A Prodigal God

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

A couple of years ago, Barbara Kingsolver wrote a book entitled Prodigal Summer. It tells the story of young woman who got pregnant during a summer within which everything seemed to be dangerously fertile. From the plants, through the insects, through the animals, to the people, everything seemed to be teeming with fecundity, overactive, overabundant in seed. Life seemed to be bursting forth everywhere. The title of the book is good metaphor for what she describes, a summer overabundant in fertility.

Nature is like that, teeming with everything, prodigal, fertile, overabundant, wasteful. Why else do we have 90% more brain cells than we need and why else is nature scattering billions of seeds, of virtually everything, all over the planet every second?

And if life is so prodigal, what does this say about God, its author?

God, as we see in both nature and in scripture (and know from experience), is over-generous, over-lavish, over-extravagant, over- prodigious, over-rich, and over-patient. If nature, scripture, and experience are to be believed, God is the absolute antithesis of everything that is stingy, miserly, frugal, narrowly calculating, or sparing in what it doles out. God is prodigal.

Dictionaries define “prodigal” as “wastefully extravagant and lavishly abundant.” That certainly describes the God that Jesus incarnates and reveals.

We see this in the parable of the Sower. God, the sower, goes out to sow and he scatters his seed generously, almost wastefully, everywhere - on the road, among the rocks, among the thorns, on bad soil, and on rich soil. No farmer would ever do this. Who would waste seed on soil that can never produce a harvest? God, it seems, doesn’t ask that question but simply keeps scattering his seed everywhere, over-generously, without calculating whether it is a good investment or not in terms of return. And, it seems, God has an infinite number of seeds to scatter, perpetually, everywhere. God is prodigious beyond imagination.

Among other things, this speaks of God’s infinite riches, love, and patience. For us, there is both a huge challenge and a huge consolation in that. The challenge, of course, is to respond to the infinite number of invitations that God scatters on our path from minute to minute. The consolation is that, no matter how many of God’s invitations we ignore, there will always be an infinite number of others. No matter how many we’ve already ignored or turned down, there are new ones awaiting us each minute. When we’ve gone through 39 days of lent without praying or changing our lives, there’s still a 40th day to respond. When we’ve ignored a thousand invitations, there’s still another one waiting. God is prodigal, so are the chances God gives us.

Sr. Margaret Halaska once captured this wonderfully in a poem she entitled, Covenant:

The Father knocks at my door, seeking a home for his son:
Rent is cheap, I say
I don’t want to rent. I want to buy, says God.
I’m not sure I want to sell,
but you might come in to look around.
I think I will, says God.
I might let you have a room or two.
I like it, says God. I’ll take the two.
You might decide to give me more some day.
I can wait, says God.
I’d like to give you more,
but it’s a bit difficult. I need some space for me.
I know, says God, but I’ll wait. I like what I see.
Hm, maybe I can let you have another room.
I really don’t need that much.
Thanks, says God, I’ll take it. I like what I see.
I’d like to give you the whole house
but I’m not sure -
Think on it, says God. I wouldn’t put you out.
Your house would be mine and my son would live in it.
You’d have more space than you’d ever had before.
I don’t understand at all.
I know, says God, but I can’t tell you about that.
You’ll have to discover it for yourself.
That can only happen if you let him have the whole house.
A bit risky, I say.
Yes, says God, but try me.

I’m not sure -
I’ll let you know.

I can wait, says God. I like what I see.

If we look back on our lives and are truly honest, we have to admit that of all the invitations that God has sent us, we’ve probably accepted and acted on only a fraction of them. There have been countless times we’ve turned away from an invitation. For every invitation to maturity we’ve accepted, we’ve probably turned down a hundred. But that’s the beauty and wonder of God’s richness. God is not a petty creator and creation, itself, is not a cheap machine with barely enough energy and resources to keep it going. God and nature are prodigal. That’s plain everywhere. Millions and millions of life-giving seeds blow everywhere in the world and we need only to pick up a few to become pregnant, fecund, capable of newness, maturity, and of producing life.