Day 300: What Does “Prodigal” Actually Mean? (Luke 15)

The Prodigal Son, by Kristi Valiant Used with Permission

22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:22-24)

Tim Keller wrote a book several years ago whose title raised eyebrows: The Prodigal God. It confused a lot of people, because we misunderstood what prodigal meant. Doesn’t it mean someone who wanders away from home? Doesn’t it mean rebellious, selfish, wasteful? You know, like the Prodigal Son?

See, we think we know what prodigal means because we know the story of the Prodigal Son. However, the word “prodigal” doesn’t actually appear in the story, and so it’s a mistake to base our understanding of the word on the story. To quote one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, “I do not think that means what you think it means.”

Tara-Leigh defines Prodigal as wasteful, but it could also mean “recklessly extravagant.” It has the same root as the word “prodigy,” which we use to describe someone who is ridiculously talented, like Mozart. It’s also the root for “prodigious,” which typically means an unexpected turn of good fortune.

So Keller rightly asks the question, who is the most recklessly extravagant character in the story? Certainly the younger son is prodigal in his spending. But the Father is even more prodigal in His giving.

The father gives the son his share of his inheritance at the beginning of the story. We’re tempted to say, “I get it— that was recklessly extravagant.” But that doesn’t come close to the prodigal-ness of what the father gives at the end of the story.

When the son returns, beaten, humbled, and shamed; there are four gifts the father gives to the son. None of them are deserved. All of them our extravagant. And since we don’t know exactly how the parable ends, the gifts could be considered reckless: does the son stay home forever after that? Does he run away again? What if he did? Would he exhaust the good graces of the father if he came back for a third chance?

We don’t know. But let’s look at these ridiculous gifts of grace as we consider our wonderfully, recklessly extravagant, prodigal God:

The Robe: “Bring quickly the best robe:” Throughout scripture, robes are associated with righteousness (see Job 29:14; Isaiah 61:10; Revelation 19:8). The father swaps the pigsty rags for righteous robes.

The Ring: “Put a ring on his hand:” A signet ring was what the head of a family would use to seal official documents. It had the family crest on it. To wear the ring meant you were part of the family. Romans 8:15 assures us that we have received the spirit of adoption, by which we call out “Abba! Father!” We are part of the family.

The Shoes: “And shoes for his feet:” Members of the household wear shoes. Slaves went barefoot. Paul tells us that we are members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).

The Sacrifice: “Bring the fattened calf and kill it”: And this is the most prodigal gift of all. Not because of the celebration, but because of the sacrifice. For sins to be forgiven, blood has to be shed (Hebrews 9:22). For the son to be restored, something had to die.

The gospel is this: “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Hallelujah for the prodigal Father! His grace to us is extravagant.

Take a second look at the image at the top of the post. It popped up on my Google search, and now I’m obsessed with this painting! It’s by a children’s book illustrator named Kristi Valiant. She graciously gave me permission to use the image. Prints are available at www.kristivaliant.com

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