I want to share a little known fact about the Bible with you this morning. I know this is going to shock some of you, so brace yourself. When the Biblical text was first penned, it was written without chapter and verse notations. Crazy isn’t it? As it was originally written, the text was just a story. The Old Testament text is a collection or oral stories – like the kind you may sit around the campfire telling your grandkids. After years of passing them down orally, they were eventually written down. I can’t imagine that in the days the stories were first told that the narrators took the time to say, “Then in chapter 5 of Isaiah’s tale, we’ll pick up in verse 25 of his life,” or, “Tomorrow I’ll tell the memorized stories that my grandfather told me that came from the 6th chapter of 1 Kings.”
No – the text was penned in straight form. Most of it wasn’t even divided into paragraphs, though some was.
We start seeing true chapter divisions of the Hebrew text, the Old Testament, between the 9th and 13th centuries after Christ. But even then, the verses weren’t individually numbered. That would take another couple hundred years.
The New Testament didn’t get divided into individual verses until the Dominican biblical scholar Santi Pagnini came along in the 15th and 16th centuries.[i] The first Bible published in English to have both chapter and verse numbers was the Geneva Bible, published in 1560.
So, given that these chapter and verse distinctions were made many, many years after the original penning of the Holy Writ, it should come as no surprise that the sectional headings also were not added in until many years after the original publishing. For example, here in Luke chapter 15, there are three separate section headers found in many bibles. The section headings are slightly different depending on the version of the Bible you read. The New International Version calls these three sections, “The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin, and The Parable of the Lost Son.” The Common English Version calls them simply, “One Coin, One Sheep, and Two Sons.” The New Revised Standard Version calls them, “The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin, and The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother.”
Section headers can be great because they can give us a synopsis of the section we are about to read. We can quickly scan through the Biblical text and find a specific section just by reading the section headers.
But there’s also a problem with the section headers. While section headers are there to highlight the focus of each section, they often are written to reflect the editor’s bias of what each section is about.
Now, I know, calling something an editor’s bias is somewhat derogatory. I mean, the Bible is black and white, it’s not about bias, it’s about the text, right? How can an editor’s supposed bias play any part in this?
Let’s take the first two stories of Chapter 15, the two parables that were left out of today’s scripture reading. The first one, commonly referred to as the Parable of the Lost Sheep, is about a shepherd being called to go save the one sheep who has gone missing out of the 100 sheep under the shepherd’s care. The second parable, in verses 8-10, is about a coin that has gone missing, and it often called the Parable of the Lost Coin.
The editor’s have decided to name the sections based on the failure of the coin and the sheep to stay in the good graces of their owner. The section headers call our attention first and foremost to the lostness of the coin and sheep. But I wonder, would our focus and attention for these texts change if the editor gave us a different heading? What if these were called, “The Parable of the Found Sheep, or the Parable of the Found Coin.” Each section ends with the good news that God rejoices even when only one lost sinner is found anew in Christ. It seems the text isn’t so much about our lostness as it is about our foundness, so shouldn’t that be the focus given in the section header?
Or, for that matter, why is the focus on the coin or the sheep at all? Why is the focus on us – who are represented in the coin and in the sheep? Isn’t that one of the greatest sins we are time and time again warned against throughout the Scriptural text? That we too often focus on ourselves instead of God? Aren’t we relapsing into sin by naming these section headers about the pieces that represent us, God’s created, yet fallen humanity? Why don’t we instead name them after the role of God? Can we call them, “The Seeking Shepherd,” and “The Woman Who Loves All Her Coins?”
All that to say, I think we need to rethink what it is we name these scriptural stories. And the story we heard in our read text this morning is no different. Again, the focus of the editor often plays too much on our own understanding of the story. It is often called, ‘The Story of the Prodigal Son,’ ‘The Story of the Two Brothers,’ and ‘The Story of the Prodigal and His Brother.’
Again, we see in the editor’s discretion, a failure bent toward selfishness. The naming of this section is too heavily focused on the roles that represent us, God’s fallen humanity, which is so in need of the God’s grace. The common focus is on one of, or both sons.
