This past Sunday before church, I looked up the word ‘prodigal’ because I realized I didn’t actually know what it meant. I’m a real wordsmith, people.
“Spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant” was the result. The story of the Prodigal Son, which Orthodox Christians commemorated on February 28, does discuss the riotous living of the younger son. His inheritance is wasted satisfying his carnal desires.
I’ve wasted plenty of money on things that brought me nothing but despair in the end. I’m sure you have too. We buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. We buy things that would never see the light of day in polite company. We indulge our habits and our passions and our addictions.
But even though it’s right there in the title, the story of the Prodigal Son isn’t really about what he did while he was out on the town. It’s about his return home.
In the parable, he comes to his senses while feeding pigs – a slave’s job – and wishing he could share in their food.
We never do seem to come to our senses in the middle of our sin, do we? It’s always after we’re done. We get the high, then have the regret on the comedown.
The son in the parable journeys back to his father’s house, humbled, repentant, and willing to work as a servant just to be taken back in. But instead of taking his son up on the offer, the father restores his son to his place as prince and heir.
As Protestants our understanding of God was as judge and jury. Heaven has a courthouse at the front gates, and only the innocent can come in.
But Jesus himself tells us the Kingdom is situated at the end of a road. We can walk away, traveling as far down that road as we choose. Our Father gives us the freedom to experience everything we find along the way.
But we can always turn around and come back home. And he will welcome us back as heirs.
That’s not what people want to believe about Christianity. People want to believe that God cannot wait to throw people into Hell for whatever offense is currently popular. It’s hard for us to forgive ourselves, and even harder to forgive each other. So it’s hard to comprehend a God that is ready to forgive us all, if we would only turn around and come back home.
I don’t know if the son in the parable learned his lesson. He may have taken his forgiveness for granted and taken to the road again. The pull of his desires may have drowned out the remembrance of his time in the muck.
That’s what happens to me. It’s always easier to remember the fun I had sinning, than the regret I felt after.
God gives us the freedom to travel the road wherever it takes us. But turning around – if we can, while we can – always leads back home.