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Prodigal

by Tim O'Hearn

It is unfortunate that some words change meaning over time. Some even take the exact opposite of their original meaning. In these changes, we sometimes lose valuable insights from the original meaning. One such word is prodigal. Because of the story of the “Prodigal Son,” some have given the word the meaning of one who returns. This can be seen in our songs, from the old standard, “God is Calling the Prodigal,” to Sidewalk Prophets’ “Come Running Like a Prodigal.” This view misses the point of whoever first called the parable by its current name.

The true point of the parable, of course, is that God was willing to take in the Gentiles among his people because of, or in spite of, the attitudes of the older brother Israel. Over the years we have reduced that further to eliminate the older brother, and just think about God waiting for us as individuals to return to him. The person that first called the parable out as being about the “prodigal” son was making a different point. He was calling out the wickedness of sin.

If you look up the word prodigal in a dictionary, you find definitions such as “wasteful” or “a spendthrift.” It is a description of the son’s habits when he was away from his father, rather than descriptive of his return. (As a side note to the parable: apparently the older brother was fully aware of where his younger brother was, because he immediately describes his behavior in unflattering terms as soon as he hears his brother has come home.) So what can we learn from this description of the son beyond the father’s joy at his returning?

Just taking the money and leaving home did not make the son deserving of the adjective, prodigal. Had he taken his inheritance and invested it favorably, like some of the servants in other parables, he would have been praised rather than called prodigal. Instead, it was his wasteful life style. He quickly ran through his inheritance, rather than building on it.

If it were possible to walk away from God and yet live well, we could be praised, and even save ourselves. If it were possible. The problem is, life away from God is a waste. In that sense, we have all been prodigal.

Some might ask, “How is my life wasteful? I have more than I need. I give to good causes. I help the poor. I’m better than many Christians I know.” That last may be true; and it may also be true that many who wear the name Christian may be as far from God as the one asking. But how is this person’s life a waste?

One way to answer may relate to motive. There are those who do not fear God, and do good works for the wrong motive. Some give to charities just for the tax break. Others may do so because it looks good, or is expected of them. If those are the only reasons, then such a life is a waste. “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:3)

But even if the motives are good, life without God is wastefulness. The Preacher (presumably Solomon) knew this from experience. Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity. Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun. For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil. (Eccl 2:18-21)

His conclusion was that one should “Fear God, and keep his commandments.” (Eccl 12:13) Jesus said the same thing in a different way. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mk 8:36) Without God we are all truly prodigal, for a loss of a soul is a total waste.