The son who often receives the most attention in these section headers is given the title of ‘the prodigal.’ Let’s look at where this word prodigal comes from because it didn’t show up in our text this morning. Verse 13 tells us that the son, having begged for and received his ‘cut’ of his father’s inheritance, goes off and squanders it entirely in dissolute living. The Greek text says it this way, “The son went into a distant country and there wasted his estate, living prodigally.” The Greek word here is asótós (as-o’-toce). This is the only place in the entire biblical text this word appears. Perhaps there is no one word that best translates this into English, but it is understood to have a meaning synonymous with dissolutely, recklessly, or wastefully.
Google defines the word prodigal as, “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant;” and “having or giving something on a lavish scale.”[ii]
I’ll come back to this point, but the editors of the Biblical publishing houses, not Jesus, are the ones who have chosen to give this first son the title of Prodigal. By acquiescing to the editor’s section header, we allow ourselves to be suckered into thinking that there is only one focus of the text – the extravagant and reckless squandering of the first son. Or, if we use the NRSV, the wasteful son and his brother.
Again, all that to say, I take issue with simply calling this text, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” even if you’re willing to add his brother to the title.
The parable begins in verse 13 with this line, “Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.’”
We should be keenly aware from the start that if you take out the editor’s addition of the section header, Jesus’ verbal entrance to the parable tells us who is important in the text. There is first a man and then his two sons. If we focus on just the younger son, or just the older, we miss the point of the parable.[iii] In fact, if you focus on the two sons without giving great attention to the father, you’ve probably missed the purpose of the story all together.
So let’s take a closer look at why Jesus is telling the story, and why it had such significance for the audience to whom he was speaking.
We heard in verses 1-3 of chapter 15 that Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and scribes. These educated and trained leaders of the faith were grumbling because Jesus was spending so much time with the tax-collectors and sinners. These outcasts were flocking to Christ, and he was flocking to them. Everywhere he went, he dined with those seen as unfaithful and as unwanted by the Jewish community. He taught in a region that was inhabited by more gentiles than Jews. He spent time with lepers, and blind people, and people who could not walk. These were all people who were understood to be sinners – their disabilities were understood to be the result of sin, either sin of their own or the sin of their prior generations. Thank God we’ve learned to be all the wiser today.
Jesus spent a lot of time with these sinners, and the church leaders didn’t like it. When Jesus heard their grumbling, he spoke to them, telling them these three parables. The one about the shepherd and the sheep, the one of the woman and her coins, and then this third one about the man and his two sons.
No doubt these Jewish leaders would have been quite offended in the telling and hearing of this parable.
Firstly, the son begs his father for his inheritance. As the son asking for the inheritance was not the oldest, his portion of the inheritance, according to Jewish law, would have been one-third of the estate. In order to offer his son such a gift, the father would have had to sell off one-third of the property. No doubt this would have greatly upset the Jewish leaders listening to the story. The father, to give this son his inheritance, would have sold off a piece of the promised land that the Jews had come into – land promised and understood to have been given by God. The land being sold off is ancestral land that was held in high regard and understood with supreme importance for the Jewish community.
The selling of the land, in and of itself, would have been offensive. It would have been offensive to the Jewish leaders listening. It also would have been offensive to the older brother. How is the family to live with one-third less land for planting and harvesting, or one-third less land to raise the farm animals? It would have been offensive to the community surrounding the parabolic family. What did they think of a local farmer selling off such property – such historical, and important property? It wasn’t just necessary for the economic life of the community, it held significance for the Jewish heritage. The Pharisees and scribes listening would have been outraged.
And then the son goes and squanders it all. He wastes it, living prodigally. The text offers us this note that he, being broke, takes a job feeding pigs. Historical context is important. “No good [Jewish boy] would be caught dead near pigs.”[iv] The animals were believed to be un-kosher. He is not only sinking deep in desperation, but he’s so desperate that he is turning his back against the Jewish community by whom he had been raised. First it was a slap in the father’s face to take his inheritance long before the appropriate time – as if his father’s inheritance was not worth waiting for. Then a slap in the face of the tradition, to sell himself to a pig farmer.
