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March 30, 2019 is Laetare Sunday, which is Mothering Sunday here in the UK.

To all the British mums reading this, I wish you a very happy day with family. (Commiserations on the move to British Summer Time.)

Laetare Sunday was the day that Britons and others in Anglophone countries worshipped at their ‘mother’ church. Afterwards, the congregation gathered round the church and held hands to ‘clip’ it, showing their love for and solidarity with it.

Servants were given time to make a Simnel cake ahead of time to give to their mothers that day. Nowadays, Simnel cake is more often served at Easter. Its 12 marzipan balls symbolise Christ and his faithful 11 Apostles.

Celebrants in the Catholic and Anglican traditions often wore a pink vestment on Laetare Sunday, as it is the one joyful day of worship during Lent.

It is so called for the ancient Introit, which includes these words:

“Laetare Jerusalem” (“O be joyful, Jerusalem”)

Catholics have a longstanding tradition dating back to the Middle Ages of the Golden Rose, which the Pope can award at his discretion to worthy dignitaries for an exemplary life. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana awards its Laetare Medal on this day to a deserving recipient. The Golden Rose symbolises our Lord who sprang from the root of Jesse’s tree like a flower (Isaiah 11:1).

Laetare Sunday was known as ‘the Sunday of the Five Loaves’, as the Feeding of the Five Thousand was the original Gospel reading, prior to the incursion of the Lectionary.

You can read more about Laetare Sunday in the posts below:

Laetare Sunday, Mother’s Day and the Golden Rose

Laetare Sunday is Mothering Sunday

Now onto the readings for Year C in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

Emphases mine below.

First reading

This passage from Joshua is about the Lord’s gift of Gilgal to the Israelites. Once they could eat abundantly, He withdrew His merciful supply of manna. The Lord provides for His people.

Joshua 5:9-12

5:9 The LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

5:10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.

5:11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain.

5:12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Psalm

The Lord is good, therefore, we should rejoice and be glad. He forgives the iniquities of those who repent. The righteous receive His many blessings. ‘Selah’, incidentally, means ‘heed these words’, ‘pay close attention’. Verse 8 is David’s message of instruction to his people. He took a long time, because of stubbornness, to repent of his sins (verses 3, 4). This Psalm is a maschil, a teaching Psalm.

Psalm 32

32:1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

32:2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

32:3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.

32:4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

32:5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

32:6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

32:7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah

32:8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

32:9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.

32:10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.

32:11 Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Epistle

Paul’s message to the Corinthians is an uplifting one. We are reconciled to God through His Son Christ Jesus. As such, all things become new for the faithful. Therefore, we must be ambassadors for Christ and live in righteousness.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;

5:19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

5:20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Gospel

This Sunday’s Gospel is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, most troublesome to many of us for various reasons. Although the Lectionary compilers include Luke’s introduction, it would have been welcome had they also included the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, which add to the context.

It says something about modern society that we cannot bear listening to Scripture! Seven extra verses! ‘Quick, I gotta get to the mall’ or ‘Johnny can’t be late for football practice’. Woe are we.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

15:3 So he told them this parable:

15:11b “There was a man who had two sons.

15:12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

15:13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.

15:14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.

15:15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.

15:16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

15:17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!

15:18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;

15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘

15:20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

15:21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

15:22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.

15:23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;

15:24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

15:25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.

15:26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.

15:27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’

15:28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.

15:29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.

15:30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

15:31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.

15:32 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.'”

Here are the missing verses:

4 What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 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.

Or what woman, having ten silver coins,[a] if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

It took me many years to come to grips with this parable, often misused in family situations. I had to do a lot of research on it, because most of the sermons about it are what we’ve been hearing all these years.

Three lessons: one, it was intended for the Jewish hierarchy and, two, Jesus was referring to the lost tribes of Israel.

And, finally — most especially for Christians — it has to do with the last-minute repentant sinner, whom we should celebrate. As the father in the parable said, inspiring Amazing Grace, the brother was dead but came to life, was lost and now found.

