What Does the Word “Prodigal” Mean?

I have to admit that the word “prodigal” is not part of my regular vocabulary. For most of my 50-something years I would have said that the word “prodigal” means “wayward” or “lost” or something like that. My only context for that word was the “Prodigal Son” parable in Luke 15. The younger son was the one who took his inheritance and left home to a far away country and spent all his money on loose living until he had to resort to a job feeding the pigs where he was so hungry he was ready to eat the pigs’ food. He was truly wayward and lost. When he came to his senses, he came home where his loving father welcomed him back into the family. His lost son had been found.

It was the younger son’s waywardness that I had associated with the word “prodigal”. And I’m not the only one. I’ve heard people say that “we’re all prodigals” (meaning that we’re all wayward and lost) or that there were “two prodigal sons” (meaning that both brothers in the parable were lost).

But that’s not what “prodigal” means.

Here’s what the dictionary says:

prod i gal |ˈprädigəl|
adjective
1 spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant : prodigal habits die hard.
2 having or giving something on a lavish scale : the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream.

The younger son was “prodigal” because he spent his inheritance freely and recklessly (while it lasted) in extravagant and lavish living. By that definition most of us aren’t “prodigal” (most of us think that thriftiness is a virtue and that being wastefully extravagant is, well, being wasteful) and certainly the older brother wasn’t “prodigal”–he was stingy and became angry when the father threw the welcome home party.

In fact, there is another “prodigal” in the story–the father, who kills the fattened calf, brings out the best robe, and throws a “wastefully, extravagant” and “lavish” party for the returned younger son.

And this, of course, is where Timothy Keller gets his jolting title The Prodigal God. The prodigal father in the parable is our God. God extravagantly and lavishly shows his love for us. He gives His only Son Jesus Christ to die for sinners. Talk about giving something on a lavish scale! The very Son of God, equal in power and glory with the Father, “wasted” for sinners.

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2 Responses to What Does the Word “Prodigal” Mean?

  1. Rich Dixon says:

    Interesting–“lavish” and “extravagant” usually carry negative connotations for me. I wonder if anyone else has trouble viewing God as “extravagant”?

  2. eric garner says:

    lavish and extravagant are not negative words in and of themselfs it all depends on how you use them, God lavished us with His grace and has given us extravagant love by allowing His only Son to die that we might be saved.

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