Trinity IX.  August 18, 2019, S. Francis’, Gainesville, GA

St. Luke xv, verse 13 – And not many days after the younger son gathered all together; and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Today’s gospel lesson is commonly called the parable of the Prodigal Son.  The word ‘Prodigal’, meaning wasteful or spendthrift, comes from my text, and in particular it is an alternative translation for the word that the King James’ Version renders as ‘riotous’, as in ‘the younger son…wasted his substance with riotous living’.  Today I would like to spend a few minutes considering this word, which can be variously translated as ‘prodigal’, ‘wasteful’, ‘riotous’, ‘spendthrift’, ‘profligate’ or even as ‘incorrigible’ or ‘dissolute’.

The word is an adverb which only occurs in this one place in the Greek Bible, whether Old or New Testament.  A related word, however, occurs elsewhere, and the meaning of both is clear.  The word in Luke is ἀσώτως, asōtōs.  The initial a– means ‘not’, and the root comes from the verb sōzō, meaning ‘save’, so that asōtōs literally means ‘not saving’.   Now our English word ‘save’ has a double meaning similar to the Greek verb sōzō.  First, ‘to save’ can refer to what we do with money:  it then means ‘not spending’ or ‘holding on to’ money:  ‘John likes to save rather than to spend.’  But ‘save’ can also have a second meaning of ‘rescue’ or ‘deliver’:  ‘John saved my life.’  Likewise asōtōs can mean both someone who is wasteful with money and also someone who is ‘not saved’, as in the Christian sense of someone who is reprobate and outside the sphere of Christ’s salvation.

So when we are told that the younger son in the parable ‘wasted his substance with riotous’ or prodigal ‘living’, we are not just told something about his spending habits.  Rather we are learning about his soul, his spiritual state.  And indeed we should be alerted to the same fact by the word ‘substance’:  it is his ‘substance’ that the son wastes in riotous, reprobate living.  Modern translations render this word ‘substance’ as ‘property’ or ‘money’:  he wasted his money with wasteful living.  And that is a possible translation.  The word, however, is the technical word that philosophers translate as ‘substance’, and that fuller meaning is present here as well.  The anti-saving ways of the young man are pouring him out, draining his very self and substance.  He has pulled the plug on his own soul, and he is pouring out, his life runs down the drain.  The substance that he is throwing away with both hands is what the Prayer Book calls ‘our selves, our souls and bodies’: that is, everything that we are and have.  In short, this young man is on his way to death – both a physical death in utter poverty and degradation and also the spiritual death of those who reject salvation.  He is throwing away his life, his self, his soul, and his body.

From this stupid waste of a life, the young man is saved.  He is saved most obviously by the generous forgiveness and warm reception of his father.  The father abandons his patriarchal dignity by running to his son even when the son is a great way off.  The father demands nothing beyond the repentance which the son already gives.  Far from putting the son on probation and demanding that he prove himself worthy of renewed trust, the father immediately restores him to favor and even throws him a party.  The young man is saved both from literal starvation and from permanent alienation from his family by his father’s free love and forgiveness.  But even before the father acts out this salvation, the young man already is in the process of salvation because of a memory of his father house:  in the middle of envying the pigs their slops, the son ‘came to himself’ and remembered the bread of his father’s house and the blessings his father’s servants enjoy.  It is the memory of the father, and then the father himself, who bring the son salvation.  The son does not save himself.  The son is saved.

While I was researching this word ‘prodigal’, I discovered a remarkable parallel to the Prodigal Son in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic.  In Book VIII Socrates is discussing how cities degenerate, and to do this he draws a comparison between the souls of men and the souls or animating principles of cities.  Socrates says that young men at first are often controlled by the advice and warnings of their fathers and their other older relatives and friends.  This advice and warning helps young men to control their desires, which unruly desires otherwise might seize ‘the acropolis of the young man’s soul’.  But when fathers fail to educate the young properly, then insolence, anarchy, shamelessness, and asōtia, prodigality, seize the citadel of the soul (560).  In other words, this asōtia, this prodigal wastefulness, is one of the chief features of the young who understand neither themselves nor their proper relation to their fathers and elders.  This tendency, by the way, Socrates relates to the tendency of democracies, where ‘freedom spread[s] to everything’, even filtering ‘down to the private houses’ (562), so that fathers come to behave like children and teachers like students (563).  The resulting anarchy eventually pushes democracies towards tyranny, so that an excess of freedom produces the opposite of freedom.

Here, however, we are not concerned with such political matters, but rather with the remarkable fact that both our Lord in St. Luke and Socrates in the Republic recognize this prodigality, this throwing away both of money and of spiritual self-control, as a danger that young people tend to fall into.  The connection of this fault with the young is also present in the Greek Old Testament.  In Proverbs xxviii we read that ‘he that is a companion of riotous men shameth his father’ (7).  Again, prodigality and wasteful riot are connected to the young who do not listen to their elders. Now Socrates has no effective answer to the problem.  [Later note:  one reader points out that the Platonic dialogues DO offer an answer to the problem.  The answer is the natural virtues.  This reader and I agree, however, that the gospel’s answer is more effective than Plato’s.]  But the gospel offers better philosophy than the philosophers.  God is our Father, and he saves us from riot and waste by recalling us to our former state as his sons and daughters.  It is by coming back to God’s house, where the bread of heaven is offered to the servants and the children of the house in great plenty, that we may recapture the citadel of our souls from sin and prodigality, from waste and despair.  God might reproach us for much, yet he does not.  He is a forgiving Father, if only we will arise and go to him and tell him that we are not worthy to be his sons.  Yet we are his sons, and if he speaks the word only, our souls will be healed.  Though we live in a society where license spreads to everything, even into the little republics of our schools and our families, nevertheless God can restore order and put down the insolence and anarchy and shamelessness and prodigality to which we are prone.

All that God our Father has He wishes to give to us, beginning now with the Bread from heaven in this Sacrament.  God wishes us to ‘make merry’.  For though we are dead in sin, yet by grace we live again.  That which was lost, in Christ now has been found again.  So let us eat and be merry in this Blessed Sacrament, and let us glorify our Father in heaven today in this his house, though we be not worthy.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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