There are several labels in Sunday’s scripture lessons. In the very familiar prelude and parable found in Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, we have the following labels: tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, scribes, father, son, hired hand, slave, and brother. Note that nowhere in the actual story is the label “prodigal” found. It’s not in the text of the New Revised Standard Version, New International Version, or even the King James Version. Somewhere along the way someone stuck that label on this parable and that’s how we all refer to it.
When I begin reading the gospel Sunday, “There was a man who had two sons,” most of the hearers will think, “Oh, here comes the story of the prodigal son.” Please don’t stop listening. Please don’t because parables, regardless of how familiar, hit us where and when we are. What you heard in the last reading may have been what you needed then, but what you hear Sunday may be what you need now.
As you’re preparing for Sunday, think about how engrained the label has become to you. How stuck it and other labels become. Chief among the Pharisees and scribes skepticism about Jesus was that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). “Sinners” Amy-Jill Levine, a noted Jewish New Testament scholar, says weren’t outcasts as we might imagine them, but “In a first-century context sinners, like tax collectors, are individuals who have removed themselves from the common welfare, who look to themselves rather than to the community” (Short Stories by Jesus, page 36). Because of their actions (or inactions), they were labeled and we all know how difficult it can be to get un-labeled. The same can be said for the other characters in the parable.
The same can be said for us. Labels can prevent us from knowing someone’s truer or fuller self or from being fully known. They can cause us to not accept someone for who they’ve become because we’re still clinging to how they were labeled (or to be boxed in by how we once were). Paul, formerly Saul (see Acts 9, if you’ve forgotten that people can change), had some forcefully gracious thoughts on this. 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 tells us about life in Christ and how we no longer regard people from a human point of view. In Christ, we gain a new perspective, one that is hopeful, one that joyfully lives out that “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” If we’re to be stuck with a label, that’s a good one: new creation! Own it. Live it. Embrace it in others.