Monday, April 1, 2019

2019.03.31 Prodigality?

Prodigality? It’s actually a word. I looked it up. It’s the noun form of the adjective prodigal, which means spending money recklessly. OR there’s the noun which gets personal: a Prodigal is someone who is extravagant with money—lavish. So you see it is a complex word, loaded and layered. Christians use this word with prodigal abandon, attaching it, errantly and recklessly, to one son in a parable told by Jesus in Luke’s gospel.

American consumerism, I conclude, encourages prodigality, and simultaneously spawns lost souls, which is really what the biblical parable we prodigally call “The Prodigal Son” is about. This boy is lost. So is the sheep in the Lost Sheep parable, and so is the coin in the Lost Coin parable. The grouping of three parable about being lost and found is purposeful.

The lost son has asked, probably nagged, his father for his share in the family inheritance—more than double his allowance I wager. Worse, the father gives it to him, while also giving his older brother the other half. Mom has no voice in this story, but if I were here I’d have advised against this transaction. The younger son wastes his money on “dissolute living.” He gets demonized by interpreters for his inability to resist temptations that few young immature boys could. Who is prodigal here?

I’m tired of Christian interpretations that identify the effulgent father with the image of God—oh so generous and merciful. This parabolic father is the one who behaves prodigally, dishing out his wealth prematurely. What self-respecting father would do such a foolish thing? In so doing he creates a near-impossible family trauma. The younger son is thrilled and races off into the world to squander his wealth. He ends up in a pig sty starving. He—  cagily and wisely—remembers that Papa has money and fatted calves so he heads back home to a father who welcomes him with a prodigal banquet, thus earning the ire of the elder son who has stayed home, worked hard and invested his money in the local bank.

Okay, I know it’s only a story, but nothing is “only” a story. Every story has value and meaning, especially a parable in the Holy Bible, through which we are supposed to discern the presence of divine grace. Traditionally, this prodigal father is imagined to be God, but I think this pop needs a little deflation.

First of all, this story is in Luke’s cluster of three lost-and-found stories in which all those who have lost something search diligently and ceaselessly for the lost. These qualities—diligent caring for the lost and the least— are divine.

The father in the prodigal, however, is not identified as hiring posses et. al to search for his lost son. He makes no such efforts. Then he sets the boy up for a disaster in which the home-coming banquet is lavish and earns this father a reputation as the all-merciful Lord-lookalike. Daddy is also gracious to the elder brother as well, but it’s too late to prevent the looming sibling rivalry that surely will torture this family for some time, not to mention garnering a reputation for his firstborn as a bitter whiner with no grace in his heart. Divine grace, I conclude, isn’t foolhardy or cheap, is it?

One definition of grace is the experience of being known, exactly as you are, and loved, exactly as you are, at the same exact time. The one who sees you this way with no conditions attached is, yes, divine.

Do you think that is what the father in this story provided to his sons? He knew them both and gave them each equal portions of his money, whether they deserved it or not. He also knew, I suspect, their weakness and vulnerabilities. But he gave extravagantly anyway, and—foolish old coot. Dumb enough to be divine I’d say—and prodigally so.