And this is where I think we come to the fork in the prodigal road. We have the choice most commonly taken, reading this text and understanding it to define this youngest son as the prodigal. We are in good company to read it as such. But there is a fork in the road; there is another road to travel. I want to us to journey for a few minutes down the road less travelled and venture down the path that begs the prodigal nature is not reserved for the son, but is indeed characteristic of the father.
Again – I call us to remember that Christ is telling this story to people in the Jewish community who consider themselves the most faithful. They are the Pharisees and scribes. They believe they know what is right and what is wrong when it comes to being faithful in relationship with God.
Jesus continues in the parable to tell us that the son comes home. The father, seeing the son far off in the distance, runs out to him. This father who has been scorned by his son in the community – he’s been made a mockery in the community. The son has embarrassed him – having called for his inheritance long before it was due. The son, who ran off into the world to escape living at home. The son, who could not be reasoned with by the father and left his father – unthinkable for an obedient Jewish boy. The son, who squandered one-third of the total assets of this father. The son, who turned his back on the tradition and community. The son, who has come up with some completely bull… completely hypocritical line to try and earn his father’s good graces back. He comes back home; the father runs to him and calls for a celebration of his return. The father doesn’t let him finish the rehearsed line, but celebrates that this son who had wasted all he had been given has come home.
Tell me, who’s living foolishly now? Who is the prodigal, living so recklessly? The father acts contrary to what everyone in the Jewish community would have expected – those in his parabolic Jewish community around the farm who were still upset that he sold off their local farm land – and those in the temple listening to him.
Surely this is not the love of God – one who welcomes back those who squander as this son did. This son didn’t just squander any money – he squandered money that was inappropriately taken from the Jewish community – the money from the untimely and unfaithful sale of ancestral Jewish land that was understood as given by God. Who is the one spending resources recklessly, throwing a party for such a sinner?
And then how does the father treat the older son, who then walks out on the party. Again, talk about a party fowl, you don’t walk out on your father’s celebration! And if you do, your father calls his servants to bring you back in. But no, this father, he goes out himself – again, breaking every kind of traditional understanding – he goes himself to offer his love to the son, to make sure the son knows he is loved – regardless of the celebration being thrown for the son who is returned.
And this father – the love shown by the father – this is the focus Christ is trying to call the Jewish leaders to hear. “The love of tax collectors and sinners [by Christ] does not at all negate the love of [God for the] Pharisees and scribes. Such is God’s love, but we find it difficult to not be offended by God’s grace toward another, especially when we have serious questions about that person’s conduct and character.”[v]
So I beg you, throw out all preconceived notions of what this text is supposed to tell us about how we are to live our lives. May we not be mistaken that it is simply a word of criticism against how we often squander what God has given us. Or that it is a word of criticism against us when we rebel as we see others receive what we don’t believe the have earned.
Instead, I beg for you to hear this text as a promise of God’s reckless and prodigal love for you, and call to share that love with others. Whether you’ve run away and found yourself empty and broken, yearning to return to the love of God, or whether you’ve been here your entire life and are sometimes offended that those who have run off are trying to come back. God’s love is not withheld from either. God sends his son for you to know you are loved regardless of where you’ve been, what you’ve done, or who you’ve been with, or how much you think you’ve screwed up in the past. God’s love is not limited to just those who have “always had it right.” And to those of you who have always “had it right,” I assure you God’s love is great enough to offer you forgiveness for thinking that too.
In this season of Lent, I invite you to take a peek as we come close to Easter, to be reassured this morning, no matter how much repentance you feel is necessary for your life, I assure you God is running toward you, ready to embrace you that you may once more feel the love of the Lord. May you feel that embrace, and once more be assured this morning, you, child, are loved. You, created and gifted, are worthy of the love of the Lord. And having received that love, we are to be not only hearers of God’s word, but doers who share that love as well. Thanks be to God, Amen.