Prodigal grace

I was shining a brooch I bought for myself in college. It’s a round pin, except that it’s a sinuous entwining of vine-leaves and a single salamander. At first glance, it’s a complete experience of entanglement, and only later do you notice the salamander’s presence, at one with and different from the vines.

I fell in love with this brooch at first sight. I had no money in college, and when I say I had no money, I mean my parents gave me $200/month to cover everything from toiletries to weekend meals to my phone bill….and my long-distance phone bill usually swallowed the bulk of it. My beau lived long-distance, you see.

So I have no clear idea how this beautiful thing ended up in my possession. I’m unable to steal, and I would remember if it were a gift (the way I remember the double-gift of my Victorian lace-up boots), so the only option left was that I must’ve recklessly bought it…and let others feed me for the rest of the month.

Prodigal. Means lavish, coming from the same Latin source prodigious does. Profusely lavish, if there can be such a thing.

When I was young, I was prodigal. Though (clearly) not with money!

I was prodigal in seeking beauty. I was prodigal with my weaknesses, shameless in how I both pointed them out and prepared to live with them. I assume I besottedly bought the brooch, my roommates exclaiming over it as we all circled around, and then waved cheerfully as I ate my pocketed dining-hall yogurt for Saturday dinner, or —  much more likely — went for dinner with my beau, who paid, or with them as they shook their heads and said, “Would you like to come too? We’ll buy you a taco.” 

I was prodigal with my acceptances. And my thanks! Somehow during my time in the mental hospital, I either formally or informally learned that it is as great a gift to accept a gift as to be the one who gives it. I saw clearly that my acceptance and thanks brought relief to those who gave…many times a greater relief to them than increase to me. And in the end it was so easy! I had forfeited my pride and my ability to reciprocate when I was committed, you see. Thanks were all I had to share, and they slipped off my tongue into all the listening ears.

I suspect that my prodigality discomfits people, though I’m not sure. I gather it’s not usual to accept the consequences of one’s foolishness with a shrug. Or take what is offered frankly, with thanks. 

But I’ve experimented with giving gifts I didn’t mean, and in the aftermath I didn’t appreciate my sacrifices. So I don’t do that anymore. By accepting, I grant others my same giving-place…or place myself as an object lesson in not offering what you don’t intend to have taken. Either works for me.

During my youth I was also prodigal with my person. I didn’t share myself widely, but I shared deeply, with emotions going farther than mere physical charms could achieve. Struggling with depression and anxiety as I was, there were high emotional costs in any companionship bargain I struck. I have always felt I got more than I gave…and perhaps the oxytocin floated me the way Prozac supports people now.

Streetcar Named Desire is most famous for Blanche DuBois’ line, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” I have too, and the kindness of friends, and partners, and family. It’s not as radical as Amanda Palmer’s approach, but there is overlap. There’s a lavishness in sharing vulnerability, even as there’s a lavishness in others’ responses. It’s as if the goodness never runs out.


You church-raised folk likely expected, as you started reading, the story of the prodigal son. Isn’t that the main time we use the word? In popular retelling, though, the emphasis seems to land more on prolifigacy — the son as wasteful — than on lavishness. Why not tag it “the prolifigate son,” then? 

Well, there’s a lot of prodigality in the story. There’s the father’s lavishness — the huge party, but also his handing over half the family’s capital at the beginning, and his full-speed rejoicing over this son’s return toward the end. The lost son even has a chance for lavishness offstage — to give up his broken, repentant words, and let his father’s love wash over him like a tsunami.

Our Bible tells us that grace is a gift God gives freely — freely as in without requiring payment, freely as in lavishly. Tells us that we cannot earn or deserve grace. Tells us to accept it, say thank you, and savor it.

I tell you that, while there have been stacks and piles and buckets and oceans of good things I have experienced, that I have been given, there is little I can grab, and shake, and say, “I deserved this.” My brains, my spouse, my wonderful kids, my my my…all gifts that I had the grace not to drop on the ground or push away from. I say thank you, and savor.

I tell you that I learned the depth and width of grace when I was only seventeen, when I could not refuse. It didn’t matter what I deserved then. It doesn’t matter what I deserve now. I am loved, by Christ on high and humans below. There is no payment I can make to equal that. I honor the gift when I embrace it wholeheartedly, say thank you, and savor it.

Grace is prodigal in all its forms. And as Josh Garrels says, “grace is the face of love.” Let it wash over you, and celebrate.

2 thoughts on “Prodigal grace

  1. One cannot know the mind of God, but all of the hints are there. God wants us all to love him and each other. Simple in theory, difficult in practice. We should all be so gracious in our thanks to each other for small kindnesses and niceties expressed or given with no thought as to motive or return on investment. You are quite simply one of the kindest people I know.

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