07 March 2016

The Prodigal God

Rembrandt (1606-1669), The Return of the Prodigal
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Fourth Sunday in Lent 

6th March 2016

It’s unfortunate that the familiar story of the two sons found in Luke 15 is often known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. By giving the parable this title we expose our bias; it says something about how this text has been traditionally understood. 

We know the story well—perhaps too well.  Our interpretative lens usually focuses on the two sons.  One son asked for his share of his inheritance, took leave of his family, and then squandered everything in dissolute living.  He hired himself out to work on a pig farm—from a Jewish perspective one can’t get any lower than that.  That’s lower than low.  One day he finally “came to himself,” he set out for home in shame, only to find his father running to greet him.  The father then throws an enormous party.  The elder brother comes in from the fields, the one who remained faithful, the obedient son who stayed home, the good boy.  He becomes jealous because his father never threw a party like that for him.

Parables are teaching tools.  Jesus was a master of the parable.  As we hear and read this parable we have to be very careful that we don’t turn it (and every parable) into a morality tale.  Did you notice that Jesus never said we shouldn’t be like the younger son, the one who squanders his inheritance?  Jesus neither commends nor condemns him.  And Jesus never said we ought to be like the obedient older son—the one who ends up bitter for always being the obedient one.  (And, if you’re the eldest child in your family, like me, you can probably relate to his protests.)  No, this is not an “example story”—don’t be like the younger one, be like the older one.  No, it’s a parable 

Parables pack a punch.  They generate an experience, touch us deeply, hit us in the gut, and knock us off our feet.  Parables make us think. They force us to wrestle.  They give us headaches and mess with the way we view the world.  They are intentionally disorienting, which is probably why we want to turn them into morality tales.  But then they wouldn’t shock, and they’re meant to shock—in order to wake us up and show us something new.

This is why it’s unfortunate that this parable is called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for at least three reasons.  First, the title turns all of our attention toward the younger son, which makes it difficult to see what the parable might really be about.  Second, the word prodigal is never used in the parable—or anywhere else in the Bible.  Third, because the word prodigal is used to describe the younger son and because the younger son did something really foolish, reckless, and thoughtless, we’ve come to associate being prodigal as something bad.

If you look up the word prodigal in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, you’ll find the following definitions: “carelessly and foolishly spending money, time, etc.”  It could also be defined as “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure” or “recklessly spendthrift.”  These are all negative associations.  However, there is a third meaning of the word, according to Merriam-Webster, and it’s this: “yielding abundantly.”  This meaning has a more positive association, doesn’t it?  This last description wouldn’t apply to the younger son, according the parable. Right?

Go deeper into the original meaning of the word; it has its origins in the Latin word prodigus, which has only one meaning: lavish.  I guess, depending upon the context, lavish could have either positive or negative associations, depending upon your particular bias and how you feel being around excess or abundance or large amounts of something.  Or, how we relate to the word lavish might depend upon how you feel when you’re the object of another’s excess or abundance or generosity, when something is lavished upon you.

Our negative associations with the word prodigal apply to the younger son, but not the positive one.  It would be interesting to chart the history of the word prodigal, how it’s generally used.  I wonder if a particular reading of this parable over centuries has shaped our definition of this word.  It’s probably why most consider being prodigal as something bad or to be avoided.

But what if the focus of the parable is not really about the sons?  What if we turn our attention away from the sons toward the father, what do we see?  We discover that the father is benevolent and full of grace, a father who was waiting for the son to come home, who saw him when he was “still far off,” as the text says, which means the father was looking for him.  As soon as the father saw him he was “filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20).  Without even asking his son to explain himself or ask forgiveness the father, we’re told, had “compassion”—compassion, first.  Then the father ran and put his arms around him and engulfed him with that compassion and kissed him.  The son begins to confess, he starts to apologize, but it’s as if the father doesn’t even hear him.  He seems to ignore the confession, cuts him off mid-sentence and says to the servants,  “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.  And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:22-23).

Maybe this parable is not about the sons, but about the father—the father who serves as a metaphor for God.  In each of the parables in Luke 15 we have stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son.  And in each one, Jesus is trying to reframe, enlarge, and expand their God-image.  He wants them to know what he knows.  He wants us to know what he knows about God—the God who seeks and saves the lost and welcomes us home.  And so, if we’re going to continue to associate the word prodigal with this parable, it should really be used in a positive light and used to describe what God is like.  For God is prodigal—God is the one who lavishes upon us grace upon grace!  And this means as children of this God, made in the image of this God, we’re called to be prodigal too!

The prodigal God.  Is this your image of God?  Images of God are tricky things.  When we’re dealing with images we’re dealing with metaphors.  Metaphors are powerful.  They can give life and they can take life away.  Now, the image of God as father might have positive associations for you, an image that gives life.  Or, the image of God as father might have negative associations for you, an image that takes life away.  It all depends upon your associations with the word father and the father figures in your life. You can see why many women and men have problems with father images for God because of abusive father relationships.  We have to tread carefully here.  According the Gospels, Jesus has no problem talking about God as Father.  He sees his father, abba (or “daddy”) as a positive, nurturing, benevolent, gracious figure—and that’s what we need to remember here.

Unfortunately, there are far too many people, both within and without the Church, both women and men, who harbor God-images of the Father Judge—stern, unforgiving, unloving, a moral taskmaster, expecting moral perfection, the one before whom you’re always wrong and never good enough.  These images don’t give us life; they suck the life out of us. 

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he is always trying to get us to reframe our God-images.  Why is this so important?  Because, you see, our images of God actually make us.  Your image of God is actually, right now, shaping you.  If your God-image is essentially a Judge, demanding moral perfection from you, watch then, how often you judge others and expect perfection of others.  Here in the parable the father models only compassion.  If compassion informs your primary God-image, watch how that changes your life.  So much is riding on your image of God.  Image is everything!

That’s why I love this prayer of Søren Kierkegaard, he cries, “Father in heaven! [Note the exclamation point!]  Hold not our sins up against us but hold us up against our sins, so that the thought of Thee [—the image of Thee—] when it wakens in our soul, and each time it wakens, should not remind us of what we have committed but of what Thou didst forgive, not of how we went astray but of how Thou didst save us!”[1]  Kierkegaard prays for an uplifting image of God.  Image is everything.

The good news is that when we went astray and every time we go astray, when we are alienated from God, “still far off,” God sees us, fills with compassion and runs—runs toward you and me and wraps us with compassion and kisses us and welcomes us home.  And then God throws a wild party and lavishes upon us gifts and prepares a table before us, a feast.  So, let us eat and celebrate.  For once you and I were dead, now we live.  Once you and I were lost, but now we’re found.  Thanks be to the prodigal God!

Hold on to this image, the prodigal God.  Hold on to this image—and allow it to change your life! 

[1] Perry D. LeFevre, ed. The Prayers of Kierkegaard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 21.

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