It’s a perennial problem for preachers, Bible study leaders and Sunday school teachers: trying to make an all-too-familiar passage of scripture exciting, fresh and applicable, not to mention doing that for an audience of more than 500 people.
The Rev. Kang Yup Na, associate professor of religion, history, philosophy and classics at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., will attempt just that in two plenary session Bible studies at Big Tent 2015, July 30-Aug. 1 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Na will explore Luke 15 and its well-known parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. He sees a reason for the grouping of these parables, but cautions that the division may have more to do with the way headings were placed on these sections of scripture than the intent of the original author.
His deep dive into the chapter—using narrative elements, historic context and a careful unpacking of the Greek language used in Luke 15—promises to be insightful and inspiring. Na will ask questions that will help attendees think differently about these familiar passages and motivate them to act in new ways in their Christian walk.
Professor Na spoke with the Presbyterian News Services (PNS) from his office at Westminster College. Excerpts of his interview are below.
Why did you choose Luke 15 for the Big Tent large group Bible study?
One of the draws for Luke 15 is that I’ve been reading and studying the Greek and various translations of it for quite some time and found it to be quite malleable and appropriate for all kinds of group situations. It has that kind of flexibility.
The other reason it commends itself is that it is a tightly knit unit from the first verse all the way to the end. So the entire chapter is relevant. When Luke 16 begins you ask, “What happened? There’s no connection between this and chapter 15.”
It’s a portable unit that you can take anywhere, even outside Luke. But within Luke it has particular meaningfulness in light of other parables and events of Jesus’ life, especially Luke 10 with the parable of the Samaritan.
What are some challenges of teaching on this text?
I’ve noticed people are familiar with some of the content because it’s so famous. The title I have for the study is ‘Lost and Found’ and people will know that right away.
One of the problems is, in the history of studying and knowing this—in church as well as in the academy—we have these titles. “The Parable of the Lost Sheep.” “The Parable of the Lost Coin.” “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
Even that is interesting. We don’t talk about the prodigal coin or the prodigal sheep. It makes no sense. We don’t talk about the lost son either. For some reason the prodigal-ness of the son stuck as the title.
So, if those titles don’t fit, how can we think differently about these stories?
One of the things I’m trying to achieve is to get rid of these titles as part of our pre-judgment in approaching the text.
The first part of my Bible study is aimed at unlearning, briefly, what we know about the stories already.
We need to remind ourselves that the first two verses that begin the narrative portion of Luke 15. Once we get into the first story, then the second story, then the third—which is really two stories in one—we forget the setup.
Luke painstakingly, very carefully in fact, uses words to influence the way we hear the text. We focus on the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son because of the power of those particular parables.
What I’m trying to shoot for is a connection, or seeing the holistic unity of the chapter, that can most fruitfully be gleaned from going back to the first two verses each time we read any of the three parables.
Do you have any suggestions for different titles?
The third parable, which is the most famous one, gets only one title—The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is unfortunate because it’s only the first part. The chapter continues to verse 32 but, unfortunately, verses 25-32 don’t have anything about the younger son except how the younger son is related to or talked about by the son and the father.
The first part [of the parable] is all younger son and the older son basically drops out in the introduction. So you have actually two parables—one about the younger son and one about the older son. We give the entire section the title of The Prodigal Son, which is very unfortunate.
One of the things I’ll do at the end of the study is to ask people to come up with their own titles for these parables.
I focus on the actors, the moral agents, in the stories and come up with: “The Parable of the Shepherd with 100 Sheep,” “The Parable of the Woman with 10 Coins,” and “The Parable of the Father and Two Sons.” That is, in fact, how Luke introduces these stories through Jesus’ words.
What the big picture you want to impart to Big Tent attendees through this Bible study?
This Bible study is all about leaving with a renewed question or questions about this text and how it might reform our minds about how to think about God and theology and church. How do we think about moral agents who have these strange relationships with property, about belonging in the same family and that relationship?
Here’s my problem: I only have two days of 45 minutes each. There’s no way I can cover all of this in detail [laughter.] So I’ll highlight things, challenge assumptions and get us to think about these stories differently, but won’t have time to share even half of what I’d like to cover.
I’ll try to persuade people to take another look and another look and then leave with questions about possibly seeing the father [in The Parable of the Prodigal Son] as Jesus and asking “who is the lost and the last that we’re being asked to include?”