Historically, particularly in eastern Christianity, this parable has been understood to be about a son who wastes what his father has given him. The English word “prodigal” means “wastefully extravagant.”
We are all familiar with the scandal of the younger son’s request, “Give me my inheritance.” His share was indeed his, but he should await his father’s death. In Jewish law, no deal was settled until the father’s death. A deal could be struck; the property could be sold and money could change hands, but the buyer was not allowed to take possession of the land until the father died (m. Baba Bathra 8:7). Jewish law did this to protect parents in their old age.
Thus the younger son was able to sell his share and get the money, but the actual property would stay in the possession of the father until the father died. The deal was done, though, and couldn’t be undone.
So, the intentions of the younger son are clear to the father the moment the son asked. If he intended to stay put and to work the farm, then there was no reason to ask. It is important to note, though, it was the father who actually had to negotiate the sale of the younger son’s share. Sometimes we imagine the father stood to the sidelines and watched in disappointment.
Jesus tells us that the younger son went far away and then squandered his money. He was prodigal (wasteful).When he repents and returns, the waiting father forgives the wasteful son. Completely, totally. It is one of the most beautiful passages in Scripture. It is why we all love it.
We often overlook a point. When the older brother complains, the father notes, “Everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31). That’s correct. Everything that is left belongs to the older son. The younger son has wasted what was his share.
This week in church we sang a lovely song that includes a line, “He welcomes me back, like I had never left.” Well, Jesus certainly welcomes us back with no condemnation. But in the case of Jesus’ parable, the actions of the younger son had repercussions. When he returned home, he didn’t get his share of the inheritance back. He had squandered it.
Jesus tells other parables that warn his listeners not to waste the gifts our heavenly Father has given us. We are not to take a talent he has given us and bury it. He gives us talents in order for them to be used. In fact, in one parable, the person had buried his talent (not used it) and it was taken from him and given to another—a sobering thought.
So, the beautiful parable of the wasteful son provides us with at least two lessons. First, a warning against wasting what God has given us. For example, if he has given you a beautiful voice, use it for his glory. If he created you the kind of person who connects well with people, use it to be his ambassador. If you empathize with another’s pain, use it to be the presence of Christ in a hurting person’s life. If you can write songs that stir someone’s soul, that captures the zeitgeist of the time, that moves someone to say, “yeah, that’s exactly how I am feeling,” use it for the glory of God, or he may take that talent from you and give it to someone who will use it. But it is not just talents. He also gives us opportunities. Some are given financial resources (like the sons in this parable). Whatever God has given you, don’t waste it.
The second lesson, the one more familiar to us, reminds us that God forgives us and welcomes us back. You are fully restored. You can’t however have the wasted years or the squandered opportunity back. We don’t get a “do-over.” Like the younger son, what we wasted is gone. Sometimes it’s opportunities, sometimes relationships, sometimes resources. Nonetheless, the Father forgives us. Forget what is behind. Don’t live in regret. Look forward. Like the waiting father in this parable, we serve a God who welcomes us home.
 Brad H. Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), 130-157.
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