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The Atlantic has an excellent article on Peanuts‘ creator Charles Schulz, who died in 2000.

‘The Spirituality of Snoopy’ explores Schulz’s Christianity and how it informed his long-running comic strip, which first appeared in print in 1950.

Stephen Lind, author of the recently published book A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schulz, gave an interview to the magazine. He said:

Many familiar with the Peanuts strip don’t think of Charles Schulz as a Christian pioneer. But he was a leader in American media when it comes to both the strength and frequency of religious references.

Interestingly, Blondie‘s creator, Chic Young, warned cartoonists in that era not to mention religion in comic strips.

Schulz was raised a Lutheran but, after serving with the United States Army in World War II and coming to grips with his mother’s death at that time, he drifted away from church. His father was worried his son was losing his faith. His widow Jean explained how Charles — Sparky — returned to the fold:

When he came back from the army he was very lonely. His mother had died and he was invited to church by a pastor who had prepared his mother’s service from the Church of God. Sparky’s father was worried about him and was talking to the pastor and so the pastor invited Sparky to come to church. So Sparky went to church, joined the youth group and for a good 4-5 years he went to Bible study and went to church 3 times a week (2 Bible studies, 1 service). He said he had read the Bible through three times and taught Sunday school. He was always looking for what those passages REALLY might have meant. Some of his discussions with priests and ministers were so interesting because he wanted to find out what these people (who he thought were more educated than he) thought.

When he taught Sunday school, he would never tell people what to believe. God was very important to him, but in a very deep way, in a very mysterious way.

This particular Church of God is a Wesleyan holiness group based in Anderson, Indiana. (There are other Churches of God.) Wesleyan pietism forbids alcohol and smoking.

Schulz’s daughter Amy Schulz Johnson eventually became a Mormon. In November 2015, she told the Deseret News that:

Her parents never told her not to drink alcohol, but because they never drank, she didn’t either.

“Our great life prepared me [for Mormonism], because I didn’t have to change much of anything,” Johnson said.

When Johnson was growing up, she said that her father dropped everything when she or her three siblings walked into his office. In fact, as a young child, she actually thought he was unemployed because he was always there for them.

That dedication also ended up saving some of the Schulz children’s friends. Johnson recalled:

“Some of my friends didn’t tell me until they were in their 40s the things that were happening in their homes,” Johnson said. “And … I can’t really word this properly, but they said, and this had everything to do with Dad, that coming to our house every weekend is what saved them emotionally. … Seeing a normal, nice dad who was a good person helped them survive what they were going through themselves. … Our home was a shelter from the storm for them.”

Johnson refers to her adolescence as “wonderful, happy and clean-cut.” She often tells people, “If you think Utah Valley Mormons are sheltered, you should’ve been a Schulz!” Johnson believes the Schulz residence was a place where God’s influence could be felt because “the Spirit is in homes of goodness.”

By that time, Schulz had made a lot of money from Peanuts and was able to transform his 28-acre estate in Sebastopol, California, into a self-contained family compound complete with a swimming pool, baseball fields, a golf course and a park.

The Atlantic article points out that, when A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965, fewer than nine per cent of Christmas specials on American television contained religious references. The programme shows how materialism does not satisfy the Peanuts characters. Linus ends up going to the Bible and reads aloud the King James Version of Jesus’s birth from the Gospel of St Luke.

Two years before that, the debate over prayer in state schools was at its peak. Schulz penned a strip with Sally reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and ending it with ‘Amen!’

Schulz once said:

I preach in these cartoons, and I reserve the same rights to say what I want to say as the minister in the pulpit.

Out of nearly 17,800 strips, 560 contain a spiritual, biblical or theological reference. Clergy noticed and asked Schulz for permission to reproduce his comic strips for use at church. He willingly granted permission in nearly all cases.

His Bible had many handwritten notes in the margins. He also enjoyed reading theological commentaries on the Bible. During his time as a Sunday School teacher, he once led a group in a study of the entire Old Testament.

The Atlantic shared some of Schulz’s wry Biblical references in Peanuts:

In June of 1952, the somewhat sad and self-deprecating Charlie Brown borrowed Solomon’s words from Ecclesiastes 1:14: “All is vanity!” In December of 1955, a shivering Snoopy found solace in Jesus’s words from John 16:33: “Be of good cheer, Snoopy … Yes, be of good cheer.”

Sometimes the Bible references were clearly cited. When he catches Snoopy taking food out of the refrigerator, Charlie Brown pulls out a Bible and quotes from the Ten Commandments: “Look, it says here in Exodus, ‘Thou shall not steal.’” Snoopy borrows his book, flips the page and hands it back. “Deuteronomy 25:4 …” Charlie Brown reads, “Thou shall not muzzle the ox while he treads out the grain.”

But often, they were more cryptic. When Linus asks Snoopy, “Does it bother you that the Bible doesn’t speak very highly of dogs?” the beagle replies with a reference to one of Jesus’s teachings, “Sure it bothers me, but I just turn the other muzzle.” In a famous strip from 1959, Linus built a sandcastle that the rain washed away. Linus concludes, “There’s a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t know what it is …” But many readers would have recognized the allusion to Jesus’s parable about a man who built his house on sand in Matthew 7, and Schulz later said that this was exactly what he intended.

In 1965, a Presbyterian minister, Robert L Short, wrote The Gospel According to Peanuts, which featured Schulz’s famous illustrations. Over 10 million copies were sold. Westminster John Knox Press published a 35th anniversary edition in 2000.

In 1968, Short wrote The Parables of Peanuts, which HarperCollins reissued in 2002.

Schulz was careful not to be didactic or domineering with his beliefs. He is remembered as a loving, generous, kind man.

Interestingly, he appeared regularly in Forbes‘s 400 wealthiest Americans lists. His success came from his gentle personality which shone through in his comic strips and characters. He wrote about what he knew and enjoyed.

His characters are based on real-life people — and a dog — in his milieu. He and Charlie Brown shared similar traits. Schulz was shy and retiring growing up. He was the youngest in his high school class. His family owned a dog that resembled Snoopy. Lucy was based on his first wife, Joyce Halverson, and Peppermint Patty on one of his mother’s cousins.

In later life, his Christianity took on a vaguer tone and, by the 1980s, he stopped going to church. However, his daughter Amy Schulz Johnson said that when she was on missionary work with the Mormons in England, Schulz wrote her weekly. She treasures those missives:

“It’s funny because if I read you parts of them, you would think that my dad was a stake president in our church or something,” Johnson said. “He would have the most beautiful things to say about Christ and the scriptures.”

In closing, it is interesting that Charles Schulz made ‘Good grief!’ common parlance and introduced ‘security blanket’ into the English language. In fact, in Britain, it’s called a ‘Linus blanket’!

Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 17:22-23

Jesus Again Foretells Death, Resurrection

22 As they were gathering[a] in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.

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Matthew 17 records glorious, dramatic, emotional events: the Transfiguration, Jesus’s explanation that what happened to John the Baptist will happen to Him, the angry commotion before He healed the boy with the demon and now, a third mention of His upcoming suffering and resurrection.

In particular, imagine Peter, James’s and John’s emotions and thought processes during this time. They saw divine majesty, received confirmation of Jesus’s imminent death, then saw Him perform a creative miracle and, once more, heard Him speak of death. It must have been a day of extreme highs and lows. They had much to witness and understand.

