I was today years old when I learned the definition of the word prodigal.
Until recently, I never thought of the word "prodigal" without the word "son." I would have been hard-pressed to define the singular word prodigal because "prodigal son" is a concept to me. Prodigal was a label, not a word with a specific definition.
I've known the Bible story of the Prodigal Son since I was a child. It's the story about a son who goes rogue, realizes he messed up, goes back home, and is welcomed, warts and all.
It's a story of love, and welcoming, and redemption.
And it's so much more. It's a story of greed: I want what I want when I want it, and I want it now. It's a story of jealousy: how come he gets a fatted calf, and I get nothing! It's a story of familial love: of course, I love you, you're my child. It's a story of expectation: the father was always looking down the road, waiting for his son to return.
Overall, I've always thought of it as a pretty positive story: child does wrong, child asks forgiveness, child is forgiven.
So, if I had been asked to define the word prodigal, I probably would have said something along the lines of someone who returns to a place of safety.
So, what does prodigal really mean? It means one who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly. The root of the word means waste.
I found a few on-line dictionaries that also defined prodigal as someone who returns home either "as a better person," "to a celebratory return," or has a "repentant return." They seem to be more current definitions, so I'm glad to see that the dictionaries are catching up with me.
In Christian explanations of the story, it's an example of how God will welcome us back after we stray from God and waste our lives and relationships. The Prodigal Son's wasteful spending of his early inheritance was how the break with his father was demonstrated in the parable.
I started looking at the word because I heard some podcasts referring to "prodigal children." In listening to the context, a prodigal was always used to refer to a child who identified as LGBTQ+. There was a family split because the child was going against the parents' teachings and the religious teachings they had grown up with. The child was wasting their life. And the parents were waiting for the child to repent and return home.
I understand how, in their faith tradition, they make the connection between their "troublesome" children and the Prodigal Son story. The story is considered an example of how we stray from God and get into trouble because of it, but that God welcomes us with open arms when we repent. This is the life they believe they're living.
But it makes me cringe.
I'm glad to belong to a faith practice and a church where sexual identity doesn't make one a pariah. I'm glad to have seen so many examples where identifying as LGTBQ+ didn't result in family splits, because a parent's love is unconditional.
Words do change meaning over time. I'm pretty sure that 50 years ago, the definition of "prodigal" did not include the definition of someone returning home. Let's not let the definition change further in the next 50 years.
Reclaim the definition of prodigal: wasteful spending.
But let's keep the concept of the story:
Child does wrong, child asks forgiveness, child is forgiven.
I do wrong, I ask forgiveness, God forgives.
- Ann Iona Warner