The Prodigal Definition Returns

The story of the prodigal son from Luke 15:11-31 is one of the most famous stories in the Bible. In fact the phrase, ‘the prodigal son,’ has entered into our every day vocabulary. When someone who has been away for some time and comes back we say, “The prodigal son returns.”

The only problem is that is not what ‘prodigal’ means. Instead of giving a modern definition, let me give an ancient definition.

[A] ‘prodigal’ means a man who has a single evil quality, that of wasting his substance; since a prodigal is one who is being ruined by his own fault, and the wasting of substance is thought to be a sort of ruining of oneself, life being held to depend on possession of substance. – Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

This definition fits very well with what is taking place in the prodigal son story. The question is: Is the story about a prodigal son or a lost son? Different Bibles title the story in different ways.

Since Luke places this story with the lost sheep and the lost coin stories, he likely meant it to be seen as about lostness. However, I suspect that Jesus originally told the story about prodigality. The sin of the son is not about leaving but about wasting.

Does that mean that Luke was wrong? Not at all. The younger son was lost, not because he physically left his father, but because he wasted what his father gave him.

It is when we are prodigals with the gifts that God has given us that we are truly lost. So read the story in a fresh way and above all, stop using ‘prodigal’ as being about going away.

Prodigal Son
Metropolitan Museum of Art
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