Prodigy or Prodigal?

A Lenten Sermon

The very familiar story of the prodigal son creates potential hazards for a preacher. People know the parable and have already come to some conclusions about it. But it’s a powerful story and not one that can be easily ignored when it’s read in its entirety to those gathered. So as a preacher I just can’t ignore it either. I read a great sermon myself on this passage in my preparations, and that made all the difference.  And in case you don’t know it or’d like to read it again, here’s the parable from Luke’s gospel.

Photo Credit: eljoja via Compfight cc

How many of you have ever heard the story of the Prodigal Son? And how many have ever heard a sermon about the Prodigal Son?  I heard a sermon once on this passage during a job interview weekend—it was during Lent in 2004 a few months before I graduated from seminary.  The priest I might work for began talking about the father of this parable and his three sons. Melissa and I quizzically looked at each other, but he kept right on going mentioning these three sons a couple of times. Needless to say, I didn’t take that job.

It’s hard to hear something new in this text—unless, of course, we start adding in extra characters. But this week I read a fabulous sermon online by Pastor Peter Haynes, and I’m indebted to him on the thoughts that follow, including the use of this first image.

Janitors generally get perceived as not the brightest ones in our world, but in this case it turns out he was a genius. He gets discovered after solving an exceptionally difficult math problem left on the board at MIT, and, if you’ve seen the movie, you know about “Good Will Hunting.” It turns out he’s a prodigy, a guy smarter than many others, who never really had anyone supporting and believing in him. Will is a prodigious young man hunting for himself and his place in life, because while he’s a prodigy, he’s also a prodigal drifting through life.  During an intense scene with psychologist Sean McGuire, played exquisitely by Robin Williams, Will breaks down and falls into the arms of this father figure he never really had.  He’s finding his way home.

Pastor Haynes writes, “In my Webster’s Dictionary, the words ‘prodigal, prodigious, and prodigy’ follow one after the other. They all begin the same way, with a ‘prod,’ a drive, a push, a poke. However, where one is stirred in an extraordinary, exceptional direction, another is driven away from what’s good, toward wasting potential. A prodigal is someone who has squandered an inheritance, who has allowed wealth (be it money or talent) to just slip through the fingers. While the difference between a prodigy and a prodigal is like day and night, the distance between the two is minimal.” 1

More often than not a prodigy and a prodigal are not the same person, good Will being the exception. There are those people who have frittered away the gifts given to them, and those who’ve embraced their gifts and run with them.  The crowd Jesus spins this tale for sounds like they’re a group of prodigies and prodigals.  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable:” Scribes and Pharisees on one side of the room, with their degrees from exceptional universities and their prestigious jobs, and tax collectors and sinners whose lives didn’t quite measure up to the hopes and dreams they had for themselves, let alone the dreams of their parents.  Prodigies and prodigals alike get told this story about a guy and his two—yes there are only two—sons.

I don’t need to retell it again, you know it quite well.  But those Pharisees and scribes and those tax collectors and sinners, each could find themselves in the story, right?  Because one of the sons is a prodigy—working hard, finding his way in life, putting money aside in his 401(k)—and the other is the namesake for this whole parable. By the end of the story, those tax collectors and sinners can hardly believe their ears; could they really find forgiveness and acceptance even though they squandered every thing, every chance they’ve ever been given? Would God really want to throw a huge party for them?  And those Pharisees and scribes likely had furrowed brows and confused looks because they lived up to all their early potential and became outstanding and upright citizens.  They did everything they were supposed to do, so why on earth would God want to waste time and more resources by giving a party for the ones who threw their lives away?

Let’s be clear about one thing, we live in a prodigy sort of town.  We’ve got degrees and careers and retirement accounts that show we’ve worked hard and met all those expectations people had on us back when we were kids.  We’ve had our ups and downs of course, and perhaps a few of us have taken a detour on the way, but we’re clearly on the prodigy side of the room.  Which is why this parable annoys us most of the time.  Because we’ve been the older brother, the older sister, putting in our time over the years, and we’ve come across those siblings—either real brothers or sisters or other friends or relatives—who’ve gone off and wasted everything ever given to them.  And you’re darn straight that the last thing we want to do when the prodigal comes home is to spend money and celebrate.  What we really want to do is kick them to the curb.

And it’s then—when we’re honest about ourselves—that this parable begins to do what Jesus always intended.  To make us think long and hard about grace and mercy and God and how much we all need it.  He pushes us to stop thinking of ourselves as prodigies or prodigals and to recognize that we are all children of God.  That the prodigals have the persistent voice inside their heads reminding them that they blew it—and while there are a few exceptions, most prodigals feel that they won’t ever measure up to the prodigies they know, and won’t ever secure God’s mercy.  What Jesus wants us to get, to realize deep down in our hearts, is that we are all beloved by God, we are all entitled to the party and the joy of the kingdom.

But notice how our parable ends: the father has come out to meet the older brother—the prodigy—who refuses to go in to the party, and he pleads with him to join in.  Nothing doing.  The older son stays out there and is steaming.  “Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”  That’s it.  Dad’s still outside with the prodigy and we’re left to decide.  Will he go in and join the party or will he stay outside?

That’s the conundrum that has been facing us prodigies for a long, long time, some two thousand years or so in various fashions.  Will we allow our anger and bitterness at the prodigals take away any joy that we might have, or will we open our hearts up to see this all from God’s perspective? Will we stay outside upset, or go in and grab a plate of food?

I cannot tell you how to respond.  I do know that anger—and especially righteous anger—has a way of twisting and damaging us in ways we could never imagine.  And I know this: God is patient and merciful and will stand outside waiting with us for as long as that dad spent watching the horizon for the prodigal to come home.  The answer to how long God will wait depends entirely on us.