“Prodigal” has so long been associated with the parable recorded in Luke that almost all its meaning seems to come from that association. So people might be forgiven for thinking that it means wicked or immoral. The primary meaning, however, is wasteful. Sometimes it is used in a less negative sense, as in the line from Emily Dickinson’s poem describing nature as a “prodigal of blue,” to mean lavish or extravagant.
In Jesus’ story the father represents his own Father, and the focus is on the welcome and unreserved love the Father lavishes on the returned son. Recently, however, I was thinking about the son in the story. He was young, and youth is itself a kind of wealth and privilege. When you’re young, you have such tremendous vigor and vitality that it’s hard not to think that your own God-given abilities are an inexhaustible treasure. You are irrepressible, and if you are also irresponsible, there is little a loving father can do to prevent you going off on your own and squandering your gifts and talents to please yourself.
It is a strange and oxymoronic fact that no pleasure withers so quickly as those you prepare for yourself. When I was a kid, I saved up lollipop wrappers for an entire summer until I had the requisite number to send away for a spy kit with a decoder ring. I don’t know what I hoped for, but I didn’t expect the cheap plastic ring and two-inch pad of twenty-something sheets I received. The instructions told how to use the ring for a simple substitution cipher, which I already knew to be worthless for encoding messages longer than four or five words. So it has been with all the pleasures I have carefully hoarded and managed for myself. They proved to be more pleasant in prospect than in fulfillment, and I have found the greatest delight in preparing delights for others, particularly those I most love.
Lavish liberality toward others requires just as much wealth as toward yourself. Eventually, you reach a point where you realize that your own talents, however great, are not enough to sustain you. You reach the end of yourself. The greater your talents at the beginning, the longer it may take for this realization to come: I am not enough for me and mine. It leaves a dry, bitter taste in your mouth. You realize that the fertile visions of what could be that you saw in your youth have become barren dreams of what will never be.
Then if you have any sense, you go home.
For me, going home was not about returning to my parents. I’ve always thought my parents did an excellent job of raising me, and, unlike many of my generation, I’ve never had a quarrel with them or blamed them for my own shortcomings. For me, going home meant returning to my Father, the one who had so carelessly let me go. I had heard him say, “Do whatever you want,” and concluded that he didn’t care what I did. In fact, he knew I would do whatever I wanted anyway, and he cared much more about having me than using me.
I found that God was glad to have me around. I found that he loved me and even that he cherished my shortcomings because he viewed them as opportunities for his own credit. Surprisingly, he didn’t upbraid me. On the contrary, he encouraged me in ways I hadn’t imagined possible. He gave me life that was life indeed and made it worth living. I still grieve at times for opportunities I lost, but I am so grateful for the real blessings I have found. In a time of economic uncertainty and dread of the future, I find myself bouyed by an inexpressible hope and an inexcusable good cheer. “God’s in His heaven —/All’s right with the world.“