Matthew records that Jesus spoke of His death three times in a short space of time. The first mention is Matthew 16:21-23, which is the most familiar passage for most of us (emphases mine):

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord![e] This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance[f] to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.

The second time was after the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:10-13):

10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

Today’s verses contain the third mention. Jesus wants the disciples to anticipate what is coming, even if they are unable to fully grasp how horrible and how glorious those three days will be.

Jesus spoke of His fate in a passive way. He would be delivered — handed over — to men (verse 22) who will kill Him. Then, three days later, He would be raised from the dead (verse 23) — by God the Father.

If they had understood what He was saying, they would have been alarmed yet comforted. Instead, they were ‘greatly distressed’ (verse 23). Three crucial words went into one ear and out the other: ‘the third day’.

How often does this happen to us? Someone says, ‘Listen to me, because this is important’. We receive their instruction or advice, but a portion of it goes unheeded, perhaps because we are anxious or preoccupied. Later, that person comes back to say that we did not do what they said. They repeat what they said before, we then grasp the whole message and respond, ‘Thanks. I missed that the first time.’

So, the words ‘the third day’ have not registered with the disciples. Matthew Henry explains that, had they heard and understood the message fully:

This was an encouragement, not only to him, but to his disciples for if he rise the third day, his absence from them will not be long, and his return to them will be glorious.

They did not feel as if they could ask Jesus for an explanation this time lest they run the risk of a rebuke similar to Peter’s. They remained sorrowful.

John MacArthur explains:

When Jesus said He was going to die, that’s all they heard. It may well have been very much like Martha when Jesus in John 11 came to Bethany and they said Lazarus is dead, he’s been dead for four days, by now his body stinketh, and all of this. And Jesus said he’ll rise. And Martha said, “I know he’ll rise in the last day at the resurrection, what I’m concerned about is now.” And it may well have been that that’s where the disciples were. They were somewhere in Daniel 12 thinking about the fact that when Jesus said He would rise again, that sure, everybody’s going to rise someday when there’s that great resurrection. And so they missed the third day, or they didn’t understand what the third day meant or what kind of a day. So all they heard was that He was going to die. And you can imagine that three out of the twelve who had come down off the mount of transfiguration seen the resplendent glory of Jesus Christ, now they come down, they see Him use His power to heal this demoniac and they’re on cloud nine and all of a sudden now He says to them I’m going to die. And that’s all they need to hear and they’re back in the despondence of their despair. And so they’re in great despair.

The Book of Daniel attracts a fringe group of Christians unduly interested in the end times. The same are also putting more emphasis on Revelation than on the gospels and letters instructing us on leading a Christian life. The two books are similar in drama and imagery.

Note Daniel 12:8-9:

I heard, but I did not understand. Then I said, “O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end.

That indicates we should not obsess over the end times. Read, study and understand — then move on: ‘Go your way, Daniel’.

In closing, these are the verses in Daniel 12 to which MacArthur referred regarding the disciples’ and Martha’s understanding of the resurrection:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above;[a] and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

It is only after Jesus’s death and resurrection take place that the disciples are able to look back and understand what Jesus was telling them. MacArthur explains:

And that’s important, you see, because if He got killed and they didn’t know it was coming, and they didn’t know it was in the plan, they might look back and say, “Boy, that must have been a strange thing for God to have to deal with…never intended that.” So the Lord just tells them it’s going to happen, tells them it’s going to happen, tells them it’s going to happen. They don’t understand. When it happens, they understand, they look back and say, “Oh, that was the plan.”

Next time: Matthew 17:24-27

Bible boy_reading_bibleThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 17:14-20

Jesus Heals a Boy with a Demon

14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon,[a] and it[b] came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly.[c] 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”[d]

———————————————————————————————

Each of the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — record this great healing miracle.

I wrote about Luke’s version (Luke 9:37-43) in 2014. That post addresses the variations in the three accounts. Mark’s, the most detailed, is included in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

It is worth recalling that Matthew 10:5-15 records that Jesus had already invested in the twelve apostles the gift of healing, the ability to perform creative miracles with the same power as His own.

The events in this passage took place shortly after Jesus, Peter, James and John descended from the mountain following the Transfiguration.

Here was a desperate man who knelt before Jesus, addressing Him as Lord, asking for His mercy towards his epileptic son (verses 14, 15). Not only was the boy epileptic but he also had a demon which prevented him from controlling his seizures and instead sent him into fire or water, causing him to risk injury or death.

The father was understandably aggrieved, all the more so because this was happening to his son, his heir. Luke’s version further clarifies the boy’s status as ‘only child’, making his state of mind and body even more desperate. Mark’s version adds that the boy is mute, so he had no way of communicating verbally.

The father’s despair is heightened because the disciples could not heal the lad (verse 16). Nine apostles would have been at the scene until Jesus and the other three arrived. Note that a large crowd was watching. Mark’s version says they were arguing. John MacArthur explains:

The other gospel writers tell us more about this crowd. Mark tells us it included scribes, Jewish legal experts, just the normal run-of-the-mill gang of people that populated the northern Galilee area. And also the nine other disciples who weren’t there at the Mount of Transfiguration. So you have the disciples, the scribes and the multitude of people. And they’re there to wait and to meet Jesus and the three who come down from the mountain.

The highly charged atmosphere brought a rebuke from Jesus (verse 17). Our two commentators differ on to whom he addressed his remark about a ‘faithless and twisted generation’. MacArthur says it was to the disciples in whom He had invested powerful healing gifts that they could not execute:

The whole generation was faithless and perverse, but He generalizes off of the specific and who were the specific ones who weren’t exercising faith? The disciples. It was the particular inability of the disciples from which He generalizes to the whole inability of the generation in which they lived, because the scribes standing there, they didn’t believe either. And the other nine disciples, they couldn’t pull it off. And the father himself was weak in faith.

Matthew Henry, on the other hand, surmises that Jesus was not addressing the disciples here but the crowd (emphases mine):

This is not spoken to the disciples, but to the people, and perhaps especially to the scribes, who are mentioned in Mark 9:14, and who, as it should seem, insulted over the disciples, because they had now met with a case that was too hard for them. Christ himself could not do many mighty works among a people in whom unbelief reigned. It was here owing to the faithlessness of this generation, that they could not obtain those blessings from God, which otherwise they might have had as it was owing to the weakness of the disciples’ faith, that they could not do those works for God, which otherwise they might have done. They were faithless and perverse. Note, Those that are faithless will be perverse and perverseness is sin in its worst colours. Faith is compliance with God, unbelief is opposition and contradiction to God. Israel of old was perverse, because faithless (Psalm 95:9), forward, for in them is no faith, Deuteronomy 32:20.

Then He asked, ‘How long am I to be with you?’ Henry explains:

Two things he upbraids them with. (1.) His presence with them so long “How long shall I be with you? Will you always need my bodily presence, and never come to such maturity as to be fit to be left, the people to the conduct of the disciples, and the disciples to the conduct of the Spirit and of their commission? Must the child be always carried, and will it never learn to go alone?” (2.) His patience with them so long How long shall I suffer you? Note, [1.] The faithlessness and perverseness of those who enjoy the means of grace are a great grief to the Lord Jesus. Thus did he suffer the manners of Israel of old, Acts 13:18. [2.] The longer Christ has borne with a perverse and faithless people, the more he is displeased with their perverseness and unbelief and he is God, and not man, else he would not suffer so long, nor bear so much, as he doth.

