What we name things matter.
Names can carry unspoken assumptions and overt perceptions.
Just look at the news this week,
Monday’s USA Today said “Mount McKenley Renamed Denali” above the fold,
as news broke that we will no longer be calling our tallest mountain
after the twenty-fifth president,
but we will revert to its native Alaskan name.
Apparently, Boehner is unhappy, but Murkowski is pleased…
Or consider the angst that my daughters feel
when in the heat of “an important discussion”
I use the wrong twin name,
“I’ve said it three times, Nora, you can’t do that anymore”
“Dad, I’m Tessa…..”
“I’ve said it three times, Tessa, you can’t do that anymore…”
I was considering all of this when pondering our reflection for today,
and settled on a well worn parable of Jesus…
Here’s how Luke tells the story:
Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.
The younger of them said to his father,
“Father, give me the share of the property
that will belong to me.”
So he divided his property between them.
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had
and travelled to a distant country,
and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
When he had spent everything,
a severe famine took place throughout that country,
and he began to be in need.
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country,
who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.
He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating;
and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself he said,
“How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough
and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!
I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
I am no longer worthy to be called your son;
treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ”
So he set off and went to his father.
But while he was still far off,
his father saw him and was filled with compassion;
he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Then the son said to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
But the father said to his slaves,
“Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
And get the fatted calf and kill it,
and let us eat and celebrate;
for this son of mine was dead and is alive again;
he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field;
and when he came and approached the house,
he heard music and dancing.
He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.
He replied, “Your brother has come,
and your father has killed the fatted calf,
because he has got him back safe and sound.”
Then he became angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and began to plead with him.
But he answered his father,
“Listen! For all these years
I have been working like a slave for you,
and I have never disobeyed your command;
yet you have never given me even a young goat
so that I might celebrate with my friends.
But when this son of yours came back,
who has devoured your property with prostitutes,
you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Then the father said to him,
“Son, you are always with me,
and all that is mine is yours.
But we had to celebrate and rejoice,
because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life;
he was lost and has been found.” ’
What we name things matter, and maybe that’s true about this story too.
So, Jesus once told a parable about a family.
The parable began with a very simple “A man had two sons…”
NOTHING extraordinary or particularly interesting about that.
A simple story about an ordinary family:
children behave like children,
parents behave like the book on parenting says they should.
Yet…this parable beats ALL the others Jesus told.
It has been called “Jesus masterpiece.”
One scholar has called it “the most exquisite and penetrating
of ALL stories about divine mercy and love.”
St. Augustine—a GIANT in the early centuries of the church—said:
“This story is about me.
It is exactly the story of my own conversion.”
It’s amazing, if you think about it,
that such a familiar, simple, plain story
could have such a PROFOUND effect.
But…THEN we have this issue with the TITLE. What we name it.
This parable didn’t start out—originally—with Jesus saying:
“Gather ‘round—I’m going to tell you the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son.’”
I have NOTHING against titles—but they can often narrow truth.
Titles mislead us into thinking that NAMING the thing, tells us everything.
Titles can tend to domesticate and tame good stories
until they become EASY and MUNDANE and IMPOTENT.
Tiles…can make us LAZY.
But a title cannot cage a parable.
Parables are parables precisely because they CANNOT be managed
Australian poet Cameron Semmens has written a poem that’s
a definition of a parable. It goes like this:
This poem is untitled.
This poem has no title.
This poem wants no title.
This poem rebels against any
appropriate, feasible and/or
logical title that you may happen to think of.
The first line of this poem
is not to be supplemented as a title.
It is not even to be referred to as:
“The Poem That is Untitled.”
or “That Untitled Poem”
It is to have no name, heading
or abbreviated term or reference of any type.
And this poem upholds the God-given right
to remain untitled.
If it is ever to be referred to,
it is to be recited in its entirety
and read with all sincerity.
This poem is untitled
is never to be titled
and shall not ever have a title.
This poem also reserves the right to peter out.
(footnote: this poem is diminished not quite finished)
Jesus told a parable about a family.
A parable without a title. Without a name.
But tradition assigned the title—“The Parable of the Prodigal Son”—
–which has stuck… EVEN though it is hardly accurate.
The title shifts attention from the family,
and puts the spotlight on one member as though
the whole parable is ONLY about that one member.
But WAIT–this is a parable of Jesus—NOT some Hollywood production
that ONLY has room for one star
and everybody else is stuck in a supporting role.
