We know the story of the prodigal child well, don’t we?
There is a man with two sons. The younger one decides he doesn’t want to wait until the will is read to spend the inheritance he knows is coming. So he goes and asks his dad for the money now.
For reasons we aren’t told, the father acquiesces. He gives the younger son his inheritance.
And the young man takes off.
He goes to see the world and along the way he throws some rather lavish parties.
He goes nuts.
While he’s out running around living the “good life” his older brother stays home. Big brother continues to work his father’s land. He continues to live under his father’s roof. He eats at his father’s table. He celebrates the joys of life with his father. He weathers the storms with his father.
But big brother is hearing the stories of little brother’s extravagant life. So when little brother come crawling home, with absolutely nothing to show for all that money he’d had, big brother fully expects the disrespectful little ingrate to get his comeuppance.
But Dad doesn’t punish or lash out or shame the young man.
Much to big brother’s chagrin, little brother is welcomed back with open arms. He is fully restored to the house he had shamed with his greed. He is made a part of the family he had shunned.
And with this we see big brother’s true colors:
He is red with anger,
green with envy,
blue with self pity.
Here’s the thing about the Prodigal Child story: Most of us assume the prodigal child is referring to being “lost.” So much so, that common parlance calls anyone who has
wandered from home and returns a “prodigal child.”
Except the term “prodigal” doesn’t have anything to do with being lost.
It doesn’t have anything to do with leaving home, or wandering away.
To be prodigal is to be reckless or lavish.
Merriam Webster dictionary says to be prodigal is to be “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure.”
It’s my belief that both of these sons are prodigal in their own way.
It might be a bit easier to see in the younger son. He shuns cultural norms and expectations and almost certainly insults or wounds his father by essentially saying, “I can’t wait for you die, give me what you’re gonna give me now!”
While other sons his age are working in the family business, learning the tricks of the trade, gaining maturity and wisdom, and preparing for the day they would settle down, marry, and start their own family, this young man is throwing parties and visiting exotic places. Instead of setting his sights on a potential bride, he’s running with women of questionable morals. Instead of learning business and learning to invest wisely and to grow his resources through careful planning and tending, he’s out throwing money away on toys and things.
We see, almost at once, how this young man is a prodigal child.
But the older son…
If you look closer, you’ll see just how wasteful he is with what he’s inheriting as well. At first glance we see him doing what is expected. He stands by his father and he works the land, learns the business, and seems to have a pretty good head on his shoulder. When his little brother leaves, the older one stays and takes on the work load.
Day in and day out, he does the responsible thing.
Yet, when little brother comes back we quickly see just how much the older brother has been wasting his father’s generosity.
The Jewish tradition held that the oldest son would inherit 2/3 of the father’s land and resources, while the younger brother would get only 1/3.
The oldest was already, by sheer luck of being born, entitled to more than his little brother. But when little brother blows through is wealth and returns and Dad decides to restore him to his place in the family, big brother is suddenly going to have to cut into his own inheritance, now. Because little brother, by virtue of being returned to his place in the family, is right back in line for another inheritance.
Big brother can’t stand this.
It turns out, that while big brother has been doing the responsible thing, he’s been doing it for the wrong reason.
Little brother had been up-front with his greed.
Big brother’s took a little more time to be exposed.
But it is exposed.
Big brother has been working all that time with the expectation that everything that was left, and everything that would be built up, would be his to inherit.
He wasn’t working for his father out of love.
He wasn’t working for him out of a sense of duty, or desire to be a part of his father’s household…
He was working for what he thought he was going to get out of it.
When he throws his temper-tantrum and refuses to come into the meal, his father points out just what he’d had access to all along:
every comfortable night in a bed,
every article of clothing,
every funny story told in the living room,
every birthday party,
every mundane moment,
it had all been a gift shared from the father to the older brother.
Dad, it turns out, had been quite generous.
All that time, Dad never denied his oldest son.
Was there ever a meal that wasn’t a feast?
How many of the fatted calves had they consumed together?
How many days and nights had they been together, enjoying the good things of the father’s wealth?
How much love, and security, and compassion had the older brother received?
He had literally had it all.
Every day, he had had it all at his fingertips. But he had been equally wasteful with it, because he assumed he was simply entitled to it.
He assumed that it wasn’t an act of generosity or love from his father, because he assumed it was his anyway.
While little brother squandered the blessings of his inheritance on extravagant living, big brother squandered the blessings of his inheritance through his lack of appreciation and gratitude.
When Jesus told us the story of the two brothers, I don’t think he ever intended for us to see good characteristics in one and bad in the other.
I honestly think he wanted us to see that both boys had acted foolishly and had failed to fully appreciate what they had been given.
And at various points in our lives, we are living as one or the other of these brothers.
There are times we are in out-right rebellion, living large and leveraging our future so that we can “live the good life” now.
And there are times when we are sitting back, fuming about having to share what we have with those we don’t approve of.
And yet, the Father, The Great All-Knowing Parent, is sharing everything with us and welcoming us into the family whether we had strayed or not.
Now, when we put the story of the prodigal sons in terms of stewardship, which is our focus throughout the month of October, we see that neither one is a good steward of what they’ve been given.
One is greedy in a way that drives him to foolishness while the other is greedy in a way that drives him be unmerciful and ungrateful.
Neither one can really enjoy their lives or the good things they have because their motives are driven from a materialistic desire.
Had the younger brother fully appreciated the life he had in is father’s care, he would have never left. He would have cherished every moment, every day in the presence of his father.
Had the older brother fully appreciated his father’s generosity, he wouldn’t have been so reluctant to bring his younger brother back into the fold.
It is only when we step away from the rat race the world has convinced us we must run in order to be successful, respected, and dignified that we can really begin to understand what living in God’s family is really about.
When we can see all our blessings, not just the material ones, but all those other things:
the unconditional love,
the unearned forgiveness,
then we will finally be able to be generous with the good things in our own lives.
When we finally see that God has given us so much without strings attached, without conditions, and without limits, then we can finally let our hearts lose to love with that same unconditional, limitless mercy and grace.
When we talk about being good stewards, we aren’t just talking about the physical, tangible stuff… But about being faithful with all that God has given us.
These two sons couldn’t be good stewards because they were never able to look beyond their material inheritances.
But if we can look past the material things of this world, and be truly thankful for the Kingdom which God has brought us into, then we can live like the good stewards he wants us to be:
As a people who are thankful,
who are grateful,
who appreciate the simplicity of the moment,
who can act with mercy,
and who can be generous and compassionate in all that we do.