I listened to a podcast yesterday that talked about the prodigal son, and it set me musing (again) on that word prodigal. Jesus told the story first, but the word prodigal never appears in the text—at least not in any translation I’ve seen. I have no idea who assigned that title to the parable, but that person ended up virtually changing the meaning of the word prodigal.
The speaker used the word, as is so very common, to mean wayward or rebellious. That bothers me, since I am a wee bit obsessive about words. Prodigal actually means wasteful—spending recklessly or extravagantly—but hardly anyone uses it that way any more. In fact, no one seems to really use the word much at all except in reference to this particular story. We have several other words for wasteful, and somehow the word prodigal has gradually changed to a more specific usage.
Wastin’ Away Again…
That is interesting to me because it also shows that the emphasis of the story has changed over time. Our main lesson from it today seems to be that the young man went away—went his own way. Rather than living with his father, he wanted to live the wild life. The person who assigned the title, however, obviously focused on the fact that he was profligate, a spendthrift. Not only did he go his own way, but he used up the resources that should have supported him all his life. Rather than investing and building his own business, he drank and partied until the money was gone.
There are aspects of the Prodigal story that I have never heard discussed. For instance, there is the fact that the father actually gave his son his inheritance early. Have you ever considered what an enormous thing that was? If the man had only two sons, that means that he sold half of the family farm in order to satisfy his youngest son’s whims! As a child, when I first heard the story, I had no comprehension of what a huge amount of money this young man must have squandered.
Come on, Take the Money and Run
If we put ourselves in the father’s place now, we suddenly become aware that not only does he have a wayward, sinful child, but he has reduced his holdings by half—the family is suddenly not nearly as wealthy as it once was. This father had great possessions and had apparently taught at least his older son to work and care for them. The younger son, though, had no appreciation for the wealth that was his. We tend to focus on the young man’s wandering off to a distant country, but think for a moment about his incredible contempt and disregard for his father’s hard work and provision. How sad that must have been for the father.
Which leads to another facet of the story…this young man’s dissatisfaction.
I Can’t Get No…Sat-is-fac-tion
Humans tend to appreciate more the things that they work to achieve. Over and over, we watch as people who acquire wealth without effort spend it in foolish ways and amazingly quickly. Why is it that something freely given is so often under-appreciated? The younger son in the parable had probably never lacked for anything in his life, but in his eyes life on the farm was boring, and he wanted to experience more.
Maybe that is really one of the most important parts of the story. How often do we just get bored and dissatisfied? And rather than dwelling on how grateful we are for all that God has given, we wish for …more! We don’t realize that the nebulous more…out there…somewhere…may actually lead to the loss of everything we treasure.
I think I need to focus more on being satisfied in Christ. Much to think about there.
Keep your lives free from the love of money; and be satisfied with what you have;
for God himself has said, “I will never fail you or abandon you.”
Hebrews 13:5 Complete Jewish Bible
Disclaimer: Bits of songs ramble through my mind on a regular basis, and today I just decided to include them. So if you now have some random old song stuck in your head…you’re welcome. 😉