Why is it that prodigal daughters never come home? In fact, they actually do. Pastor Jim Cymbala recalls the night when months of tearful prayers were answered through a phone call from his long lost daughter. She did indeed come home to her dad and eventually her heavenly father, but she was never called prodigal. That’s because we only use the term for rebellious young males. What’s more, we most commonly use the word incorrectly!
Not long ago, I read a review of the popular motion picture, Warrior. The article explained that the martial arts film “tells the familiar story of a prodigal son.” How would you define that term? Most of us would reply that it’s a lad who rebels and leaves home, only to return later to make peace with his family and start anew. Right? Wrong.
This common mistake serves to illustrate the amazing power of God’s Word. We all know the term prodigal son only because of the familiar story in the Gospel of Luke. An ungrateful young adult insults his father and demands his inheritance in advance. When his kindly dad gives him his way, the young man takes all that wealth to a distant land where he squanders it all in decadence and immorality. Waking up one day to discover he is friendless, penniless, and hopeless, he comes to his senses and returns home. There he begs his father’s forgiveness, insisting that he is no longer worthy to be called a son, and asks only that his father might hire him and pay him as a servant.
Hence, almost everyone in the Western world and many far beyond have come to assume that prodigal has something to do with a young man who runs away, realizes his error, and finally returns home to his father. That’s not what the word means. Our word prodigal goes back to the Latin term prodigus. It doesn’t mean rebellious or wayward or even repentant. It means wasteful or excessively extravagant! The prodigal son earned his title when he blew his entire fortune overnight. The full account is found in Luke 15: 11-32.
But here’s another funny little fact. The word prodigal is never found in the parable. Luke simply refers to the wastrel as the younger son. The term prodigal is only found in captions and headings dating back to the earliest English translation of the Bible. Some suggest it is first found in the Douay-Rheims Bible from 1582. A few scholars believe it goes back to the Latin Vulgate, where it would have been expressed filius prodigus. So while Luke never included the word prodigal, our mistaken assumption comes from the caption added later.
That’s how deeply the Bible is imbedded in the subconscious of most Western men and women. Even those who never read the Word of God find its words and ideas are mentally imported through stories and conversation from culture and conversation. For instance, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is full of terms from the Bible. Over a year ago, I had the privilege of sharing the Gospel with a friend who had grown up in Japan just after World War II. Although she was raised as a Buddhist, her parents had sent her to a Catholic School as a child so that she could enjoy the advantage of speaking English. Many of the English texts she learned to read were from the Holy Bible. She grew up, married, and remained a Buddhist for most of her adult life. After her Christian husband passed away, she came to my office and asked how she, too, could become a believer. And as I began to share verses from the Bible, I noticed her lips moving quietly, reciting the words with me. She hadn’t thought about them for decades but they had been there since elementary school, deeply rooted and waiting to bear fruit.
Our mistaken notion of that odd word prodigal reminds us that the Bible is still a defining voice in the lives of secular Americans. One day the Holy Spirit will fan revival into flames and we will see those kernels of truth popping open and bringing faith and righteousness, fluffy and white and salty, into lives we had thought were lost forever.
Go back and read Luke 15 again. And lift up the cross!