loathing..."
The father's son was so desperate for help that he was willing to make his way back home, even with all of these strikes against him. But, what the father did as soon as he saw him was hard for the people listening to grasp. As soon as he saw his son walking toward him, he did what no Jewish man would have done at that time. He hiked up his tunic, showed his bare legs, which would have been unthinkable, and he ran. He ran right towards his son. He would have undoubtedly been told about every act that his son did to embarrass, disappoint, disobey and disrespect him but it didn't seem to matter. He wanted his son home.
Some Bible scholars feel that he ran to his son in order to beat the people from getting to him first in order to attack him since he deserved to be condemned under the law. I'm not sure about that, but one thing I do know is that he was happy to see him, and he was happy to receive him. He was willing to forgive everything and restore their relationship. Not only restore what they had, but restore what they should have had all along; love without any strings attached, understanding of their individual roles, gratitude for the provision and safety the father provided which in turn motivates obedience and service, and security knowing that however badly one messes up, they can always acknowledge the sin and restore the relationship.
The father's youngest son was blessed with the opportunity to see these truths and at the end, the father's new hope was for his oldest son to see them too. He was excited to be able to celebrate both of their homecomings. One had found peace and joy as he found his way home, and he desperately wanted the other to find peace and joy in realizing he had been home all along.
So it appears to me that the most recklessly extravagant one in the story was the father himself. It's no mystery that Jesus was talking about His own Heavenly Father all along, and ours' as well. Ephesians 2:1-10 sums up the teachings of the parable of this "prodigal father" perfectly:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desire and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions-it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
God is reckless in love and extravagant in grace and yes it cost Him greatly. It cost Him His own Son. But His plan gave Him the exact satisfaction He thought it would. His desire is that we will be satisfied as well and will be home with Him in the celebration.