Tuesday, March 08, 2016


The priest quizzed the congregation as he was giving his homily. "How many of you know what 'prodigal' means, raise your hand." One, two hands went up. He gently and half comically chided people for not reading the Bible, as he had urged them to do as a Lenten practice, though one might argue that his question posed a vocabulary issue, not a theological one. I didn't raise my hand. That was because I just didn't feel like it. I was sitting in back with my mom. She can't hear well. If I had gotten called on, it might have confused her or scared her. "What's my son yelling about in church?!" The other reason I didn't raise my hand is because, I am ashamed to admit as a wordsmith, on a Sunday morning I was not fully confident I knew what "prodigal" meant. Sure, I knew the parable, from Luke. I love it. Who doesn't? I believe it may be the most frequently quoted story in the New Testament. (It is such a human drama; we sympathize with the Prodigal Son, but aren't all of us sometime the grouchy, law-abiding Good Son who does not understand the extravagance of mercy?) I was going to blurt out that it means "lost." A so-called verbal artisan should know better. It's a great word, prodigal, ain't it? Extravagantly wasteful, rashly wasteful. (Maybe I was conflating "prodigal" with "profligate," but the two words are roughly synonymous; so, I don't know where lostness entered in. This is where a reader chimes in silently to herself or himself and editorializes on the measure of my evident lostness articulated in these spaces.) There's also a denotation for prodigal that is positive: lush, profuse, abundant. Charles Darwin, on the sea of the tropics, wrote: "...so prodigal of life." Prodigal. Work it into conversation over by the coffee machine today.

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