Sunday, August 24, 2014

The tragedy of the prodigal

What a waste.

We see that expression most often when someone has had so much potential and they've chosen to throw it all away and do something to diminish their life - either choose a different career path, get lost in addiction, or commit suicide. 

I'm not going to comment on any one of these. I just state that I hear that expression a lot. And usually when someone in the church talks about it, they are apt to say something about the parable of the prodigal son. 

I read that parable so differently now than I used to. 

True, it's a compelling story of a young man who was wasteful (which is the meaning of the word "prodigal" - in that he took his father's wealth and his own reputation and wasted them in riotous living.)

However, I have come to understand something about this younger brother and about the family he grew up in. His home life had settled into a schedule of work, work, work. Both brothers worked from sunup to sundown on the family farm. The younger one just got tired of the rat race. He wanted something more. He was honest about it. And he went to the only one who had the power to do something about it: his dad. 

With bags and bags of money he set out and yes, he wasted it. He thought of it as being generous to his friends; he didn't see that the only reason people hung out with him was that they could get a free lunch. And when he finally came to himself, he started to see how generous his own father had been to him. In fact, he knew deep in his heart that even the servants got better treatment than his so-called friends (and of course, his employer) were giving him. He came back, only to find out that his dad had never given up on him, gave him the space he needed and knew that one day he would come home. 

The dad had the whole "welcome home" speech pretty much rehearsed in advance - the best of everything and a feast on top of it all! 

And here's the tragedy for the younger son: that it took losing everything he had and the humiliation of coming back ... to realize that ALL that the father had was his. 

But the deeper tragedy lay in wait - at home - this entire time, a ticking time bomb. 

The older son was all about keeping the rules, doing everything that was expected of him, buttering up the old man. When the younger son left, he was outraged ... or was he? Could it have been that he saw this as a chance to increase his father's holdings and therefore have the whole shebang to himself after his dad died? He redoubled his efforts, worked like a slave, did what was expected. 

Photo "Portrait Of Pointing Male"
provided by imagerymajestic at
And when his brother came home, he was FURIOUS. How DARE this son come back? He knew his father's generosity would mean that he'd put the younger son back in the will. Under Jewish law at the time, the elder son got 2/3 of the inheritance and the younger son(s) would get 1/3. The younger son had already asked for his third. And his older brother was livid that his younger brother would get - in essence - more than his share.

And to add insult to injury, here was his father killing the fattened calf to throw this huge party for this younger brother who had not earned it. "He has wasted his inheritance on prostitutes and loose living..." 

Hmm. I wonder how he could assume that his brother lived like that while he was away; could it have been that he would have, if given that opportunity? He wouldn't allow himself the opportunity, of course. It would mean financial suicide!! He just dreamed of what the younger brother was doing and felt perfectly justified in judging him, vilifying him for having the gall to do what he was afraid to do (because to do that would mean he'd certainly be disinherited. Or so he thought.)

The real tragedy is THIS prodigal. THIS is the more wasteful son: the older brother. He just didn't get it

He didn't comprehend how generous, how loving his dad was to both of them. The father's response to his oldest son, when he objected to the party his father had thrown for the younger, was simply, "All I have is yours. All you needed to do was ask." But the older son never could conceive of such lavish love, or that it could be extended toward him. He thought he had to EARN it. He wasted his whole life trying to increase his reward, trying not to lose what his father had so freely given. He never enjoyed himself, never developed any kind of connection with his dad other than the work he did for him. He never knew how much his dad loved him, even though I am sure that the dad told him and found a thousand ways to show him, over and over again. The oldest son just could not believe it.

How tragic. 

How very, very tragic.


  1. You hit the proverbial nail on the head again!!!

  2. What I meant to say was. .. thank you for this!! This is truth that sets free! I so quickly forget that Jesus is my everything! I am always bent towards adding a pinch of my own effort . .which ruins the beauty of grace. Thank you Judy!

    1. Thank YOU! The more deeply I understand grace, the more deeply I understand how unfathomable it is. (Pun definitely intended...) It defies all attempts to measure it! (Just as God is bigger than we can ever imagine!)