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"Prodigal Son" -- Wonderful Story, Horrible Title

This Sunday's Gospel (from Luke 15:1-32) contains one of Jesus' most famous -- and perhaps most wonderful -- parable.

Unfortunately, the name by which many people call this section of Luke's Gospel - "The Parable of the Prodigal Son" is horrible.

I mean, horrible. On a number of different levels, that title is just plain wrong and misleading.

First of all, it removes the parable from its context, which is the grumbling of religionists. Luke 15 starts with a reminder that many people of bad reputations (tax collectors and sinners) were gathering around Jesus.

People from "the wrong crowd" have always offended people who care more about worship, justice, and religion than about Jesus.

And sure enough, these religionists start grumbling: "this man welcomes sinners and eats with them."

Second, it's that grousing that triggered a series of stories, a series of parables from Jesus. Contrary to their misnomers, they are NOT "the" story of "the" lost sheep or "the" lost coin, or "the" lost son.

The way Jesus tells them, the sheep, coin, or sons are not even the subjects of the stories!

The way Jesus tells them (again in response to religious grousing) is  
  • asking you to imagine losing a sheep, going out searching for it, and upon finding it, hosting a joyful celebration for friends and neighbors;
  • asking you to imagine a woman losing a coin, and upon finding it, throwing a celebration for her friends and neighbors;  
  • asking you to imagine a father who loses two sons, one of whom was prodigal (wastefully extravagant) the other of whom was dutiful, obedient, and hard-working. Upon the return of the prodigal son, the father throws a celebratory party. Again, in the context of religionist grousing and the other two parables, it's the refusal of the dutiful, obedient son to join the celebration-of-generosity-party thrown by the father that is the point of the story; arguably, the prodigal son is only a foil to set up the real point of the story, which is the grousing, anger, resentment, and jealousy of the other, every-bit-as-lost older brother.
As Julian of Norwich wrote, and as I hope to explore further in Sunday's sermon, "Some of us believe that God is All-Power, and can do all. And that God is All-Wisdom, and knows how to do all. But that God is All-Love, and wants to do all -- here we restrain ourselves. And this ignorance hinders most of God's lovers, as I see it."

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