Growing up, there were certain Bible stories and biblical concepts that were so familiar to me that I didn’t even realise I never fully understood them. For example, I knew perfectly well that the newborn baby Jesus was laid in a manger. It was only as an adult, when someone asked, that I realised I didn’t even know what a manger is! Similarly, I had heard dozens of times the story of the prodigal son before it occurred to me that I didn’t know the definition of the word “prodigal.” I suspect I’m not alone.
“Prodigal” has two basic meanings. Its primary meaning is to spend money in a wastefully extravagant or reckless manner. The prodigal son was prodigal because he so wastefully spent his inheritance. But a second meaning of prodigal is to give something lavishly or extravagantly. In that sense, the father in the story might himself be described as prodigal. Consider some of the extravagance on the father’s part—and how it mirrors God’s extravagance to his children.
The father’s extravagance can be seen both in letting his son go and in receiving him back again.
To begin with, consider the father’s financial extravagance in letting his son go. As the younger of two brothers, the prodigal son was entitled to a third of his father’s wealth, with his older brother receiving the greater portion. For the father to give his son his inheritance, he had to part with a full third of his earthly possessions.
Consider, furthermore, the father’s relational extravagance in letting his son go. This was a cost to be counted both in his relationship to his community and to his son.
Communally, the act of letting his son go would have caused great shame. When the community got wind of what was happening in the family, they would have viewed him with scorn. How badly the entire situation reflected on the family name.
With regard to his son, it cost the father greatly to both experience his son’s utter rejection as well as to continue loving him despite that rejection. The father is portrayed as a patient, loving man—hardly one we would expect to be so utterly rejected and, literally, wished dead by his own son. Friends and neighbours might have expected him to respond in kind. Instead, he daily stood at the top of the road, looking for his son to return. What a cost to answer such utter rejection with love and forgiveness.
But it also cost the father to receive his son again. Once again, it cost him financially. His son brought nothing back with him. Culturally, visitors brought gifts to their host but the son returned empty-handed. He had completely squandered everything that his father had given to him. Yet the father again sacrificed greatly to celebrate his son’s return.
It also cost the father his dignity. Many interpreters have noted that a well-respected man in that community would never be seen running anywhere. In a culture accustomed to long, flowing robes, running anywhere involved the very undignified act of tying up one’s robes and exposing one’s undergarments to free up the legs for running. Servants were employed to run; never a wealthy man himself. But the father forewent all dignity out of love for his son.
It amazes us that this father would answer unqualified rejection with unqualified acceptance. Lavish love indeed! How the community must have wondered at the expense to which the father went to receive his son again. How it must have amazed them to see a son, who might well have been cut off, not only received back but lavishly honoured by his loving father.
As we have seen, this story comes as the third in a series of parables in response to the religious leaders’ complaint that Jesus received sinners. It therefore speaks directly to how God receives sinners to himself. As we reflect on the parable of the prodigal father, therefore, surely one design of the story is for us to marvel at our Father’s prodigal love for us. How greatly it cost him to shower his grace and mercy on us. Go about your day today with a fresh appreciation of everything it cost for your heavenly Father to receive you as his own child when there was no reason for him to do so. Thank God for his indescribable gift!