The word “prodigal” means “wastefully or recklessly extravagant, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the term used anywhere but in reference to Jesus’ parable of the ‘prodigal’ son (Luke 15.11-32).

Prodigals have gregarious personalities that attract people.  They are surrounded by friends.  They find risk-taking to be thrilling and take lots of chances.  Rules, for them, exist to be broken.  Prodigals live for the moment, for the present, grabbing what they can of life while they can grab it, taking no thought for tomorrow.  Prodigals spend impulsively, extravagantly, carelessly (even if they have little!) and see no point in planning for a rainy day.  The prodigal will deal with the bad things when the bad things come.  In the meantime, let’s celebrate!

Prodigals are fun people.

There is another character in the parable who is often overlooked, despite the fact that the parable seems directed to him:  the older brother.  The older brother is anything but ‘prodigal’.  Careful, moral, thrifty, modest (all antonyms of ‘prodigal’), he is steady and stable, dependable and trustworthy.  The ‘older brother’ is reflective, methodical, and deliberate.  He plans and prepares for trouble; he thinks a lot about tomorrow.  He is neither wasteful nor extravagant.  He is serious – all-business – willing to sacrifice present gratification for the sake of future enjoyment.  Today may be drudgery; joy comes tomorrow.  But for the older brother, tomorrow never comes.  It’s always ‘today’.

These are extreme caricatures.  Few people are all one way or all the other; but I believe we all tend to lean more in one direction than the other.  I have found one of the great challenges of ministry to be finding a way to bring both types of people together and have them work together in one church.

I don’t mean the prodigal in the midst of his prodigality.  Prodigals must come to repentance.  That’s a key point in the parable.  But many who tasted the ugly side of prodigality understand those who are still trapped there, powerfully aware of the prodigal’s need for saving faith in Christ.

They also know that prodigals are not drawn to stodgy older brothers.
But it’s the older brother-type that creates the stability that the prodigal desperately needs in a church (or any community).

For all the good that the older brother is and does, however, Jesus directed his parable to them – the seriously religious, those focused on order and obedience – and He called them to rejoice over the repentant – not to constantly remember the failures of their prodigal pasts and scold them for it.

Churches, in my opinion, tend to go “wholeheartedly former prodigal” or “wholeheartedly older brother”.  But I believe a healthy church must understand both these characters, and both types must come together, understand their differences, and play their respective roles to temper one another into a single body that loves the blessings of order and obedience but who understand how to extend welcoming grace to repentant prodigals.