Even if you haven’t stepped in a church in years, you likely know the story of the “prodigal” son. Just in case, here’s a quick refresher: A rather wealthy landowner has two sons. One asks for his inheritance early (before his father’s death, which was an even greater insult when Jesus told this story than it is today). His father obliges him, and the son takes off to live a life of partying.
After he has squandered his inheritance the son returns to his father, and this is where the story gets interesting. The father sees his son far off and begins to run to him. That the father would run to his son would be somewhat of a shock to Jesus’ listeners as patriarchs in that society did not run to anyone; others ran to them. Nonetheless, the father hugs and kisses his son, welcomes him back into his home and puts on an elaborate feast, for his son “was lost, but is found.” You may also recall that the second son didn’t appreciate the welcoming his brother received.
In this story, the father represents God. Of course, many suggest a point of this parable is the father’s forgiveness of the son. And that’s true. Others suggest a point is how lost the other son was as well, how he never really loved his father for who he was. And that’s also true. But I would like to suggest a different way to look at the parable: In this story, the father — God — is also “prodigal.”
Now, it is important to understand what “prodigal” means. Prodigal means “recklessly extravagant.” To be sure, the son was recklessly extravagant with his money. But the father was also reckless. He was recklessly extravagant with his love.
To be sure, the father had every right to set up a calculation: How much has my son cost me? How will this affect my other son? How will it affect my servants? What will others think of me? Yet, in this parable in which Jesus is showing us the heavenly father’s love for His children, there is none of that. No calculation. Just running, hugging, and kissing. Just love, recklessly extravagant love.
Perhaps this story of Jesus is a description of how we are to love.
Do we love “recklessly,” without calculation of advantages, disadvantages, costs and benefits, that is, whether it is worth our time and effort to love someone? After all, in the end, isn’t it this kind of extravagant love for us that has set us free from sin and death? In Jesus’ sacrifice — the ultimate act of love in this world — God has shown us that no calculation stands up to recklessly extravagant love.
Thankfully, that turns out to be the final word of God, our prodigal God.
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.