MacArthur adds that Jesus was looking forward to returning to God the Father:

You can see Him starting to get anxious to go back to the Father, can’t you? He sort of senses the end, how long do I have to endure this? You see, His contemporaries were disastrous failures and even His own disciples were continually having to learn the same lessons over and over and over and over. I mean, just look at the crowd. The crowd is thrill-seeking, they don’t really believe fully. The scribes, they’re gloating. Oh, you can know it, they’re gloating over the inability of the nine disciples to heal this young boy. I mean, they’re really happy they can’t do it. And the father is struggling with faith. And the disciples had failed to exercise the faith they needed to heal the young boy, even though they had the promise and the power. And so, to some degree, the whole bunch of them were faithless and twisted and diverted from trust in God. And Jesus says, thirty-three years is about all of this I can take.

Despite all of this, Jesus displayed His infinite mercy and instructed that the boy be brought to Him. His enduring compassion once again outweighed His frustration with sinful man. He rebuked the demon which immediately left the boy. Jesus instantly healed him (verse 18). He fully healed him at that moment.

The disciples approached Jesus privately to ask why they could not do the same thing (verse 19). He replied that it was because of their little faith (verse 20).

Then He employed two literary devices well known to the ancient Jews about faith: ‘like a grain of mustard seed’ and moving mountains. MacArthur explains both:

Most people misinterpret that mustard seed. The principle of the mustard seed is not that it’s little, no. The principle of the mustard seed is that it is little and it does what? It grows. You remember that principle? It’s in Matthew 13, sure you remember it. Verse 31, another parable He put forth unto them saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field which indeed is the least of all seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest among herbs and becomes a tree so the birds of air come and lodge in the branches of it.” And what you’ve got in the mustard seed is something that starts very, very small and grows very large

Please, it is not saying that if you have little tiny faith the size of a grain of mustard seed that you could say mountain be removed. It’s not talking about literal mountains. It’s talking about mountains of difficulty. It’s figurative. In fact, when the Jews…by the way, this was a rather common Jewish phrasewhen the Jews talked about removing mountains, they used it in reference to the ability to get past difficulties, or to remove difficulties. One writer says, “A great teacher who could really expound and interpret Scripture and who could explain and resolve difficulties was known as an uprooter or a pulverizer of mountains. To tear up, to uproot, to pulverize mountains were all regular phrases for removing difficulties. Jesus never meant this to be taken physically and literally. After all, the ordinary man seldom finds any necessity to remove a mountain. What He meant was, if you have faith enough, all difficulties can be solved and even the hardest task can be accomplished.”

So, what do we do? MacArthur tells us:

I believe there are many things that God desires for you to experience in your life that God desires to accomplish in your life that are available to you through the exercise of His divine power. But that power will never be tapped until you have the faith that starts small. And when it meets with resistance and when you don’t see it happen, the faith doesn’t die small, it gets larger and larger and larger. And you continue persistently in prayer …

He wants you to persist in prayer because that’s the extension of your faith. You see, if you just said, “God, I want this…” (snap) you’ve got it…you’d never learn the strength in your faith. You’d never be ready for the trial, would you? And so the Lord asks us to persist and persist

And listen to me very carefully then, the antidote to little faith is what? Prayer…persistent prayer. Listen, James says it, the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man…what?…availeth much. Effectual dedicated fervent passionate continuous persistent prayer gets results. You may never know the full promise of God. You may never know the full blessedness of God. You may never know the full rewards that…of all that God wants to bestow upon you until you learn persistent prayer.

Some undergoing constant or continuing personal trials might scoff. However, if they pray the way MacArthur advises while they are waiting for resolution or relief, God will grant the wherewithal and comfort to withstand despair.

I know a few people in the offline world who have undergone a lot during their lives. One woman in particular has experienced the deaths of three close family members: her only sibling — a brother — in her childhood, later her husband and, two years later, a beloved son. However, through it all, her faith has grown and grown to the size of a mustard tree.

Bottom line: let’s stop moaning. Let’s start praying.

In closing, some manuscripts have a verse 21, wherein Jesus says that this particular demon could only be got rid of through fasting and praying. MacArthur says:

The terms “and fasting” are not there in the original text. Someone added them. Matthew 2:19 says this is not a time for fasting when the bridegroom is present. And verse 21 isn’t even in the best manuscripts of Matthew, it’s borrowed from Mark’s account but it is at the end of Mark’s account. The story does end with this statement. So somebody, some scribe thought it capped off Matthew’s account so he pulled it over and put it here. And that’s fine in a sense because it is the ending of the story in Mark 9:29 and what the Lord says in the end is this kind goes not out except by prayer.

Henry’s commentary says that fasting sharpens prayer:

Fasting and prayer are proper means for the bringing down of Satan’s power against us, and the fetching in of divine power to our assistance. Fasting is of use to put an edge upon prayer it is an evidence and instance of humiliation which is necessary in prayer, and is a means of mortifying some corrupt habits, and of disposing the body to serve the soul in prayer. When the devil’s interest in the soul is confirmed by the temper and constitution of the body, fasting must be joined with prayer, to keep under the body.

Next time: Matthew 17:22-23

This week’s posts have centred on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Monday’s looked at the elder brother. Tuesday’s addressed misapplications of the parable to public policy and the church environment. Wednesday’s entry addressed the way Jesus’s audience would have understood the story. Thursday’s discussed the parable in light of the examples of conflict, forgiveness and blessing in the Book of Genesis among brothers.

Today’s post posits that this parable’s overall theme is Jesus’s ministry to reconcile the lost tribes of Israel to God, uniting them with Judah.

This is not to say that Christians should disregard the message of forgiveness in the parable. The examples from Genesis on brotherly forgiveness and paternal — God’s — blessings — as well as those throughout Scripture — indicate that we are to copy their example in our own lives.

However, Jesus coming as the Shepherd to find lost sheep of Israel is foretold in Hosea and Ezekiel.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel

Yesterday’s post outlined the story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis. The high point in his life occurred when God wrestled with him one night and had to stop the struggle at dawn the following day by dislocating his hip joint. Afterwards, God gave Jacob a new name: Israel. This was because he prevailed over both God and man.

Israel’s twelve sons each presided over large families, or tribes. Hence, the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The Book of Exodus begins with all the tribes living in Egypt. Joseph, who managed grain stores and advised Pharaoh, had been there for years. Pharaoh invited Joseph to reunite his brothers, their families and patriarch Israel and gave them the finest land, which was in Goshen.

Genesis 50 records the death of Joseph. He had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Even though he died, there were still twelve tribes, to be explained below.

These are the first seven verses of Exodus wherein all of Israel’s — Jacob’s — sons are named:

Israel Increases Greatly in Egypt

1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. 7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

Exodus 1 explains that a new Pharaoh came to power, one who had not known Joseph. He feared that the Israelites would have so many more children that they would outnumber the Egyptians and possibly go to war with them. Therefore, to prevent this from happening, Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites.

Jewish Virtual Library’s useful entry on the Twelve Tribes of Israel also has a map of each of the tribes’ territories once they reached the Promised Land. A summary and excerpts follow. Emphases mine below.