Real families don’t work that way.
Families are way more complex…than titles.
In the story—the younger son decides to leave.
We are NOT told WHY he leaves—so we are left to speculate.
SOME may speculate that the younger son had an adventurous spirit.
Maya Angelou writes the he was seeking the kind of company
he could not get at home—so he left, simple as that.
SOME of us might speculate that sibling rivalry played a major role.
OTHERS who read closely and note that the parable
has NO mother, NO sisters, NO daughters—
–in other words, this is a household without women
and the macho-intensity of the parable family
is so great it would be enough to drive anybody OUT!
Whatever you think…the parable does NOT say why he left.
We only know that he left with NO plans to come back.
He packed everything.
He closed everything down.
He had a talk with his father where he says:
“If there is anything you were planning
on leaving me in your will—
–I’ll take it now.
For me, you are as good as dead.”
He was financially equipped to leave the familiar
and venture into the unknown.
…But let us NOT judge the younger son too harshly.
Let us dare to give him the benefit of the doubt
and wish him well as head heads off.
He crosses borders and enters Gentile territory where folks are different:
they even have pig farms and pork chops on the menu.
Since we are in the season of high school graduates (and their families)
turning a page and beginning a new chapter…
…as daughters and sons set off for places (far and near)
in search of NOTHING LESS than a self to be—
–let us NOT judge this younger son too harshly.
Since we live in a world where millions and millions
who live in regions with NO human rights,
NO opportunity for freedom or dignity—
–and as a consequence, must leave their home,
–in search of a LIFE to be lived—
–let’s NOT judge this younger son too harshly.
Let us wish him well as he goes off to make his NEW life…
So yes, Jesus once told a parable about a family.
The parable could have easily begun—“A woman had two sons”—
–because the traditional title makes the misleading assumption
that the prodigal son’s story and history
is the only legitimate history of the entire parable.
The title implies that ONLY one level of the story is important
and overrides all the other stories and histories and descriptions.
In our world we see how this pans out so that the story
of ONLY one group of people—only one constituency—
–one race, one nation, one faith, one gender—
–is offered as the one and ONLY TRUE history of the entire world.
But that’s not the only way this TITLE can mislead:
…Which of these…is the PRODIGAL?
Oh yes, I know we know the story and the labels.
But if you didn’t—if you hadn’t heard this story 100 times—
–it’s an honest question:Which of these is the PRODIGAL?
Some might say the younger son.
Some might say the older son.
Some would say BOTH…were prodigal.
Settled as it is in the neighborhood, here in Luke, of the “lost and found”—
—lost and found sheep
—lost and found coin—
–it’s easy to assume that prodigal means “LOST.”
It would be easy to think that the lost sheep was a prodigal sheep
and the lost coin is a prodigal coin
and anyone with poor sense of direction and is constantly LOST
is an example of PRODIGAL.
And then Webster’s Dictionary throws us a curve:
Prodigal has NOTHING to do with the lost and found department.
Prodigal is NOT even an inherently bad thing to be.
Webster’s says prodigal means extravagant, reckless,
profuse, squandering, and wasteful.
A prodigal person is a spendthrift.
Prodigal ALSO means abundant, bounteous, and lavish.
Out of prodigal comes prodigious.
People who are NOT PRODIGAL are miserly, stingy,
mean and tight-fisted.
There is no doubt that when prodigal is inward-looking,
it is sinful in its self-indulgence, greed, and selfishness—
–like the younger son and the elder son.
HOWEVER…when prodigal is practiced on ANOTHER—prodigal…is RADICAL!
Prodigal is reckless in its welcome,
such as when a returning son is met by a father
who drops whatever he is doing
and runs across the public square—
–that is PRODIGAL!
Prodigal is overwhelming in its forgiveness,
such as when a raggedy, battered, lived-with-swine-looking daughter
is grasped and rocked in the loving arms of her mother
who laughing and crying can only say over and over again:
“Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!”
–That is PRODIGAL!
Prodigal means excessive,
Prodigal is the reckless dishing out of extravagant portions of love.
Prodigal is doling out grace in lavish servings.
Behold the startling picture laid before us:
nothing but the finest robe on his battered and bruised body;
nothing but the most precious ring on his broken finger;
the best shoes for calloused feet;
Let’s grill the fatted calf because there is NO BETTER DAY we are saving it for!
And now, a toast–a prodigal, passionate toast.
