Prodigal means to use or spend in a wastefully extravagant manner and to be lavishly generous. While one is irresponsible, the other is received with joy. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells three stories to his listeners regarding lost items — the sheep, the coin and the son.
In the first story, the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to look for the one sheep that is lost. It illustrates the passion of God for the one who wanders away; he concludes by saying that all of heaven throws a party when one person repents and returns to God, but does nothing for the 99 righteous people who didn’t wander away.
In the second story, a woman loses a coin and searches her entire home until she finds it and then rejoices and throws a party for the neighbors. In the same way, the angels rejoice when a sinner repents.
In the third story, a father has two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance and proceeds to spend it with wasteful extravagance. Eventually, he is working among the pigs, longing to fill his stomach with their slop. He decides to return home, knowing that his father’s slaves have plenty to eat.
The father sees him coming from a long way off and runs to him. Not waiting for the son to explain himself, he clothes him in the best robe and kills the fattened calf to celebrate this son who wandered off but now is home.
As the story goes, the older brother comes in from working the fields and hears the music. Learning of the party to celebrate his younger brother’s return, he refuses to come in. Complaining that he was never offered anything to party with his friends, he remains outside.
The story concludes with the father telling the older son he was always with him and had access to everything whenever he wanted it.
To be honest, the story ends in an unsatisfying way. We don’t know what happens between the brothers. Jesus doesn’t really finish; there is no solid conclusion.
Perhaps that is the beauty of this story. It allows the reader to draw her own conclusion, to identify with each of the characters.
To me, this story is about the lavish generosity of God not the reckless wastefulness of the younger son. In spite of all the ways the younger son dishonored the father and their cultural traditions, he looked for him to return every day. Notice this outstanding characteristic of the father:
20“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.Luke 15:20
No matter where I go, how far away I get — my father in heaven is watching for me. He sees me coming from a long way off and runs to meet me. It isn’t a “I’ll meet you halfway” sort of thing. He runs to me, pushing aside my explanations and welcomes me back into the family. All of heaven throws a party.
No matter what you’ve done, you can’t outrun God’s love. He watches for you to turn and he starts running toward you the minute you do. Our God is a prodigal God — lavishly, recklessly, generously receiving those who wander away. Sometimes he’s accused of being wasteful with his grace, but he offers it anyway. And he’s offering it to you!