Who is the Prodigal in the Room?

“Pray for the prodigal.”

That message flashed on the big screen hanging behind the pulpit area in a church we visited this summer.  My brain, which seems to have a mind of its own, immediately quipped, “I wonder if they’d put me in that category?” I laughed to myself, but confessed that I did not know the answer to that question. I shared the thought with my wife. She chose not to answer. Make of that what you will! At least she didn’t roll her eyes.

The word prodigal has been in my vocabulary since I was a young boy. That is further back in the past than it used to be. Some days I am amazed to think I know anyone born in the 1950s until I realize I am one, even if only by 6 months.

The term was first introduced to me through a parable from the Bible. In it, the younger of the two sons requests his share of the forthcoming family inheritance and sets out on his own. After a series of poor decisions, the son is destitute. I imagine one day he awoke with something like the lines from a Sheryl Crow song running through his mind: “I’m just wonderin’ why I feel so all alone. Why I’m a stranger in my own life.” Finally, he returns home hoping simply to be taken in as servant. It couldn’t have been easy to return under those circumstances. The father celebrates his child’s return and welcomes him back into the family. In contrast, the older son was not quite as happy to see little brother. That probably had to do with perceived double standards, his views on responsibility, and perhaps worrying that his brother’s return might cut into his own expected inheritance, but that is a question for another day.

“Prodigal” is defined as wasteful and recklessly extravagant. While that element does exist in the story, the greater emphasis was placed elsewhere when the parable was read, at least as it was heard by my young ears. “Prodigal” was something akin to disobedient or rebellious or foolish, all of which contributed to a wayward and questionable lifestyle. The message was clear. Prodigals were those who strayed. They were now outsiders, but could be welcomed back if they came to their senses and returned home. An accompanying expectation was that they would follow the house rules. The parable never said that explicitly, but that was part of the lesson to be learned. As it developed, the idea of the prodigal seemed to have less to do with waste and extravagance, concerned instead with those who had taken the wrong path and preferred to wallow in it rather than seek change.

Along the path of life I have taken, it has become apparent that the identity of the prodigal can vary. One group’s prodigal might be another group’s golden child. It reminds me of religious discussions exchanged as a college student. In one college I attended, I was easily one of the campus liberals when it came to theological conversations. There, being the liberal automatically made a person the prodigal. With those well-meaning folks, on a continuum of unfortunate souls, the prodigal fit somewhere between “backslidden” and “heathen.” Whatever the preferred term, the hope was that eventually I and any other prodigals who had managed to infiltrate the program would eventually see the Light. I didn’t intend to occupy the role of prodigal, but my perspective was at a variance with the predominate thinking on that campus.

Upon transferring to a different school, I suddenly appeared to be one of the most conservative students in similar discussions. Frankly, that experience shocked me. My viewpoints hadn’t changed in the transfer, but my new conversation partners had different ideas than those at the first campus. They would not have used the term prodigal to describe me, but if there was any “return to home” to be accomplished, it would have been my move to make – same as before – by embracing their point of view! One useful takeaway from that experience is that the identity of the prodigal varies, usually shaped by the dominant, majority group – sort of in the spirit of the adage, “History is written by the victors.”

Perhaps it was this type of experience that was the source of the question I asked that day as a visitor in a strange congregation. In this setting, among people who claim a place in the same larger religious current in which I place myself, if they knew my convictions, would I be considered a prodigal? Not wasteful, but wayward?

Honestly, there may be days when I wonder that about myself. There are things I care passionately about and truly matter to me. But on the other hand, I am absolutely unmoved by other causes that keep friends and acquaintances up at night. Who is the prodigal? Is no one or everyone? Or does it even matter?

The story of the prodigal son found in the Gospel is a useful story. At worst, perhaps the son really did have a wayward gene, born under a dark cloud and destined to squander whatever opportunity came his way. I have encountered people like that. Or maybe he simply needed to make his own decisions and learn from his own mistakes.  Sometimes even well-meaning family do not give us the space or opportunity to develop our own capabilities. We go elsewhere in hopes a new setting will allow us to flourish. Or it could be he was merely ambitious and short-sighted. Admittedly, it is a potentially disastrous combination. Most of us set out to find our own way as we mature. It is part of growing up. And, many of us make our share of poor decisions and less than optimal choices. Hopefully they do not leave us destitute as happens in the parable. It is easy to identify with the story, perhaps even overlooking that the son who never left home had his own issues to work through. The father comes out looking good in most every reading of the story, waiting patiently, perhaps broken-heartedly even, for his son to return. But it occurs to me that in the parable of the lost sheep, when one has gone astray, the shepherd goes looking rather than waiting with the herd in hopes the lamb will return. Maybe the father should have searched, at least a little? Who can say! People need to know they are welcome, even if it should be obvious.

Not so many weeks prior, I did momentarily feel like a prodigal during a worship service. We were, again, visiting a new congregation with a goal of experiencing how that group spent their Sunday morning worship time. At one point during the service, Communion was to be administered. In setting the context for that, minister explained that the church had an open table. Anyone who was a baptized believer was welcome to participate. He then launched into a brief caveat that listed conditions in which people had best not dare come to that table. It was easily the most threatening invitation to Communion I have ever heard. As a Quaker, I generally abstain when Communion is served. That day, I’m not sure I would have participated even if I had wanted to. The welcome did not seem sincere.

Being identified as the prodigal may not carry the negative stigma it once did. Some rather enjoy being identified as such. After all, Hollywood creates an attractive aura around the “bad boy” or “bad girl” characters. Those troubled souls typically have a redeeming quality buried somewhere beneath their contrary persona. Maybe they really are following their own path and that is where it led them. Or perhaps rejection by others seemingly left them no better options. Assuming the role of the prodigal by choice can ease the pain of rejection when it comes. It is difficult exile someone who chooses not to be there anyway.

This leads me to wonder if, rather than simply being about right and wrong choices, another theme in the story of the prodigal is about hospitality? Hospitality welcomes the other person. It receives them without judgment. It does not turn them into door mats to be taken advantage or, but it encourages a generous first response to those who show up on our door step, even if unexpected. I wonder how that might reshape some of the encounters in our society that lead to undesirable outcomes?

I don’t know if I’d have passed a theology test at the church praying for the prodigals. But they sure were hospitable to us that day. Folks like that can pray for me anytime they want, prodigal or not.

Have any Question or Comment?

3 comments on “Who is the Prodigal in the Room?

Eldon O Harzman

Who was saddest to see the prodigal son return? THE FATTED CALF!

Martha Richardson

Lots of food for thought here. I’ve always hated the story of the Prodigal Son. I think I need to look into this antipathy a bit further….

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