14. Dissolute Living

14 – Dissolute Living

“There he squandered his wealth in dissolute living. 

When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country,

and he began to be in need.”

Whatever his intentions were on the day he left home, the results were a disaster.  He left home with his pockets full and his stomach satisfied with a great breakfast. He began his homeward journey, with his pockets empty and an empty stomach. Something has happened. The storyteller lets the cat out of the bag, “He squandered everything he had in dissolute living.”

e lived life to the full, until it was empty. HeThe narrator does not give us the sordid details. It is none of our business. Though the older brother, who has little love for his younger brother, presumes to know some of the details.  The word “squandered” tells a story of waste and carelessness. The word means literally: to scatter widely.  He spent his money frivolously, and without much gain.

The words translated “dissolute living” raises some questions as to its intended significance. It is translated by some as, loose living, sensual pleasures, debauchery, or immorality, and the older brother connects it with prostitution.  Others translate these words as reckless living, riotous living, or wild extravagance.  This indicates that the young man took extreme risks with himself and his resources.  He blew the “seed money” at the carnival of fast rides.  Chances are that on the wild ride, there were few avenues that he did not take, with appetites and imagination finding sinful deployment.

James Weldon Johnson in his book of poetry, “God’s Trombone”, tells his version of this young man’s journey in these graphic words:

Young man –

Young man –

Your arm’s too short to box with God.


But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said:

A certain man had two sons.

Jesus didn’t give this man a name,

But his name is God Almighty.

And Jesus didn’t call these sons by name,

But ev’ry young man,


Is one of these two sons.

. . . . . . .

Young man –

Young man –

Smooth and easy is the road

That leads to hell and destruction.

Down grade all the way,

The farther you travel, the faster you go.

No need to trudge and sweat and toil,

Just slip and slide and slip and slide

Till you bang up against hell’s iron gate.

. . . . . . .

Young man –

Young man –

You’re never lonesome in Babylon.

You can always join a crowd in Babylon.

Young man –

Young man –

You can never be alone in Babylon,

Alone with your Jesus in Babylon.

You can never find a place, a lonesome place,

A lonesome place to go down on your knees,

And talk with your God, in Babylon.

You’re always in a crowd in Babylon.

. . . . . . .

Oh, the women of Babylon!

Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,

Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,

Their lips like a honey-comb dripping with honey,

Perfumed and sweet smelling like a jasmine flower;

And the jasmine smell of the Babylon women

Got in his nostrils and went to his head,

And he wasted his substance in riotous living. [i]

. . . . . . .

Well, whatever the specific catalogue of his sins, his wealth was lost in the process of a carefree life.  When a famine hit that country, our wanderer became particularly vulnerable, for he had wasted it all, and saved nothing.

The story is clear; he was to blame for part of his predicament. He squandered his wealth. He was the perpetrator of this crime against himself, his father and his God. But he was also a victim, because he was not to blame for part of his predicament. A famine fell on the land, and though he did not cause it, he found himself caught up in its terrible consequences. But even though he was not responsible, there is no doubt that his irresponsibility may have increased his own vulnerability to this plague’s effects.  He was irresponsible and therefore responsible for the several things he did not do.

  • He did not put away anything for such a rainy day, (or a non-rainy day in this case.)
  • In times of food shortage the price of food skyrockets, and any remaining funds from his inheritance, may have been spent even faster than before, unless one quickly reduces one’s appetites.
  • He had not demonstrated a great work ethic to the people of wealth and substance who might want to hire an energetic young man. When the crops fail, people have to be laid off.  The persons laid off first are often the least productive members of a work force.
  • If your friends are not really your friends, but simple buddies bought at one’s convenience, when the economy is in recession, those kind of friends become strangers overnight. In times of famine, generosity dries up quickly and extra mouths to feed are not welcome in such times.

But of course, we know that bad news is often good news in disguise. It is when all the resources have gone, and our companions have disappeared, and when the music has ceased enticing, that we can hear ourselves talking back to ourselves, and hear the still small voice of God.  It is in times of disequilibrium that self or circumstantial dissatisfaction can come to the surface.  It is when we fall down from dizziness that we know we have been whirling far too fast.  It was Spurgeon who is reputed to have said, “If I had not nearly perished, I would have utterly perished.”  And for this son, nearly dying was his first step towards life.  Death was at the door when he decided that he must try to work himself out of a dilemma, after all, common sense says, “We are saved by work.”  He surmised that it was time to get a job.



Theological Reflection

In this story it will be easy to compare and contrast the sins of the two brothers, and hear the profligate younger man saying his version of, ”I thank you God, I am not as other men are, especially my older brother.”  We know that Jesus’ most damning words are spoken to pious persons, and his most generous words spoken to the obviously sinful.  If we are not careful we begin to presume some sins may not be so bad, and the net result of that is a bit of self-vindication and an increased tolerance for my particular besetting sin.

Let me give us a clue about what constitutes sin.  God’s laws are never arbitrary. An act or an attitude is not wrong because God calls it so.  If God calls an action or attitude wrong, it is entirely because it is inherently damaging to persons, or to the wider creation, or to our relationship with Him.

Neither does God create a list of virtues on the scale good, better, best, and a list of sins called bad, worse and worst. I am not sure which is worse on a given day: the murder of a person in cold blood, or a town council that votes “no” to affordable housing for the homeless. I cannot calculate which does more damage: the unwanted pregnancy of a teenage daughter, or the anger of a parent because the daughter let down their good name. Which is most evil: a homosexual young man moving in with his male lover, or a predatory young man who attempts the seduction of the girls in his high school?  Listing sins is complex, and may change from person to person and day to day.  That is not being cavalier about sin.  It is saying that no sins are excusable, and without damage, and that to avoid sinning is wisdom in those who would walk in fellowship with their Father.

I have suggested that the word “dissolute” may not have been the crime, but rather “reckless” living.  If I could clear the younger brother of the serious charges of sexual vulgarity and promiscuity, would we feel a bit disappointed in that outcome?  Do we need to make him a “terrible sinner” before we feel that he needs the forgiveness of both of his fathers?

Dorothy L. Sayers[ii] has an essay entitled “The Other Six Deadly Sins.” She lets us know that when we think of immorality we think of the deadly sin of lust. She wants to remind us that the other six; sloth, envy, avarice, gluttony, anger, and pride are just as immoral. People who underpay their employees may be just as immoral as the profligate. Whatever the specifics are in the young man’s deeds and dispositions, he was a sinner in need of forgiveness and healing. He may not have been any worse or any better than any of us.

[i] James Weldon Johnson, “The Prodigal”, God’s Trombone, (New York: Viking Press, 1927)  p. 21-25.

[ii] Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins.” Creed or Chaos, (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949).

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