So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.
We know Luke 15:11-32 as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” although that title is not scriptural. How would it affect your interpretation of the story if you called it the parable of:
(1) the Prodigal Sons?
(2) the Loving Father?
(3) the Return Home?
(4) the Lost Sons (which has the advantage of making it parallel to the other two parables in this chapter)?
(5) the Plan of Salvation?
(6) the Forgiving Father?
(7) the Father and Two Different Sons?
(8) the Father’s Love?
Can you think of any other apt titles? (This may be an interesting exercise to do with all of the parables). What are the risks of giving parables titles?
(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)
The titles that have traditionally been given to scripture stories (“The Cleansing of the Temple,” “The Anointing at Bethany,” “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”) are as powerful as they are dangerous. They do an awful lot of interpretive work, but they do it under the radar–we take the titles as given, usually, without stopping to think about the assumptions which they are making. This can be a problem. As I explore in this post, the idea that Jesus “cleansed” the temple is found in John but not in Mark, so to read Mark’s story as the “cleansing” of the temple may be to contradict Mark’s point. Similarly, calling it “The Anointing at Bethany” instead of “The Anointing of Jesus” downplays the significance of the event. And, as I hope the list of possibilities above suggests, calling Luke 15:11-32 “the parable of the prodigal son” does an awful lot of interpretive work that might leave us blind to other important elements of the story, such as the role of the father or the prodigal-ness of the older son.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about teaching young men and young women; one of the challenges their teachers face is to grapple with their cynicism. We might sometimes be able to harness that cynicism and use it for good instead of evil; one way to do this would be to give them an appropriate target for cynicism. The titles we put on stories may work well here as a target for them to criticize and then offer alternatives.