Thought for the Day with Elizabeth Oldfield: The Prodigal Son

Another cracking Thought for the Day today on BBC Radio 4 Today, this time from Elizabeth Oldfield, Director of Theos Think Tank, who was talking about the power of literary fiction to have an emotional impact and to help us develop empathy.  She went on to make the link with Jesus's parables and talked in particular about the Prodigal Son.

This one always moves me somehow.   The last time I encountered the story Prodigal Son was a number of years ago, and I suppose, it was sort of a third hand reading of it.  I was reading a short story by Pushkin called The Stationmaster, in which he described spending a night at a rural coaching house and becoming friendly with the stationmaster there.  He describes in detail the office of the stationmaster, including the   series of drawings, hanging on the office wall, depicting the story of the Prodigal Son. 

It got me remembering that there was once a time when I never really understood what prodigal meant. At school, we were told it meant 'lost' and that father celebrated the return of his son because he was prodigal - ie was lost and found again.  It made no sense to me back then, and it is a bit tautological.  It did not occur to me to look the word up in a dictionary.  If I had, I would have realised that  the loss of the son, and his return and redemption have nothing at all to do with the word 'prodigal'.   

In fact, prodigal means "wastefully extravagant". The father calls his son prodigal because he is basically kind hearted and generous but has squandered his father’s inheritance on living a dissolute lifestyle with false friends.  Perhaps he recognises something of himself in his son – the father is extravagant himself in celebrating the return of the son, but his extravagance contrasts sharply with that of his son’s.  

My children have recently been learning about the Prodigal Son at school, so I asked them what they thought ‘prodigal’ meant.  They said ‘lost’.


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