First, despite Joseph’s death and subsequent merging or absorption of other tribes, the number twelve remained constant:

The number twelve is neither fictitious nor the result of an actual genealogical development in patriarchal history. It is an institutionalized and conventionalized figure which is found among other tribes as well, such as the sons of Ishmael, of Nahor, of Joktan, and Esau. Similar organizational patterns built about groups of twelve, or even six, tribes, are known from Asia Minor, Greece and Italy.

Also:

there can be little doubt that this pattern of twelve attributed to the Hebrew tribes is very real and historically rooted. Thus, if one tribe were to withdraw from the union or to be absorbed into another, the number twelve would be preserved, either by splitting one of the remaining tribes into two or by accepting a new tribe into the union. For example, when the tribe of Levi is considered among the twelve tribes, the Joseph tribes are counted as one. However, when Levi is not mentioned, the Joseph tribes are counted separately as Manasseh and Ephraim. For the same duodecimal considerations, Simeon is counted as a tribe even after having been absorbed into Judah, and Manasseh even after having split in two, is considered one.

Secondly, once in the Promised Land, each tribe had its own territory and was self-governing, although they shared several common holy places, such as the Ark of the Covenant and Penuel (where God wrestled with Jacob and renamed him Israel).

The Old Testament recounts the stories of the twelve tribes which, many generations after Israel’s sons died, were often in conflict or refused to support each other. Jacob foretold what would happen to his sons in Genesis 49. Some tribes fared better than others. Ultimately:

It was only toward the end of the period of the Judges when the Philistine pressure on the Israelite tribes increased in the west and that of the Transjordanian peoples in the east, that the religionational tribal confederation assumed political and military dimensions. The Israelite tribes then consolidated as a crystallized national-territorial entity within the framework of a monarchical regime. David, Solomon, and afterward the kings of Israel and Judah tended to weaken tribal consciousness in favor of the territorial and monarchical organization. It is apparent, however, from Ezekiel’s eschatological [end times] vision that the awareness of Israel as a people composed of twelve tribes had not, even then, become effaced.

This brings us to the prophecies of Ezekiel, Hosea and onward to the main objective of Jesus’s ministry.

The Bible and the lost tribes of Israel

The other day I excerpted a sermon (or essay) by Pastor David B Curtis from the Berean Bible Church in Chesapeake, Virginia. It is called ‘The Father’s Two Sons’ and puts forward the case that the larger meaning is Jesus’s attempt to find the lost sheep of Israel and bring them back into the fold.

In this context, Pastor Curtis says the Prodigal Son represents the lost tribes, those who were cut off from the rest through sin and disobedience.

The tribes aligned as follows:

There were the 12 tribes, and they previously split into two separate nations. The two tribes of Judah and Benjamin were considered the Southern Kingdom, and together they were referred to as Judah.

The other ten tribes made up the Northern Kingdom, and they were designated by the name Israel.

This was Israel’s status:

These ten northern tribes were:

1. In a covenant relationship with the Father – just as the younger son was

2. Cut off from the Father – just as the younger son was

3. Considered dead to the Father – just as the younger son was

4. Intermingled with the pagan nations – just as the younger son was

5. Being restored to the Father through the Messiah – just as the younger son was

6. Causing the existing tribes to recoil and rebel against the Messiah

Hosea 1 recounts the Lord’s instructions that Hosea should take ‘a wife of whoredom’ and have ‘children of whoredom’ because they disobeyed Him. The three children were a son named Jezreel (‘sowing of seeds’), a daughter called No Mercy (God’s absence of mercy towards Israel) and another son named Not My People (God had left them to their own devices).

However, the end of the chapter foretells that Israel would one day return to the Lord. Furthermore (Hosea 1:11):

And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel.

That head is the Messiah — Jesus Christ.

Curtis then takes us to Ezekiel 37, the ‘dry bones’ chapter:

The prophet is taken to a valley, shown old dry bones, and they are given flesh and brought back to life with the Spirit of God. This is understood as resurrection imagery looking to the day when the people are restored to life in the land of promise.

The next instruction from the Lord to Ezekiel involved two sticks, representing Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 37:18-19, 22-24):

18 And when your people say to you, ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’ 19 say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah,[e] and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand.

22 And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. 23 They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings[f] in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

24 My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes.

David also refers to Jesus, David’s descendant.

As we read the New Testament we also see a narrative of Jesus as the Shepherd who came to find His lost sheep.

In the gospels, John 10:16 mentions ‘one flock, one shepherd’. In Matthew 10:5-6, Jesus instructed the disciples to go only to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’. In Matthew 15:24, Jesus said He was sent ‘only’ to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’. His primary purpose was to unite the tribes and reconcile them to God. After their rejection, He turned to the Gentiles.

The letters of 1 Peter are addressed to former Jews in the diaspora of Asia Minor. 1 Peter 1 and 2 have several references to straying sheep, a Shepherd as well as the reminder that they were not always one people but are once again ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood’ because they believed that Christ Jesus is their promised Messiah.

Another word often used in the New Testament, particularly the gospels, is ‘children’, meaning the lost tribes. Luke 1:1 speaks of John the Baptist turning ‘many of the children of Israel’ to ‘the Lord their God’. Matthew 15:26 and Mark 7:27 record Jesus’s words of ‘children’s bread’ (His ministry to Israel).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Jewish leaders

Once we take all of these biblical references into account, we come to a clearer understanding of the primary lesson of the Parable of the Prodigal Son: restoring Israel to sonship with God the Father and brotherly relationship with Judah.

Recall that in the first two verses of Luke 15, the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about Jesus’s associating and eating with sinners.

As I wrote the other day, His response to them is contained in three parables: the Lost Sheep (Israel), the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son (Israel).

When we view the Prodigal Son as the lost tribes of Israel, it is easy to see that the father in the story is God the Father, who wants to welcome them back into His family.

Curtis tells us:

The two sons represent the two houses, Israel and Judah. Israel, the youngest son, starts in covenant, but is broken off, dispersed among the pagan nations, and then later, as a lost sheep, some are brought back in love and mercy from the Father.

Curtis explains the parable’s open ending in this context:

For some reason, the current religious regime was not seeing that as the plan and were not accepting it, and that is why the story has an open ending – because they were being told what was happening, and were to decide their response.

As we know, the Jewish leaders — the elder brother — were unswayed by Jesus’s appeal. They were angry with Him from the beginning.

In light of the Old Testament prophecies, Curtis’s interpretation of the Prodigal Son makes more sense than the ones we usually hear or read. His advice to us when reading the New Testament is:

knowing his main task is to the lost house of Israel, and we understand that in Hosea they will be restored and called “Children of the Living God”[,] we should start picking up on that language coming about in his work …

And of course, to make sure you do not misunderstand this as to say only those of the houses of Israel and Judah would be called children of God, we know from the opening remarks in John, that after [Jesus] came to his own, and was rejected in the end, that this grace was granted to others.

I hope this interpretation enriches your understanding of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It has added a profound and new dimension to my appreciation of it.

This and other posts on the parable can be found on my Christianity / Apologetics page under Parable of the Prodigal Son.

End of series

This week’s posts have centred on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Monday’s looked at the elder brother. Tuesday’s addressed misapplications of the parable to public policy and the church environment.

