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Anyone know what the word ‘Prodigal’ means?

April 24, 2013

prodigalWe all know and love that powerful parable ‘the Prodigal Son’, but ask yourself this question;

“What does the word Prodigal actually mean?”

If you’re anything like me then your answer will probably be something like ‘lost’ or ‘someone who has run away’ or perhaps even ‘naughty’. If these are the answers you have given then I’m not surprised.

When I first asked myself this question the answer I gave was ‘lost’ and the reason for that was simply because I had seen in different bible translations different titles to that story, some refer to it as The Prodigal Son and others refer to it as The Lost Son, so I assumed that the word ‘prodigal’ just meant the same as ‘lost’.

But it doesn’t… it doesn’t even mean someone who has run away or someone who is naughty.

Man-reading-Oxford-Dictio-006This is what the Oxford dictionary says:


  1. spending money or using resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant
  2. having or giving something on a lavish scale

Ah well this still makes sense in the context of the story. The youngest son, so we read, spent his inheritance recklessly and freely and wastefully.

prodigal-sonBut a question worth asking is this:

“Is the youngest son truly the prodigal in this story?”

What about the father?

Let’s stop for a second and consider a few details in this story that aren’t necessarily that obvious at first:

  • The youngest son basically told his father – “I would rather have your money than have a relationship with you – I would rather you were dead.”
  • In spite of this outrageous disrespect the father waits for his return, looking out for him in the distance – presumably on a daily basis
  • Without hesitation the father runs out to the son (hugely shameful for a man of the house to do in that culture) and throws his arms around him – welcoming him back into the family
  • He does this before the son even gets to finish his ‘I’m sorry’ speech that he’d been preparing on the way home
  • With the son’s reinstatement I think we can presume that the father is consenting to give him his inheritance AGAIN after his death
  • He throws a huge party for the son – killing a fattened calf, putting a robe around him and a ring of sonship on his finger

Yes the son was reckless, and extravagant even, but doesn’t the extravagance of the father not massively overshadow the son? I think it does – It should be referred to as the story of the Prodigal Father rather than the son.

jesus-teachingAnd before you get concerned about me questioning the authority of scripture don’t forget that Jesus didn’t actually refer to this story as ‘the prodigal son’, He just started the story by saying ‘A man had two sons…’. It’s only the different translators over the years who have added in the titles – it’s OK for us to question them without it being necessarily considered heresy.

So as we consider the reckless extravagance of the father in this story, let us too consider the extravagance of our Heavenly father who gave everything He could to bring us back home again. Let’s finish with some Mumford and Sons lyrics:

“It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart, but the welcome I receive with the restart.”

  1. David Pickering permalink

    Hey man, It’s a nice idea, but I think you’re overstretching the text. A little.

    Luke 15:28-29 NET
    But the older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and appealed to him, but he answered his father, ‘Look! These many years I have worked like a slave for you, and I never disobeyed you. *Yet you never gave me even a goat* so that I could celebrate with my friends!

    Not such an extravagant father if he didn’t give his son aa little goat! Or if he was extravagant he was also selfish.

    Luke 15:31 NET
    Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and *everything* that belongs to me is yours.

    This would suggest to me that everything that remains will be inherited by the son that remained at home, not split again.

    I don’t see anything on the text which suggests the father is wasteful as part one of your definition requires.

    While the party the father throws could be considered lavish, it stands out in contrast to the other sons comments as unusual in its extravagance rather than the fathers lifestyle norm.

    You suggest that the title of this passage should refer to the father rather than the son, but this is not really borne out by the passage in my opinion.

    I think you are drawing more from this passage than it really provides, but the lavish celebration of the father for his lost son is worth highlighting – in as much as this parable is a reflection of our relationship with God and you do pick this out.

  2. Hi dude,

    As always I’m very grateful for your comments – please keep them coming.

    I suppose in order to really understand the story we need to unpack it a little more – I didn’t do that too well in the above blog because I’m working hard to keep things as succinct as possible these days lol.

    The first thing I think is really important with this story is to notice who Jesus is directly talking to, if we look at the text just before the parable begins we get an idea; “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Here we can see that there are two very distinct groups of people; ‘the sinners’ i.e. the morally wayward (the younger brothers) and then the Pharisees ‘the moral elite’ (the older brothers).

    If we’re really careful we can see that actually Jesus’ main point in this story is to shatter the misconceptions that the religious elite hold about how sinners ought to be dealt with.

    The older brother’s response to the father’s behaviour is synonymous with the Pharisees reactions to Jesus ‘receiving sinners’, and it’s in this context that we can see that the father is being extravagant and lavish.

    In fact I would argue that the older brother reacting the way he does only really serves to highlight this point. Would he have been as outraged if he himself didn’t consider the father’s behaviour recklessly extravagant?

    What’s amazing about this parable is it highlights two life attitudes – the older brothers think they can make their way in life by morality and good behaviour, whereas the younger brothers just pursue carnal pleasure and selfishness. Neither are in a position of good relationship with the father – both are using the father for selfish gain.

    I would argue therefore that the focus shouldn’t be on whether the father would really have given the older son a goat or not – that’s clearly not the emphasis here, the emphasis is on the fact that the older son is outraged at the fact that the father has been so lavish to such a naughty son!

    You’re right to point out that this lavish behaviour is presented as out of the norm for the father – but then so is the situation – as the father highlights ‘my son was dead and is now alive’. It’s a big deal as far as the father is concerned – that’s why he’s being lavish in the first place.

    Your observation that I might be stretching it a bit to suggest that the youngest son will obtain a second inheritance might be a good one. I have nothing really to back up this assumption other than the fact that the father clearly seeks to demonstrate the younger brother’s reinstatement as a son – it might be true to suggest that he doesn’t get an inheritance again – I’m not convinced however and I think that’s part of the reason the older son is outraged.

    Either way the above point, in my mind, doesn’t in anyway take away from the fact that the father is quite clearly far more prodigal than the son.

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