The Prodigal God


The well-known story in Luke 15 about the son who tells his dad that he wants his share of the inheritance, and goes off and wastes all of it away living la vida loca, before he decides to return to his father’s house and offer his services as a servant since he’s convinced he has lost all privileges as a son, only to find that his father runs towards him, embraces him and re-instates him as his son is often titled The Prodigal Son. I’ve often wondered what that word prodigal means, and this week I found out that really the story should be titled The Prodigal Father, or maybe The Prodigal God.

Prodigal means: “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant”

While you can say that the son who goes away does spend his money in reckless way, I believe the point of the story is that the father is the one who is prodigal towards his son. He is generous to a fault. He is generous, forgiving, and accepting far beyond the call of duty. For a son to walk up to his dad and say that he wanted the inheritance was the same as saying: “I wish you were dead!“. Nobody in the first audience who heard Jesus tell the story would have expected the dad to ever forgive that. Everybody would have agreed that the father was in his full right to forget about that son and never have anything to do with him again no matter what excuses he may come up with at a later time. Wishing your father dead was the ultimate insult, and no patriarch in a family should have to forgive that.

But the father does forgive, and God does forgive us and takes us back and celebrates our return no matter how disgusting we look and feel when we decide to return to him. No matter what type of mud and how much we have wallowed in it, he runs to us and embraces us, and says: “forget about your explanations and apologies, all is already forgiven, let’s celebrate that you’re back where you belong!

That’s our prodigal God. He is more generous than anybody could ever expect. Even though we all like sheep have gone astray each to our own way (Isaiah 53:6), Jesus is still the good shepherd who is always out searching for us, calling us by name, loving us back to him (John 10) One of my favorite authors, Philip Yancey, in his wonderful book What’s So Amazing About Grace reflects on the scene from Luke 15 where Jesus talks about himself as the shepherd going out looking for one lost sheep: “[This is] a noble deed, but reflect for a moment on the underlying arithmetic. Jesus says the shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep ‘in the country,’ which presumably means they were vulnerable to rustlers, wolves, or a feral desire to bolt free. How would the shepherd feel if he returned with the one lost lamb slung across his shoulders only to find twenty-three others now missing?”

God’s grace is shocking. If you think of God’s grace as something that makes sense, you are not thinking about God’s grace. God’s grace is prodigal. God’s grace is unreasonable. God’s grace doesn’t make sense at all.

Philip Yancey once wrote an article called “The Atrocious Mathematics of Grace”. This is from What’s So Amazing About Grace where he talks about why God’s grace is prodigal:

“From childhood we are taught how to succeed in the world of ungrace. “You get what you pay for.” “The early bird gets the worm. “No pain, no gain.” I know these rules well because I live by them. I work for what I earn; I like to win; I insist on my rights. I want people to get what they deserve.

But Jesus’ parables about grace teach a radically different concept. In Matthew 18, no one could accumulate a debt as huge as the servant did (vv. 23-24). This underscores the point. The debt is unforgivable. Nevertheless, the master let the servant off scot-free.

The more I reflect on Jesus’ parables proclaiming grace, the more tempted I am to apply the word atrocious to describe the mathematics of the gospel. I believe Jesus gave us these stories to call us to step completely outside our tit-for-tat world of ungrace and enter into God’s realm of infinite grace.

If I care to listen, I hear a loud whisper from the gospel that I did not get what I deserved. I deserved punishment and got forgiveness. I deserved wrath and got love. I deserved debtor’s prison and got instead a clean credit history. I deserved stern lectures and crawl-on-your knees repentance. Instead, I got a banquet spread for me.

In What’s So Amazing About Grace Yancey recalls the furious reactions he got from Christians after daring to call the mathematics of grace atrocious. But it is atrocious, it makes no sense. It does mess with our concepts of right and wrong. It’s not fair or reasonable that God should forgive all the sins I’ve ever done. It’s not fair or reasonable that he has said that there is never going to be any condemnation (Romans 8:1) towards somebody who has put their faith in Christ, no matter what I say, think or do the rest of my life. It’s not fair that you get the same reward, life with him, no matter if you have lived a moral life or you’ve wasted your life doing stupid and selfish stuff. It’s not fair…..but it’s good. It’s wonderful. It’s truth. It’s prodigal!

I have sensed a lot of God’s prodigal love for me these past few years. This summer I see another little example of his extravagant way of spending his resources. A friend of ours have invited us to go and visit him in Greenland. We didn’t need a trip to Greenland, but both Jeannette and I feel that God just gave us that trip just to show his extravagant love. He doesn’t just give us what we need, he loves to shower great things on us, just because he can, and just because he loves to see a big smile on our faces. He loves to show off. Like any good dad he loves to bless us abundantly just because we are his. Our friend has paid the whole trip for us, and he put his attitude to the money spent this way: “the money is God’s, but for practical reasons it’ll come out of my bank account”. What a wonderful way to look at finances, or any other blessing God has given us!

I love that I know, love and get to serve the prodigal God who loves to bless us abundantly just because we are his and he is being himself! No other reason. Just love. 

Blessings, Torben

Here is Philipps, Craig and Dean’s beautiful When God Ran that talks about The Prodigal God:

5 Responses to “The Prodigal God”

  1. September 15, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Torben, great post on our Prodigal God and insights from Yancey. Thank you.

  2. September 15, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    Hey Samantha! Thanks for your comment and the encouragement. Great to hear from a fellow blogger! Blessings, Torben

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