Today’s takes us back to Jesus’s time and to how inheritance issues and father-son relationships were handled. Much of what follows is not mentioned in most sermons on the subject, which focus on the need for forgiveness and lack of selfishness.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is found only in the Gospel according to St Luke (Luke 15:11-32):

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to[a] one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[b] 22 But the father said to his servants,[c] ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

In Jesus’s era …

One of the best expositions from a Jewish perspective comes from Berean Bible Church in Chesapeake, Virginia. The essay (or sermon) was published in 2013. Excerpts and summaries follow, emphases mine. Whilst it seems that this church is Hebraic, given their use of Yeshua and Yahweh, the traditions explained add new insight to this powerful parable.

Imagine that we listened to this when Jesus told it. In response to the complaint from Pharisees and scribes that He associated with sinners (Luke 15:1-2), He related three parables about finding what had been lost and rejoicing over it, i.e. He came to save the lost. To this end, He gave us the Parable of the Lost Sheep, then the Parable of the Lost Coin before concluding with the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The Prodigal — Wasteful — Son had the audacity to ask his father for his share of the property (verse 12). This was highly uncommon in those days. In fact, the younger brother might as well have said, ‘Father, I wish you were dead’, because an inheritance of this nature was distributed only upon death.

For whatever reason, the father agreed with his younger son. How much did he give him?

… according to the laws in Deuteronomy, the first born would receive a double portion, and so therefore, in this case, the younger son’s portion would only have been a third.

In verse 13, we read that ‘the son gathered all he had’. The verb had a deeper meaning then than it does today. It meant more than ‘picking up’ or ‘putting together’:

according to some scholars, the original language that is translated as “gathered all” literally means he “turned everything into cash.”

This makes more sense in the story, as it would be difficult for the son to have packed up all of the physical possessions and property that would have been bestowed to him.  Plus, the verse goes on to say that he spent everything, implying that what he had was in the form of money.

Imagine the father and elder son’s grief as they saw heirlooms and, even more importantly, portions of their land sold so thoughtlessly:

he most likely would have sold things at a low price in order to liquidate them as quickly as he wanted in order to leave.

This would take a big toll on the family overall too, because now, a big chunk of what was family property, and was most likely tied to the family income, was gone.

Not only would the family have suffered financially due to this, but the father’s reputation would surely have been in question. Living in community like they did at the time, the news of something like this would have quickly spread. Everyone would have heard what was going on, especially as the father or son was going around liquidating things.

So for the father, he was not only losing out financially, but the destructive relationship would have brought about public humiliation in town and to the father’s name in general.

The son frittered away every last coin on reckless living when a famine hit (verse 14). Because he was penniless, he had no means of feeding himself. He was so desperate that he did what no self-respecting Jew would do: hired himself to a Gentile pig farmer (verse 15). There, he fed the pigs but received no food himself (verse 16):

Chances are the speech and dress of the son would have given him away as being a Hebrew, and in an effort to rid himself of this man, the person assigns him a job he suspects will cause the man to leave. It can be hard for us to fully grasp how this is would be for someone from a culture that loathes pigs …

Some say that the pods spoken of here were not something that could even be digested by humans, and thus he was unable to even eat them, but truly and strongly desired to be able to.

He couldn’t eat what the pigs were eating, and asking others was not working, as no one gave him anything. He was finally at the end of his rope, unable to provide anything for himself.

Why had he not returned home earlier? Why had he stooped to such depths?

… something we may miss here is that according to Jewish custom, he was almost unable to go home. There was the ceremony known as the Kezazah – which means literally – “the cutting off.”

If a Jewish boy lost his family inheritance among the Gentiles and sought to return home, the community would perform the ceremony by breaking a large pot in front of him and declare – “so-in-so is cut off from his people.” Once performed, he would be an outcast and no one would have anything to do with him. So going home would not be putting himself in a very favorable situation anyway.

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls gives this example of a fatherly warning that relates here:

And now, my sons, be watchful of your inheritance that has been bequeathed to you, which your fathers gave you. Do not give your inheritance to the Gentiles…lest you be humiliated in their eyes and foolish, and they trample upon you…and become your masters.

This is what the son has done; he has squandered his inheritance among the Gentiles. So, he was now literally a man without a home, and had no way to return to his family or any of the rights he previously held as a member of his community. When it says in the verse that he took a journey, the Greek word used only here by Luke literally means that he “traveled away from his own people.”

So, he has left his people, cut all ties and rights to them, took everything he owned and lived recklessly and lost everything. He had nothing left, nowhere to go and of course could not simply call his parents to come and pick him up.  

He knows going home would mean dealing with the ridicule of the rest of the village, as well as that of his brother who now has the rights of the rest of the father’s possessions.

In his brokenness, the younger son decided he had no option but to return home and face the consequences from his family and the village. In his desperation, humility struck. He was satisfied to be a servant as he had relinquished his status as son (verse 19).

The father saw him coming from a long distance (verse 20). Is that not what a parent does when a missing child returns? He or she instinctively knows his own children from afar.

The father could hardly wait to embrace his son and ran to meet him. I have an image of a long, dusty road leading to the family estate, with the father near the house and his son at the end of the road in the distance. Without reading too much into what Jesus left unstated, I do wonder whether the father might have been doing paperwork and had a strange premonition which caused him to leave the house and look down the road.

The father’s running would have been deeply undignified. A Jewish man did not show his legs in public. He would have had to gather up his robe and expose them in order to run, lest he stumble. Even worse, he was running towards a son who brought him grave dishonour:

The Jews considered this highly undignified in their culture. The patriarch never ran or never made the first move in such a situation.

Not only did the man hug and kiss his son, welcoming him back into the fold but, equally crucially, he probably did not want the son going into the village where angry people might have performed the aforementioned Kezazah ceremony on him.

Interestingly, the Berean Bible Church exposition doubts whether the son is actually repentant, which goes against most interpretations of this parable. The son only wanted to eat to survive:

One thing we should notice here is that the son was not repentant. Many over the years have understood that when it says “he came to himself” that it implies a repentant attitude, but others point out that there is nothing in the language to really reveal that at all. He does not mention being sorry for anything he had done, he simply realizes that he was truly starving and decided enough is enough. He reasons that even his father’s servants have food, and that is what he desires to have so he won’t perish.

He will acknowledge his sin against the father, but only because it is a means to an end – he desires to eat, even if it is as a servant.

What the Prodigal Son said is close to what Pharoah said to Moses (Bible verse emphasis in the original):

The words he chooses to say to his father may have some significance too …

When the son says “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,” The words used here are a paraphrased version of the words of Pharaoh to Moses after the plagues. Pharaoh says:

I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. (Exodus 10:16 ESV)

Some commentators say that the Aramaic version of this verse is worded even more closely to the way it is stated in our text in Luke. If that is indeed a legitimate link, we all know Pharaoh was not repentant. He simply wanted to manipulate Moses and get away from the bad situation, and that seems a similar attitude that the son in our story has.

Note that what the son says (verse 21) to his father differs somewhat from what he planned to say originally (verses 18, 19). He might have had second thoughts when he saw his father running towards him. Was it in anger? He didn’t know, but it is a good assumption. The father could have given him a good beating, not unknown in those times. According to the mores of the day, the son would also have thought that he deserved it.

Instead, before the son can say anything, the father restores him to his former status with an embrace and a kiss (verse 20).

As the lost was now found (verse 24), the father set out to treat him like a prince with the best robe a ring and sandals (verses 22, 23). The fatted calf was very much a part of this reconciliation.

An exposition on HubPages explains the significance of the father’s actions (bold emphases in the original, those in purple mine):

Custom #4 The father kisses his son on the neck as a custom of greeting and an expression of forgiveness.

