Today’s text is from Luke 15.
Prodigal. That’s a word you don’t hear in every day speech. And yet it’s in the title of one of Jesus’ more famous parables: The Prodigal Son. So, what does prodigal mean? It could mean lost – I mean, the son is what we’d consider lost, right? Plus, lost would match up with the first two parables of lost sheep and coin.
Or perhaps it means confused, forsaken, worthless, sinner, or just all the above. But when we take a look at the dictionary we find something that is, I think, startling: As an adjective it means: “spending money or resources freely and recklessly, wastefully extravagant.” And as a noun, “a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way.” That definitely sounds like the younger son in our reading.
But how about the shepherd who lost a sheep and the woman who lost a coin? Their reactions to finding what was once lost is pretty darn prodigal.
First of all, in the first pair of our triad of parables we hear Jesus repeat the same phrase about the shepherd’s and woman’s actions upon learning that something is lost:
“Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” and “Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?”
In the Greek they’re rhetorical questions with a meaning leaning heavily toward, “Since a sheep and coin are lost of course they will do whatever it takes to find them!”
But that’s ridiculous. In what world would a shepherd leave behind 99 sheep in order to find 1? In what world would someone search high and low for a single coin? But that’s the point. It doesn’t make sense. It’s uneconomical. It’s recklessly extravagant. It’s foolish. It’s irrational. It’s prodigal.
In no world do these actions make sense – except for God’s. That’s because we’re so used to counting on what makes sense. We’re used to valuing 99 lives more than one. We’re used to choosing the group over the individual. It’s economical. Results in the most lives saved. Is smart. Not reckless at all.
But we worship a prodigal God. We worship a God who can’t stand the thought of one sheep wandering off on their own. We worship a God who celebrates and rejoices by spending thousands of dollars with family and friends over the fact they found a penny. It’s insane. It’s reckless. It’s God.
So how about our recklessly extravagant younger son? How about our prodigal son? The title definitely fits. He asks for something he would only get once his father was dead and goes on to waste it away only to return home – defeated and for all intents and purposes, dead.
He went out and more than just crashed his father’s treasured hot rod or burned down the family’s kitchen or dropped out of school – he literally destroyed everything that possibly meant anything to his father.
Insert here the story of the father punishing the son, or kicking him out of the house, or demanding he repay what he owes, or prosecute him like the person-who-spent-money-in-a-recklessly-extravagant-way son he is.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
That doesn’t make sense. It’s uneconomical. It’s recklessly extravagant. It’s foolish. It’s irrational. It’s prodigal.
And then the son repents. Sort of. He begins to recite his prepared speech. But the father doesn’t even acknowledge it. He’s already too busy preparing the largest celebration this family has ever seen. Again, that doesn’t make sense. It’s uneconomical. It’s recklessly extravagant. It’s foolish. It’s irrational. It’s prodigal.
It’s God. And this is where the kick, the punch line, the turn of these parables hits us right in the gut: They go against every instinct, every rational thought, every particle of sense we have in our bones. Because at the very heart of these three stories is the reason Jesus had to tell them in the first place: Speck and log theology.
If you go all the way back to verse 1 we’ll see why Jesus tells these stories in the first place:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable: ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.’…‘Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.’…‘Jesus continued: ‘There was a man who had two sons.’”
This is a lot of parable telling over the fact that Jesus is caught welcoming and eating with sinners. This is more than just a rebuke. It’s Jesus taking the world of the religious elite and self-righteous and turning it upside down.
It’s Jesus taking our world and turning it upside down and throwing it into chaos because we follow a God that acts in reckless and inexplicable ways. We have a God that gives us grace upon grace, mercy upon mercy, love upon love. Just when we think we received all the forgiveness and grace and mercy and love we thought we could receive from God, God turns around and calls family and friends over to throw the celebration for a lifetime.
Because we are lost and found. We’re both. We’re the younger son, the older brother, the father, the shepherd, the sheep, the coin, the woman, the Pharisees, the sinners eating with Jesus. Throughout our lives we change characters throughout these stories – but God does not change God’s response to us however lost or found we may think – or even not know – we are.
God is truly a prodigal God because how else do we explain God seeking out a single sheep over the 99 left behind? How else do we explain the irrational behavior of God as a woman seeking out a single coin? How else do we explain the reckless extravagant spending and celebration and joy at the finding of these things?
We don’t. And that’s the beauty of these stories. Does the sheep know they’re lost? Probably not. Does the coin know it’s lost? Probably not. It’s an inanimate object and the sheep isn’t capable of high-level thinking. They don’t show an ounce of repentance for being lost. But God doesn’t care. Jesus seeks and Jesus finds. Period.
And how about the younger son? He deserves nothing – at least from a normal, ordinary perceptive. But from God’s perspective? He deserves everything. And the older son? He is, perhaps, actually done everything right. He literally deserves everything. And he does get everything.
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
This is the Gospel message. That we are always with God and that everything Jesus has is ours. That Jesus seeks and Jesus finds and God rejoices. Righteous, sinner – doesn’t matter, beloved by God.
It doesn’t make sense. It’s irrational. It’s grace being given away recklessly. It’s mercy given to those who don’t deserve it. It’s love showered upon the most worthless, the most destitute, the most evil, the most prodigal person imaginable.
It doesn’t make sense. And yet that’s the God we worship. That’s the Savior that we follow to the cross. Because when God finds us, and God does find you, “he will say, ‘Hallelujah, you are home.’”