The Prodigal: Week 1
Psalm 51:1-5; Luke 15:11-20a
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
May 5, 2019
We’ve all watched enough medical dramas to know that, when coming to consciousness the two most important answers you need to know are: “What is your name?” and “How many fingers am I holding up?” Answering correctly decides whether or not you are yourself again. If you answer that your name is Cleopatra, they are likely to haul you off for medical treatment or knock your head a second time just so you can start over and try again! That’s how important it is to know your name. When we know it, we let the world know that we have fully come to.
The younger son in Jesus’ parable knows his name. And he isn’t bound to forget it anytime soon. He is The Prodigal. In our common use today we think of “prodigal” as meaning “wayward” or even “the one who returns.” But that is not what his name means. Prodigal means “wasteful.” It means “reckless.” And the boy knows his name well. He has certainly lived up to it. When he demands his part of the Father’s inheritance, the Father divides it up for him before we can count to three. That is how quickly the Father acquiesces.
In contrast, the Prodigal’s downward spiral of squandering moves in slow motion. We are forced to feel every mistake. The boy has wasted his inheritance. He has squandered his relationship with his Father. He has misspent his funds. He has lived recklessly or, what the Bible calls, in “dissolute living”. He’s the Prodigal all right. That is certainly his name. It’s stuck to him so tightly it’s even become the name of this famous parable for the last 2,000 years! Nowhere does the parable call him prodigal but it is his name just the same. He is the Waste.
But sometimes we get the name wrong. Here’s a good example. This chapter 15 of Luke includes three parables with our parable as the third. Together they are often called “the Lost Series.” They are the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and, of course, the Parable of the Prodigal Son—the Parable of the Lost Son.
It says a great deal about us as humans that we named these stories the Lost stories because, in each one, being lost is not the point. That sheep is not famous because he was lost. He is remembered through time because he was found. Just so for the coins and for the son. He is not the lost son. Lostness is not the point of his life. The point of his life is that he is the found son. Why then do we focus on the wrong name?
We do this off the page as well. I remember a high school boy named Michael who I counseled at my church in Illinois. He was a star of the cross country team. He had lots of friends and plenty of girls who thought he was cute. He was healthy and smart and popular. What I soon learned was that none of these things was his name. His name was not handsome. His name was not healthy or smart. For Michael, his name was dumb dyslexic. He had struggled with letters switching places on him for his entire life. Yet he hid this struggle from his friends. He was ashamed of his condition. It was such a weight on him that now the only name Michael could see for himself was dyslexic, dyslexic, dyslexic.
We do this too. We can do it to ourselves—write ourselves off with the wrong name. And others can do it to us. They can label us our worst traits: addict, gossip, idiot, liar, disappointment. The label can become such a weight in our lives that it is the only name we know.
At the depth of his despair, we read that the Prodigal “came to himself.” Finally, finally, he came to and realized he’d been using the wrong name all along. Now I don’t mean he realized he had a different name from “prodigal.” No, that name had been correct. He showed every evidence that it fit him. No, in coming to, what he realized was that even though his name was prodigal, it wasn’t HIS name that mattered. The name he should have been using was Father.
Theologian Joachim Jeremias described it this way: “Repentance means learning to say ‘Abba’ again.” The boy had lived under prodigal for so long that he’d forgotten the more important fact that he was a child who had a loving Father. Were all the prodigal things about him true? Yes, they were. But prodigal was not the definition of his life. Who he truly was could be found in the Father. He was not forever the lost son. He was the son the Father found. He’d been using the wrong name all along.
For some of us, we had, or still have, a human father who reflects this kind of love and this story is a reminder for you of what love your human father showed you, along with the love your heavenly Father shows. For others of us, we have to push through this Father image because ours was not so loving or responsive.
Whatever your situation, do not miss the extravagant love of the heavenly Father. No matter our earthly experience, we all have the same Father in heaven and he is the name that covers us. We are prodigals—wasters one and all—but it is not that name that matters. It is his name that matters in our lives. Learning to say Father rather than say prodigal, learning to say found rather than getting stuck at lost; that’s when we’ll know we’ve come to.
It is important to get your name right. It’s the first question the world wants to know from you. Can you tell me your name? So let’s make sure we get it right. Your name is beloved son of a loving Father. Your name is beloved daughter of a loving Father. That is your name. It is the name you were given at your baptism. When you were baptized, the pastor asked, “What is your name?” or “What is this child’s name?” And your full name was given.
But even then, even then, that was not your full name. For, upon your baptism, the pastor put the sign of the cross on your forehead and said these words, “Daughter, child of the covenant, you are marked as Christ’s own and sealed in God’s love forever.” “Son, child of the covenant, you are marked as Christ’s own and sealed in God’s love forever.”
That is your name. Your name is son. Your name is daughter. Not lost son or lost daughter but the son and daughter who were found. Because you are a child of God’s covenant. No other name matters like that one does. And if you are living under the weight of another name, of a name you have given yourself or that others have given you, even if it is a name you have come to deserve. If you are living under that name instead of the name “Father’s beloved child” then I hope and pray that you will soon come to. Amen.