Custom #5 The father gives the younger son the best robe, a ring and sandals. These gifts are public indications that this son was no longer a servant but a son who has been welcomed back into his house.

Collectively, the items represented the father’s best for his son. The ROBE belonged to his father, so this was symbolic of the father honoring the son and treating him like royalty and giving him the clothes off his own back.

The RING represents the father’s authority and a symbol of reinstatement to sonship.

The SHOES or SANDALS illustrate that the son is not considered a slave or a servant any longer. Slaves and servants didn’t wear shoes but would go barefooted. The prodigal son returned home as a slave.

Slaves carried and tied their masters’ sandals. (Remember John the Baptist said he wasn’t worthy to tie Jesus’ shoes). The father was indicating to his son that he was receiving him back not as a servant but as a beloved son.

Custom #6 A fatted calf was killed to celebrate. Meat was not a part of the daily diet. It was normally reserved for special celebrations.

Overall meaning of the parable

The message is that God the Father forgives sinners their sins, no matter how atrocious, for which Jesus suffered and died on the cross.

The elder brother embodies the self-righteousness of the Pharisees, scribes and others in the Jewish hierarchy who did not deign to associate with little people and sinners, whom the younger brother represents. The religious elite were far too holy. Sounds a bit like some high-ranking clergy today cloistered within their walls except for the scheduled church service, television programme or photo op.

Jesus also intended for this parable to signal the end of works righteousness. He, the Messiah, was now among them ushering in the New Covenant. From that point, the Jews could continue to adhere to the Law of the Old Testament (older brother), but it would not bring them salvation. As What Christians Want to Know explains:

The religious leaders saw their rewards due for their works.  They didn’t understand that they can bring nothing to the plan of salvation and if they try to earn it, they do not understand how God saves and that it is Jesus’ righteousness alone that accounts them worthy.  No human works can ever earn salvation. The youngest son had nothing to bring, no good works, and came back with barely the shabby clothes on his back. This may be why the father provided a robe for him and sandals for his feet.

The father’s pursuit of his son parallels Our Father’s pursuit of sinners to bring them back to Him:

it is with great intensity that God the Father seeks those to whom will be His children for now and for eternity.  And God never gives up this pursuit. The Bible emphasizes:

    • there is no one who seeks God (Romans 3:11);
    • that our “Salvation does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16);
    • that Jesus tells them plainly that, “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.” (John 10:29); and
    • as stated by Paul that, “… he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and willto the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:4-6)

A note for those evangelising

These days it is highly likely that those clergy and laypeople engaging in local mission or evangelism work will encounter Muslims. The Berean Bible Church exposition says that many Muslims believe the Parable of the Prodigal Son means that anyone can be forgiven without repentance and belief in Jesus Christ.

It is hard to understand their reasoning. Perhaps they are reading the story too literally: loving human father forgives desperate human son. The End.

In such a case, the mission worker must explain that this parable (among others) is an allegory. It is a story that explains the great divine truth, namely:

the Father in heaven, sending the son, who is God incarnate, who assumes the humiliating position as a human in order to passionately go out and seek and save those who were lost, and bring them into reconciliation and sonship once again.

The Koran is more history and instruction rather than genre. Today, much of Islam involves the book’s literal interpretation. Reading philosophy and literature from the ancient Muslim world has been discouraged in recent decades, and, with it, the ability to think critically and abstractly. In Europe, at any rate, there are very few Muslim philosophers. Many Muslim secondary students here are dissuaded at home or by imams from studying philosophy or literature.

In any event, the conclusion about the Prodigal Son remains the same. What Christians Want to Know puts it like this:

Perhaps He is pursuing you now.  If you are reading this, He has either sought you and bought you or He is seeking you now, you who are lost.  It is time to come to the Father through Jesus Christ today, as John 14:6 says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Will you come today?

Let us pray the answer is yes.

Tomorrow: the Prodigal Son and the lost tribes of Israel

Yesterday’s post discussed the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Today’s entry looks at two ways the Prodigal Son is misinterpreted in public policy and in the Church, based on a 2014 article by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative. Dreher was a Roman Catholic at the time.

In February 2014, journalist David Brooks wrote an article for The New York Times in which he used the Parable of the Prodigal Son as support for maintaining the status quo in public policy on welfare. He purports that the forgiving father serves as an example to us to care for and accept our fellow citizens, regardless of their everyday choices in life.

Dreher agrees that we need to care for our fellow man, but disagrees with Brooks’s no-questions-asked, anything-goes perspective.

Dreher rightly points out that the Prodigal Son was broken and repentant. More importantly, he did not expect to be taken care of (Luke 15:17-21, emphases mine):

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c]

The free stuff brigade is clearly not doing that.

Dreher explains the Prodigal Son’s repentance and humility:

the Prodigal Son repented in humility. In practical terms, that means he recognized the error of his ways and came back with firm intention of changing … the Prodigal must make a decisive act of humility, which is to turn from his life-destroying ways. Notice the Prodigal doesn’t come back expecting his family to forgive and forget, and restore him to his former state. Having tasted the bitterness of his own waywardness, he just wants to do whatever he can to be part of their community again.

There is a profound difference between that attitude and one that asks for — if not demand — financial support for one’s wayward, unproductive lifestyle.

Dreher went on to examine attitudes in the Church towards the wayward. He says that lax churchgoers often make the mistake of wanting to continue living in sinfulness:

I very much like the saying that the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of the saints. What sometimes gets lost in that, however, is the attitude that some people bring to the Church, which is that they should not only be accepted, despite their sins, but should be confirmed in their sins. That is, they see the Church not as a hospital that will help them be healed, but rather as hospice, where they can have the pain of their sin alleviated, the goal of healing having been abandoned as useless. This is how I first approached the Church in my college years. I wanted the comforts of religion without having to take on the burden of changing my life to live according to the Way. I found church people who were willing to confirm me in that, but I got tired of lying to myself about what I was up to.

I’ve been there myself around that same point in my life. And, yes, like Dreher, I returned with a different perspective because, like him, I was living a lie and couldn’t get myself out of it without a profound relationship with Jesus Christ. I had always had faith, prayed regularly and was a fairly consistent churchgoer, but I was still looking for worldly things to satisfy me. Researching for my blog and writing these posts helped a lot, probably more than church, in many respects.

Dreher draws an excellent conclusion about the Prodigal Son that can be applied to all of us as citizens and as churchgoers:

Humility must be present not only in repentant sinners, but also among the righteous, who aren’t as faultless as they think they are. Without humility all around, though, no project of reconciliation and redemption is going to work.

How true.

Tomorrow: Historical background to the Prodigal Son

A good friend of mine who used to be a devout high church Anglican stopped going to church many years ago.

He considers himself an agnostic. One of the main stumbling blocks in a potential return to church for him is the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11:32).

For many years, my friend was the older brother in the parable. He has a younger sibling with issues, not unlike the lost son in the parable. My friend was the chap who did the ‘heavy lifting’ in the family, so to speak, and got nothing but criticism from his surviving parent, now deceased. To make matters worse, that parent often levied the Parable of the Prodigal Son against him. That hurt him deeply, especially as he is highly responsible and ethically minded.

I said I would see if I could find anything positive to say about the older brother in the parable.

Sadly, I spent the better part of an afternoon looking. There is nothing. The older brother is a bad guy.

