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.
“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 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.
we see the word, “prodigal”
in negative and harmful ways.
It is a story of squandered inheritance,
distain for tradition,
and the grace of forgiveness
granted after the devastation
of an extravagant,
Is that what this story is about?
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,
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.”
The title invites us to see the son as the central character:
He is prodigal.
And without a doubt,
But look closer.
He is not the only one.
No one in this series of stories behaves with
or measured judgment.
They are all Prodigal.
They are all extravagant.
They are all reckless.
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.
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.
Imprudence, lavishness, prodigality—
The main characters in these stories behave recklessly,
Their actions point to something big.
Something unstinting and bountiful--
that cannot be contained in words on a page.
Their actions overflow in a generosity
beyond what we find “normal”
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,
send a clear and challenging message.
They invite us to engage fully,
to commit deeply,
to forgive completely,
to love without measure—
no holding back,
no standing behind yellow caution tape,
no lingering beside the escape hatch.
The Reckless Shepherd.
The Extravagant Woman.
The Prodigal Father.
unstinting Kingdom of God.