Do You Actually Know What Prodigal Means?

Prodigal by City On a Hill - Christian Bible Study Resources

Sometimes words don’t mean what we think they mean.

One of my pet peeves is when people misuse the word “literally.” It means “actually” or “exactly.” But I hear a sports announcer say, “In the fourth quarter, Lebron James literally put the team on his back and carried them to victory.” Really?! Because that’s a basketball game I want to see!

Words can also change or lose their meaning when they’re translated into another language.

At one point Pepsi had a slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” which they learned, too late, translates into “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave” in Chinese. Wow! What happens if I drink Diet Pepsi?

I want you to think about the word “prodigal.” You’ve probably read that word in Jesus’ story of the “prodigal son”, maybe you’ve even said that word, but, in the words of the famous line from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” A few times I’ve asked people what they think the word prodigal means. The most common answers are “rebellious” or “a runaway.” Nope. The word prodigal means “wastefully extravagant.”


The Prodigal Son

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a story about a father who has two sons. The father is good and loving, but even still, the younger son rejects him. The younger son goes to the father, tells him he’s leaving home forever and asks for his share of the inheritance. The dad gives it to him, and the son goes off to see the world and blows all the money on sinful living. Eventually, he comes back and, to his surprise, his father welcomes him with open arms and a big welcome home party. During the festivities, the older brother shows up. He’s offended that his father has shown his brother grace. He yells at his dad, asserting that he’s always been faithful and is the one who deserves a party.

People call the story the “parable of the prodigal son” and they focus in on that younger child. Originally the idea was probably that the younger son was extravagantly wasteful with his father’s money. But when we call the younger the “prodigal” son, we think it means that he rejected his father’s love and ran from home. We think the word prodigal means something like rebellious. And, yes, he was. But…


The Other Prodigal Son

We need to be clear: The older son also rejected his father and his father’s love.

The younger son rejected his father through a journey of self-discovery. He thought there was a pleasure to be found, and it would mean he didn’t need his father. The older son rejected his father through self-sufficiency, through morality. He thought he was so good he didn’t need his father. He thought he deserved the father’s blessing. He was owed it. He also didn’t really want his father’s love, but instead wanted his stuff.

And, really, the older brother and his rejection of the father is more the point of Jesus’ story. We’ve come to assume the parable is about the younger son, and think of it as good to share with people who are running from God. But Jesus told the story to religious people who felt like they deserved God’s love and sinful people did not. Jesus didn’t tell this story to get rebellious people to repent; He told it to get religious people to repent. The reason Jesus told this story was to address the objections of the religious legalists. They couldn’t understand why Jesus was teaching that God was for sinners who had rejected God. Jesus was trying to show them that they had also rejected God, just in a different way, and in a way that gave them the appearance of being good rather than bad.


We Are All In The Story

I think one of the truths we discover in Jesus’ story is that we have all rejected the love of our Father. Some of us run from home in outright rebellion. Others of us stay home and begin to think God owes us. We don’t need His grace because we deserve His love. We may even start wanting blessings from God more than we want a relationship with God.

The day Jesus told this parable there were “sinners” gathered around him, and there were religious people. The sinners easily found themselves in the story, realizing that like the younger son they had rejected God. The religious people didn’t find themselves in the story; they didn’t see themselves in the older brother. My guess is that still today, religious people struggle to see the ways they’ve rejected God.


The True Prodigal

I said I wanted you to think about “prodigal,” but I still haven’t gotten us to focus on the prodigal in the parable. Because the real prodigal in the story is … the father. Remember, prodigal means extravagantly wasteful, and the father in the story is the most extravagantly wasteful character of all. The younger son wished him dead, but the father gave to him anyway. The older son completely disrespected him, but the father tells him, “Everything I have is yours.” The father in this story is the prodigal father. He is extravagantly wasteful with his love.

The father in this story represents our Heavenly Father.


Which Child Are You?

And my guess is that one of the two sons in this story represents each of us.

And my guess is that one of the two sons in this story represents each of us.

If, like the younger son, you’ve been journeying through life seeking fulfillment, but you’ve been coming to the conclusion, “Man, no matter what I get or experience it never feels like enough. This pursuit of pleasure is empty, and there’s just got to be more than this,” you need to know that there IS. You have a Heavenly Father who loves you, no matter how bad you’ve been. You have a Heavenly Father who says, “Stop worrying that you’ve lost my approval. You can’t lose it. Just accept my unconditional love. Come home. Feel my embrace. I want a relationship with you. I want to be with you.”

If, like the older son, you’ve been working to please God, maybe keeping score and trying to earn God’s approval through your moral superiority, and feeling you’re better than “those sinners”, but you’ve been coming to the conclusion, “Man, trying to be good enough is an unbearable burden. This life is stale and cold and sterile, and there’s just got to be more than this,” you need to know that there IS. You have a Heavenly Father who loves you, and it has nothing to do with how good you’ve been. You have a Heavenly Father who says, “Stop trying to earn my approval. You can’t earn it. Just accept my unconditional love. Come to the party. What I want is not your good works. I want you. I want a relationship with you. I want to be with you.”

I love what the Bible says in 1 John 3:1, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”

Perhaps you’ve been ignoring or rejecting God’s love, trying to fill that empty space inside you with something other than God’s love. It’s time to stop rebelling and come home and feel His embrace. It’s time to give up on being good enough and to just enjoy the party of following Jesus daily. Use your church leadership resources to begin your journey walking alongside God today.

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