This was the most empathetic post I could find (emphases mine, except for the second paragraph):

As a hyper-responsible oldest child, I identify with the elder son. Remember him? Most commentaries and sermons pay scant attention to his role in the narrative. Even though the Bible itself does not give the story a title, tradition calls it the parable of the Prodigal Son, not the parable of the Dutiful Son or even the parable of the Two Brothers. Yet the younger son’s antics constitute only the first half of the tale. The rest of the story is about the older son, the one who stays on the farm with his father, tending the cows and threshing wheat while his no-good brother is off whoring god-knows-where. The elder brother has always done what he was supposed to do. He has played by the rules, obeyed his father, and worked himself to the bone.

No wonder he raises hell when the reprobate shows up one day seeking to get back into the father’s good graces. We dutiful older sons know it’s just not fair. What’s the point of always doing what you’re supposed to do if it doesn’t earn you a few advantages? When the prodigal’s father decides to throw a homecoming bash for his lost son, my heart goes out to the elder brother. I am furious with his father. The older son gets no party, no fatted calves, no ruby rings. Instead, dad comes outside with a few words for his sulking 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” (Luke 15: 31-32).

And that’s where the story ends. Jesus doesn’t tell us what happens next. It might be nice to imagine that the father’s words console the elder brother and convince him to join the party, but I don’t think so. The little speech is pretty lame. It reflects a father’s point of view, not that of a dutiful son. Do our parents really expect us to love our siblings as much as they do? It is easy for me to imagine the elder’s anguish stretching into weeks, months, and maybe years, renewed every time he sees his worthless brother strutting around in his new robe and flashing his fancy ring.

However, that, too, ends with a call for the hyper-responsible to be more forgiving of the prodigal — wasteful — sibling. It is the correct conclusion, but still does not assuage the resentment of hyper-responsible people shoved aside for their feckless brothers and sisters.

My friend and I understand the spiritual meaning behind the parable, but that does not make the usual application of it — by insensitive parents — any easier to handle.

A Presbyterian minister also understands:

The father’s love in this parable is indeed “prodigal”–extravagant, lavish, profuse. Most of us Presbyterians and other Reformed types have a hard time with extravagance and prodigality–even if we’re talking about love and forgiveness. We trust moderation, decency and order, being good and following the rules. How could someone who has broken the rules to the degree that this younger son did be showered with such love and extravagant gifts? This parable is as much a challenge to us as it was to those who heard it for the first time …

This parable is such a challenge to us, because most us identify with the older brother. We try to live good, faithful lives

Ultimately, however, the point of the story for the faithful is that our reward lies in heaven and always has done. That is our inheritance. Furthermore:

fairness has very little to do with the gospel. The gospel is about prodigal, extravagant love and forgiveness and welcoming people home. The gospel is about grace, not about getting our just desserts. Even though the elder brother has been with the father all these years, he has never understood what he had. In his own way, he’s been just as cut off from the father as the younger son was. The father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Remember-the father had divided the estate already, all that is left is the elder son’s share. He has had all along what his brother left behind. But the elder brother has never understood what he had. He hasn’t enjoyed life as a son, but refers to himself as slaving away the years of his life, diligently following the rules. He’s been a good person, but he missed out on the relationship, the abundance, and the joy of being part of the family. “We had to celebrate and rejoice,” the father says, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Note the father’s choice of words, “this brother of yours.” The elder brother has distanced himself from his family, he doesn’t greet his father as “father,” he just begins with a harsh, “Listen!” And he refers to his brother as “this son of yours.” Kind of like parents when a child has transgressed, “listen to what your daughter did!” But the father pointedly says back to him, “This brother of yours has been found.” Though different as night and day, they are part of the same family, brothers, with a father who loves them both. That’s important to remember. The father doesn’t just love the younger brother who returns. Whether the older brother accepts it or not, the father loves him just as much. He leaves the party to plead with him to come in and join the celebration, join the family.

I’m going to address a few historical elements of this parable this week.

For now, in closing, it is apposite to put this lesson in context with Luke 15.

The chapter begins as follows:

15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus responds to the Pharisees and scribes with three parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal (sometimes ‘Lost’) Son.

Each of these concerns something lost which is later found, to much rejoicing.

With regard to the Lost Sheep, Jesus said (verse 7):

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Regarding the Lost Coin (verse 10):

Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

And the Prodigal Son (verse 32):

It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

These parables were meant to rebuke the religious leaders. Jesus came to associate with and save the lost — the sinners, the tax collectors — people whom the Jewish hierarchy would never think of approaching because they were less than zero in their self-righteous estimation. How many churchgoers feel the same way?

Unfortunately, none of this will persuade my friend — for now, at any rate. We’ve already had this discussion.

I will continue to pray for him that he comes to focus on the deeper meaning of this parable: God’s infinite mercy, Jesus’s humiliating sacrifice on the cross for us and His exhortations to us to forgive others as we entreat Him to forgive our sins.

Tomorrow: The Prodigal Son and public policy

Bible read me 2My post tomorrow will concern the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

However, rummaging amongst my old bookmarks, I came across one for The Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32):

The Parable of the Two Sons

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

The old bookmark related to this parable comes from a member of the Maronite Church, the main Christian denomination in Lebanon.

This person, who lives in New York, says that his/her pastor holds ‘gospel soirées’ once a month in a congregant’s home.

However, instead of allowing an open-minded, postmodern interpretation of the text as many present-day Bible studies do, the pastor (emphases mine):

asked us what we understood. We all began with the obvious response – the first one. He then ‘unpacked’ the parable beginning with the vineyard. To do so, we were transported through time, back 2000 years ago, so we could be part of the audience to whom the parable was directed. In those days, everyone had a vineyard (still true for many today in the middle east). The vineyard provided the family with wine, vinegar, grape juice, grapes and raisins. To maintain the vineyard took a lot of work. One had to till the soil with crude instruments, remove rocks and boulders, trim the arbors, etc. The sons were the heirs of the property, hence they needed to be working members of the vineyard.

As you can see, Father unpacked the story, shedding light on various aspects of this small passage that were not obvious at all to a contemporary, mechanized, non-agricultural society. By the time we were done discussing this parable, 3 glorious hours had passed!

These “gospel soirées” are common practice in Lebanon. It is one of the teaching methods used by the Maronite Church to draw families into Bible Study and enlighten their minds and open their hearts to the Word of God. Wish you all could have been there!

I also liked the way this person remembered the Sundays of Lent by the gospel readings and their wider meaning:

In the Maronite Catholic Church, Lent is the season when we hear the miracle stories of Jesus. It kicked off with ‘Cana Sunday’ when Jesus began his ministry by changing water into wine. This was followed by Sunday of the Leper, Sunday of the Hemorrhaging Woman and now the Prodigal Son. The season continues next week with Sunday of the Paralytic, then Sunday of Bartimaeus the Blind, followed by Lazarus Saturday. It culminates with Hosanna Sunday when Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. No matter how many times I hear these gospels, I am always moved by the gracious mercy of our Lord to those who trusted in him to heal them.

Explaining Scripture in a truthful, historical and relevant manner never fails. Our churches would be better attended if more clergy adhered to this simple concept.

Bible evangewomanblogspotcomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 17:10-13

10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

——————————————————————————————————–

This discourse involved Peter and brothers James and John — ‘the disciples’ — who were coming down the mountain after the Transfiguration. Luke’s version of this event (Luke 9:28-36) was the gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Lent in 2016.

