The prodigal God
The first time I went to Italy was on my honeymoon. My wife Ann and I are hopeless romantics, so we spent our first night in Rome in a convent. Part of the attraction between us has always been frugality, so staying in a convent seemed like a great way to see Rome on the cheap. In our communication with the nuns before we arrived, we had related that it was our honeymoon so they graciously pushed the twin beds together in our cell. They actually were very sweet in how they doted on us.
From Rome we headed south to visit my Italian relatives in a small town called Isola di Liri. We were greeted by my mother’s first cousin and his wife who promptly gave us their master bedroom, relegating themselves to twin beds in the guest room. The next morning, they seemed to be waiting at the door for us to awake so they could either feed us or kiss us on both cheeks. That night, cousins took us to dinner in a restaurant in a medieval castle. The waiters brought out platters of delicious food. At every turn while in Italy, relatives and strangers seemed to shower Ann and me with hospitality, just because.
I think this is the fundamental message about God in the parable found in Luke 15:11-32. God showers us with hospitality, just because we are God’s children. I might even say that the story, which is usually referred to as the parable of the Prodigal Son, is really the parable of the Prodigal God. The adjective “prodigal” has two meanings according to Webster’s dictionary: (1) being wastefully or recklessly extravagant with money or resources or (2) giving something lavishly or profusely. In the story, God lavishes the younger son with abundant hospitality upon his homecoming.
A vision of God
Through this parable (as it is the case with most of the parables of Jesus), Jesus was telling his audience that everything they thought they knew about religion and about God was wrong! They did not believe in this lavish God, a God of abundance and reckless giving. They believed in a God who was exacting and demanded a life of requirements. The elder son represents the voice of conventional wisdom; he has abided by all the requirements of the Jewish society of that time.
One’s image of God informs how one lives the Christian life.
The hearers of this story would probably have initially sided with him. The younger son had gone against the conventional wisdom, which would have valued family, wealth, honor, and most importantly religion, from which these others flowed. The younger son had gone against his family, squandered his wealth, was dishonored by losing his social status, and ended up with the pigs. He was a real screw up.
But the younger son recognizes his father as prodigal, as a lavish giver, realizing that in coming home he will be accepted with open arms. Jesus is telling the hearers of this parable that this gracious hospitality is at the core of who God is.
The father assures the older son that he does not love the younger son more, but rather is seeking to communicate his unreserved, unlimited love, wholly and equally to both sons.
One’s image of God informs how one lives the Christian life. Is your image more like the elder son, who sees the father as exacting and stingy, or like the younger son, who knows the father will lavish him with love no matter what he has done?
If God is truly hospitable, what does that mean about hospitality here and now? I believe we should be recklessly lavish to one another like God is to us. How can we do that in our daily lives, in how we interact with each other? And how can it be part of our public lives — how can hospitality be a cornerstone of public policy — in how we host the most marginalized in our society and in our world?
I often sense that I am hearing the voice of the elder son in our current debates about immigration, health care, and care for the poor. How can we bring a prodigal hospitality to these issues? How can we live out the injunction of the parable, to “go and do likewise”?
Matthew Maruggi is an assistant religion professor at Augsburg College, Minneapolis.