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24th OT C ~ "A Spirit of Imprudence, a Book of Surprises" ~ Susan McGurgan

Have you ever wondered about the “titles” of scripture stories?

Have you ever wondered where they came from

and who created them,

or how the titles

affect our reading and interpretation of the parables?


only two of the story titles originate in the New Testament itself.

One, named by Jesus, is the “Parable of the Sower,”

and one, named by the disciples, is the “Parable of the Tares in the Field.”

Every other title was added later by scholars and scribes

and I sometimes wonder if they reveal more about us

than they do about the story itself.

I mean, the unknown scribes

who determined the “names” of the stories


what we see and hear,

what we notice or ignore,

perhaps even what we learn and believe.

The familiar titles can lead us down certain paths;

condition us to view the parables in a particular light.

They can narrow our focus,

or perhaps even obstruct our view.

They predispose us

to form certain opinions and interpretations

and may close us off from other perspectives.

For instance,

“The Woman Taken in Adultery”

invites us to look squarely at the sin of the woman.

And it can be easy to ignore

the agency and sin of others in the story--

the others who are equally guilty,

equally broken,

equally in need of forgiveness

and to lose sight of our own culpability

in the sins of others.

“The Dishonest Steward”

invites us to look primarily

at the steward’s creative accounting techniques.


it is the cryptic remarks of the Master,

praising his ingenuity,

that should grab our attention

and engage our questions.

And in today’s story, the title, The Prodigal Son,”

focuses our eyes on the wasteful son.

Through him,

we see the word, “prodigal”

in negative and harmful ways.

It is a story of squandered inheritance,

grasping hands,

distain for tradition,

and the grace of forgiveness

granted after the devastation

of an extravagant,

imprudent life.

Is that what this story is about?

Of course.

But perhaps there is more.

One of the secrets of the Bible that we often forget or ignore

is that it is, quite frankly,

a strange book.

It is a library filled with surprises,

unexplained impossibilities,


curious situations

and settings that overflow with possibility.

The Bible offers us stories and parables

that invite us into a new landscape--

into a world populated with strange disconnects

and complicated characters.

The Bible does not offer us a simple world

or stories that fit into easily defined categories.

The dictionary defines “prodigal” as

“spending money and resources freely, recklessly.”

“wastefully extravagant”





The title invites us to see the son as the central character:

He is prodigal.

A wastrel.



And without a doubt,

he is.

But look closer.

He is not the only one.

No one in this series of stories behaves with


or prudence

or measured judgment.

They are all Prodigal.

They are all extravagant.

They are all reckless.


Foolish even—

This spirit of imprudence bubbles up

and spills all over these three strange stories.

All three of the main characters

insist on behaving in surprising,


even shocking ways.

The shepherd leaves 99 sheep unprotected and at risk

to go after a single one –

one that is most likely already dead—

lost to predators

or sizzling over the fire of hungry thieves.

No prudent, conscientious shepherd

would ever make such an irresponsible decision.

And the woman…

She spent the day searching for a lost coin,

then spent many times its value

throwing a party for neighbors to celebrate its recovery.

The Father…

a man whose fortune was already divided and diminished

by the outrageous demands of a younger son,

pours out even more money to throw a

completely unnecessary party upon his return.

The forgiveness

was enough.

Imprudence, lavishness, prodigality—

The main characters in these stories behave recklessly,

even wastefully.

Their actions point to something big.

Something unstinting and bountiful--

something excessive

that cannot be contained in words on a page.

Their actions overflow in a generosity

beyond what we find “normal”

or comfortable

or even very wise.

“Stop! What about the rest of the sheep? Cut your losses and look after the 99.”

“You realize, don’t you, that you are spending more than you found? After all that work, save it for a rainy day!”

“I’m glad he finally returned, but you can’t afford to lose any more money. Give him sandals and a robe and be done with it!”

These stories of prodigal shepherds,

prodigal women,

prodigal fathers,

send a clear and challenging message.

They invite us to engage fully,

to commit deeply,

to forgive completely,

to love without measure—

No hesitation,

no restrictions,

no holding back,

no standing behind yellow caution tape,

no lingering beside the escape hatch.

The Reckless Shepherd.

The Extravagant Woman.

The Prodigal Father.

The excessive,


unstinting Kingdom of God.

Image: "soap bubbles" by wolfgangfoto is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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