“Raise your glass–here is to resurrection!
He was dead…but is alive again!”
Viki Matson, of Vanderbilt Divinity School, has written:
“When the table is filled to overflowing,
when kindness abounds,
when love begets MORE love
and generosity gives birth to forgiveness—
–those kinds of feasts can ONLY come from a God
who is amazing,
and beyond comprehension.”
Jesus once told a parable about a family.
A simple story about a man and his two kids.
Jesus did NOT label the parable, but simply told the story
and let the chips fall where they would.
Traditions and cultures,
and Presbyteries and churchy groups,
…do NOT particularly like chips flying about,
chips falling wherever they may.
These structures of our life prefer some sort of ORDER—
–things in their correct place.
So tradition has helped Jesus some
and gave this parable the neat, smooth,
yet highly dangerous name of “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
The label sells the parable short.
While the parable is wonderfully complicated—
–like the family called the church—
–the label OVERSIMPLIFIES the family.
The label moves us from complexity to over-simplicity.
The label insists on something clear and coherent,
at the expense of so many dismissed, silenced, devalued.
But with Jesus, there are NO labels.
With Jesus, there are no “constituencies.”
With Jesus, one size NEVER fits all.
AND…stories about only TWO children can easily be misquoted
and mislead us into a deadly dichotomy of ELDER verses YOUNGER.
Next thing we know, such a dichotomy bleeds over into
us versus them,
villains versus victims,
rich versus poor,
liberal versus conservative,
confessing versus reconciling,
the West versus the rest.
The truth of the matter is that life is NOT neatly and tightly packaged
into EITHER/OR boxes.
People, like parables, are impossible to label, catalog, and shelve.
NOT even nations are politically homogeneous.
NOT even churches have everyone the SAME.
NOT even families have members who are entirely identical
or exactly opposite.
“Out there” are real histories and realities quite unlike our own.
“In here” are real histories and realities quite unlike our own.
…and how it COMPLICATES life together in church!
Those who are just starting out in faith,
and those who have been in church for a half century, or more…
…those who have money to share for our common good,
and those who today, at least, are just scraping by…
…those who hear God clearly
and those who think God must be joking much of the time…
How do we live out as a community—
NOT just for SOME, but for ALL of God’s children?
How do we GIVE—what we can, when we can—for NO OTHER REASON
than because God calls us to such…prodigious generosity…
…this can be done only by telling the WHOLE story—
–the whole truth and nothing but the truth!
This parable isn’t about this SON or that SON…
…this is a parable about interrelatedness:
how all of us are CONNECTED.
Does that exhaust you, or excite you?
Maybe a bit of both?
What we name things, well, it matters.
But we should take care that we don’t let OUR names
limit and narrow and define just what God is doing among us.
So, let us ask: what is this thing we’re doing?
What is The Kirk?
When you’re out and about, what is your elevator speech about this place,
when someone says, oh yeah, you’re part of that round steeply place
on Wornall, Whatchamacallit?
I’ve driven by….
Are we what so many unchurchy folks see in too many churches
a social club that meets on Sunday mornings
when others are working off whatever they did Saturday night?
Or are we bearers of love into our community,
those who are willing to stand in the breach of chaos and hurt
with words and deeds of love?
Are we seekers trying to hear God in our midst through the life of Jesus Christ?
Are we people who hope and who care and who speak truth
in an increasingly hope-starved
Are we a prodigal organization,
prodigal in our optimism, our compassion, our generosity?
What is this thing we’ve named the The Kirk?
Well, we use this tagline as part of our vision: Community Minded; Loving and Serving
Maybe we start there,
attending to the community in which God places us
loving and serving all who we encounter
inviting everyone to come and see what this wild, prodigious God of ours
might have in store for our future
as we resist trying to circumscribe this thing too much.
Maybe we could put our energies into following our Savior
seeking to be as prodigal in our Love
as our God has been with each and every one of us.
Maybe that could be what we mean by “The Kirk”?
May it be so.
Image: Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son
 The issue of the parable’s title and its implications is largely from William Willimon’s “Pulpit Digest” for September, 2001, pp. 22-34. Some of this sermon adapted from “The Prodigal,” an August 2000 sermon by the Rev. Grace Imathiu.
 From Fred Craddock, “Luke”, Interpretation Bible Commentary Series, p. 187.
 Tom Long, “This Family”, sermon at Festival of Homiletics, 2002