Earlier this spring I had occasion to preach on the story of the prodigal son. And as I reflected on that day’s gospel lesson, I kept asking “who is the real prodigal in this story?”
Certainly, there is the prodigal after whom this parable has been traditionally named – the son – the prodigal son who asked for, received, and then wastefully squandered his share of the father’s inheritance.
But he is not the only, or even the primary prodigal in this story. Our English word prodigal comes from the Latin term prodiger which can properly mean to be either recklessly wasteful or recklessly lavish, recklessly generous.
We see both in this story; but the identity of the primary character, or protagonist, is clear. Jesus does not begin his tale by saying there was a man who had a father and a brother. He begins it by saying “there was a man who had two sons.” The story is primarily about the prodigal father who offers a lavish, extravagant, seemingly wasteful love to both of his children. It’s primarily about this father who loves each of his children beyond what either of them expects or deserves.
Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.” And as the story unfolds, we find that both sons are lost; one in a fog of greed and lasciviousness and the other in a cloud of resentment and jealousy. Both are lost, but the father will let neither of them go. He is determined to love them both, not because of what they’ve done or haven’t done, but simply because of who he is! It is his nature and essence to love.
I’ve often wondered what might have happened if Jesus had decided to spin the story out further. Would the brothers be reconciled? That would tie it all up with a neat little bow, wouldn’t it? Or would there have been further acts of deception or conflict between the brothers? We just don’t know because Jesus didn’t continue the story and chose this point for the narrative to end. We are left to only speculate.
I think Jesus stops the story here because there are no guarantees of happy endings in this life, no matter how much grace, love, forgiveness and acceptance we might receive. It is guaranteed that those blessings are and will be present for us, for such is the nature of the God who creates, redeems and sustains us. But what we do with those blessings is another matter entirely.
At our best, we treasure those blessings and share them with a generous prodigal abandon. And when at our worst, we wastefully squander them with a prodigal abandon of quite a different kind. Both inclinations are amply evident in our history and in our lived life today as church.
Our God is a prodigal God who gifts us our church with an abundance of blessing. Blessings of word, sacrament, prayer, song and fellowship. We are privileged to receive those gifts in such prodigal abundance. We dare not take them for granted. May we receive them with the deep, deep gratitude they warrant and share them with a similarly prodigal abandonment.