Matthew 17 begins with this dramatic episode, which manifested what Jesus had said a short time earlier (Matthew 16:28), the preceding entry in Forbidden Bible Verses before Easter 2016:

Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

This is Matthew’s description of the Transfiguration:

17 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son,[a] with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”

Before going into today’s reading, it is worth giving John MacArthur’s explanation of a few aspects of this indescribably glorious event which are not always included in sermons elsewhere. Emphases mine below.

The first is the nature of God:

God is a spirit and as a spirit is invisible.  The Bible says a spirit hath not flesh and bones.  That is God is an invisible spirit, God has no form, God is everywhere.  He cannot be confined to a form in fullness of His being.  When God does reveal Himself in the Old Testament, He chooses to reveal Himself as light, as blazing glowing light.

It is easy for some of us to forget that God is a spirit, especially when we reflect on Genesis 1:27 which says He created man in His own image.

The second is how His divine nature relates to Jesus’s transfiguration (verse 2):

So when Jesus wants, then, to reveal Himself for who He really is, He pulls back the veil of His flesh and reveals Himself as glorious, radiant, dazzling light, the Shekinah of God.  And that’s what we’re seeing in this text.

The third is Peter’s mention of tents, which appears straightforward on its own but also has a greater significance. The Transfiguration took place during the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths, which all Jews were — and are — required to observe. It takes place during the month of Tishri, six months before Passover.

In Jesus’s day, all male Jews were required to go to Jerusalem at this time to commemorate the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness in booths — tents — before God led them to the Promised Land.

However, Jesus, Peter, James and John were not in Jerusalem at this time. So, Peter offered to make tents for Him, Moses and Elijah (verse 4):

… it’s just very likely that Peter was thinking about the Feast of Tabernacles and thinking about the feast of booths and realizing how important it was to have such a thing, he has that in his mind. 

The fourth is the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah:

They’re talking about Jesus’ departure, or Jesus’ decease or Jesus’ death.  And you know what the Greek word is that they use?  Exodos, it’s a Greek word, exodos.  They’re talking about Jesus’ exodus.  Now when you hear the word “exodus” what figure do you think of?  Moses, right?  Moses led the exodus.  But Moses said this, Deuteronomy 18:15, he said, “A prophet like unto me is going to come, He’s going to be like me.”  Well, what do you mean?  Well, what is Moses?  Well, Moses is the one who led the exodus.  They’ll be a prophet like you?  You mean another prophet who will lead another exodus?  See, they were looking for another deliverer.  O, this time He was to be a deliverer in different circumstances.  Moses led them out of Egypt to the promised land.  They were looking for another exodus leader and they thought they wanted to get out of Roman bondage into freedom.  But what God had planned was out of sin into righteousness, out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, out of bondage to death into life, you see.  And so, they were looking for a greater prophet than Moses, another Moses to lead another exodus.  And here was Jesus and He was talking about His exodus.  And surely Peter thought this is it, folks, this is the greater prophet than Moses.  And they’re comparing exoduses in their conversation.

Finally, we have God’s divine affirmation in verse 5. Many Muslims deny that God ever said Jesus is Lord because it is not recorded the way they would like. MacArthur explains this is one of three gospel verses making that proclamation:

Now if you really want to have believable testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ, how about God?  Will that do?  Three times, Matthew 3:17, John 12:28 and 29, and Matthew 17 verse 5, three times in the holy record of the gospels, God speaks out of heaven and says “This is My Son,” or “This is the One.”  Now that is testimony beyond argumentation.  And when God gives His testimony, men should listen.  And this is a very traumatizing thing.  They’re already scared and then in verse 6 it says, “When they heard God’s voice, they fell on their faces.”  I mean, they just went flat prostrate prone on the ground with a mouth full of dirt and was scared out of their wits.  They were very afraid.

Then we come to verse 9, where Jesus makes it clear the three are not to say a word to anyone. It was not yet time. Matthew Henry’s commentary gives us His reasoning:

If they had proclaimed it, the credibility of it would have been shocked by his sufferings, which were now hastening on. But let the publication of it be adjourned till after his resurrection, and then that and his subsequent glory will be a great confirmation of it … Every thing is beautiful in its season. Christ’s resurrection was properly the beginning of the gospel state and kingdom, to which all before was but preparatory and by way of preface and therefore, though this was transacted before, it must not be produced as evidence till then (and then it appears to have been much insisted on by 2 Peter 1:16-18), when the religion it was designed for the confirmation of was brought to its full consistence and maturity. Christ’s time is the best and fittest for the manifesting of himself and must be attended to by us.

Moving on to today’s reading, the three apostles asked Jesus about Elijah’s second coming. Elijah had been taken into heaven by chariot many generations before. The Old Testament has prophesies concerning his return prior to the Messiah’s arrival. Every Jew knew the prophecy that the prophet Malachi received (Malachi 4:4-5), which also mentions Moses:

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules[b] that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”[c]

The apostles here, Henry tells us, wondered if this was the moment and, if so, why it was so brief and so secret.

Jesus responded saying that, indeed, Elijah does come (verse 11) then adds that Elijah has already come, no one recognised him and, therefore, people treated him accordingly (verse 12) in their spiritual and sinful blindness. And, He said, the same would happen to Him. He left it unsaid that it would occur in His humiliating crucifixion, which would have astounded the three apostles at the time. So, Jesus left prophecy and events understated and unmentioned.

The three disciples then understood that the Elijah Jesus referred to in verse 12 was John the Baptist (verse 13), brutally beheaded by that time by order of Herod for his step-daughter’s amusement.

Henry’s commentary states that the Jewish hierarchy were too busy analysing Scripture to make the connection between Elijah and John the Baptist. Consequently they:

understood not by the signs of the times the fulfilling of the scripture. Note, It is easier to explain the word of God than to apply it and make a right use of it. But it is no wonder that the morning star was not observed, when he who is the Sun itself, was in the world, and the world knew him not.

So, the prophet Elijah himself appeared to these three select apostles in Jesus’s presence. The public Elijah for all divine intents and purposes was John the Baptist who came in the holiness and spirit of the great prophet.

In closing, given the socio-political nature of today’s left-wing and conservative strains of Christianity, John MacArthur reminds us of Jesus’s purpose. This relates to His instruction to the three apostles not to tell anyone of the Transfiguration:

Why?  Because if you wait till after the resurrection, they’ll know that I didn’t come to conquer the Romans, I came to conquer death, see.  And they’ll know that that’s a spiritual reality, not an earthly one, not a political one, not a material one, not a military one, not an economic one.  Jesus is not involved in politics.  He is involved in conquering death and sin and hell.  And if you wait till after the resurrection they’ll see that.  So they aren’t to say anything.

Something to keep in mind during these tumultuous times.

Next time: Matthew 17:14-21

Baptismal robes theologianorgThe Sunday after Easter is of historical importance to the Church. Find out more about the newly baptised and the old Latin liturgy which gave rise to its old name of Quasimodo Sunday.Doubting Thomas Carl-Heinrich-Bloch

This is also the Sunday when the gospel reading concerns the apostle Thomas’s encounter with Jesus one week after He rose from the dead:

Doubting Thomas — John 20:19-31

Doubting Thomas: When seeing is believing

Forbidden Bible Verses returns next week.

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