Today's reading from 1 Corinthians is a truly puzzling passage, with its unfamiliar allusions to the Old Testament. It also requires of us a particular way of reading the Old Testament. Paul saw the entire Old Testament as a preparation for Jesus Christ, with Jesus Christ prefigured and foreshadowed on every page. In references which make little sense to us Paul was pointing out that even in the time of Moses, the Exodus from Egypt, and the wanderings in the wilderness, Christ was already present and active, approximately 1500 years before He was born at Bethlehem.
But this amazing blessing did not save them. “But with many of them, God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” This, Paul teaches, is a warning to us. If God could be displeased with His people of the Old Testament, His people of the New Testament are subject to the same holy and righteous judgment.
The specific danger which Paul was dealing with was the sin of idolatry. The worship of false gods seemed to be the incorrigible vice of the people whom Moses led out of Egypt and through the wilderness. It remained their besetting sin right up until God finally drove them into their exile. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” was the commandment most frequently disobeyed.
The Corinthian converts to whom Paul ministered were people who had hardly begun to detach themselves from their pagan culture. If we read just one verse further, he drove home his point: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” One could not be a faithful Christian and still retain souvenirs or traces of the pagan gods; saying “Jesus is Lord” means Jesus is exclusively Lord, Lord of all, and we are exclusively His.
When the Old Testament Israelites, after their Babylonian exile, gave up the false gods (idols) of the Egyptians and Canaanites, they quickly found new idols of an immaterial form: their Law, their race, their tradition, their culture. The Greek pantheon which was so strong a temptation for the Corinthians has long since faded from our world. But our culture still provides us with false gods galore.
Pleasure, entertainment, luxury, more money than we really need, popularity, social status, learning, power, privilege, are only a few of the false gods which we allow to enslave and destroy us. When God—the only true God—redeemed His people, He demanded their sole and exclusive loyalty and service. He requires no less of us.
Concerning the Gospel:
What does the word prodigal really mean? Apart from this parable the word has virtually disappeared from our language. Because of the story contained therein, we commonly take the word to mean "wayward, disobedient, ungrateful" and thereby reveal ourselves to be rather like the audience to whom the parable was originally addressed, self-righteous Pharisees and grumbling scribes. Interestingly, the word does not occur in the Biblical text.
Prodigal, however, means something rather different. Merriam-Webster defines the word "recklessly extravagant, characterized by wasteful expenditure, lavish." That was the substance of the elder brother's complaint.
Actually, the parable gives us not one but three examples of reckless extravagance. The first, of course, is the younger son who went away to the far country. He has thrown away his inheritance in a depraved manner which is delicately described as "riotous living." He can only correct his mistakes by returning humbly to his father's house. The contemporary heresy of "unconditional love" would rewrite the parable to say he e-mailed his father, "I'm broke, please send some cash." But return home he must.
The elder brother, for all his diligence, and hard work is even more wasteful. Living in proximity to the father ("Son thou art ever with me," truly ironic words!), the mental and spiritual distance between him and the Father seems almost unbridgeable. He has wasted 10,000 opportunities to become his father's friend. They co-exist in the same home but they do not live together. How many dwell in the Lord's house but never know Him?
The most extreme example of prodigality is the conduct of the father himself. Unwisely, in terms of human wisdom, he has made an early payment of an inheritance. Now he provides a lavish and expensive feast celebrating the ne'er-do-well's return, Presumably, he will divide his estate all over again. Not a prodigal son, but a prodigal family!
The parable is Our Lord's rebuke to the self-righteousness of those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others." But even more, it sets forth the lavish generosity of God toward sinners. We remember Judas Iscariot's complaint against the woman who anointed Jesus for his burial, "Why this waste?" Her action reflected the costly love of God for us, the price with which we were bought, the Divine prodigality which went to the "far country" of the Cross and continues to feed us sinners at the rich and inexhaustible banquet He sets before us.