I hope these posts help explain it (sources within):

Historical meaning of the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Everyone sees older brother as bad

The Prodigal Son, public policy and churchgoers

The Parable of the Prodigal Son and brothers in Genesis

The Parable of the Prodigal Son relates to the lost tribes of Israel

It’s a difficult parable but relatively simple when placed in context.

May everyone reading this enjoy a blessed Laetare Sunday.

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. Yesterday’s entry addressed the way Jesus’s audience would have understood the story. Today’s discusses the parable in light of the examples of conflict, forgiveness and blessing in the Book of Genesis among brothers.

Brothers in Genesis

Some of the most dramatic Bible stories concern relationships between brothers in the Book of Genesis.

The Revd James Crampsey SJ, superior of the Jesuits in Edinburgh, wrote a considered analysis of three sets of brothers in Genesis in light of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

In anticipation of the reading of this parable on Laetare Sunday in Lent 2013, he wrote ‘The Transformation of Esau and the Parable of the Prodigal Son’:

I would like to suggest that there are stories about brotherly relationships in the book of Genesis that may provide a fruitful context for the interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the well-known stories of Cain and Abel, and of Joseph and his brothers; and the perhaps less familiar one of Jacob and his brother, Esau. In this article I will give a close reading of the latter story, and suggest how the reconciliation between the two brothers points forwards and backwards in the Book of Genesis, and also evokes the parable of the Prodigal Son.

It is a thought-provoking essay and I highly recommend it. Excerpts aid my exposition below, emphases mine.

Cain and Abel

Genesis 4 tells the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was consumed by raging jealousy when God rejected his sacrifice but accepted Abel’s. Cain tilled the soil and offered God some of his crops (verse 3). Abel was a shepherd and offered the firstborn of his flock and the fat portions (verse 4).

God spoke to Cain afterward:

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?[b] And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for[c] you, but you must rule over it.”

As we know, Cain did not rule over sinful desire but succumbed to it by murdering Abel (verse 8). When the Lord asked him where Abel was, Cain lied (verse 9):

“I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

Although God deprived Cain from continuing to grow productive crops (verse 11), He did prevent Cain from being killed in revenge. Cain expected to die at another man’s hand:

15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod,[f] east of Eden.

Nod means ‘wandering’. Once there, his wife gave birth to Enoch (verse 17), who later began his own family (verses 18-24). Meanwhile, Eve gave birth to Seth, God’s gift to fill the absence of Abel (verse 25). Seth’s wife gave birth to Enosh and (verse 26):

At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.

Jacob and Esau

Genesis 25 begins the story of Jacob and Esau, twins born to Isaac’s wife Rebekah in a difficult pregnancy (verses 22, 23). They were Abraham’s grandsons.

Esau was red and hairy (verse 25). Jacob was holding onto his heel when they were born (verse 26). Jacob means ‘take by the heel’, which means ‘to cheat or to trick’. The Lord later changed Jacob’s name to Israel and Esau’s was later changed to Edom. In verse 23 the Lord told Rebekah that her pregnancy was difficult because:

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you[c] shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the older shall serve the younger.”

These people were the Israelites and the Edomites.

Isaac favoured Esau because he hunted game which provided tasty meat and Rebekah preferred Jacob who dwelled in tents (verses 27, 28).

Esau lived by his appetites and sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew because he was dying of hunger one day (verses 29-34). The rest of their story continues through Genesis 33. It involves deception, when, as Isaac was going blind and nearing death, Rebekah put animal skins and Esau’s clothes on Jacob to fool her husband into giving Jacob the blessing owed his elder son (Genesis 27:18-29). By the time Esau entered for his blessing, Isaac said, essentially, that he had nothing left for him except to say that he would serve Jacob until he tired of it and broke away (verse 40).

Esau vowed to kill his brother after Isaac’s death (verse 41), but word got to Rebekah (verse 42). She told Jacob to go to her brother Laban’s house and stay there until Esau calmed down (verses 43-45).

From there, Crampsey tells us:

Jacob is tricked by his father-in-law, Laban, to serve for fourteen years to secure the hand of his true love, Rachel, the younger sister of his first wife, Leah. The unloved Leah gives birth to four sons, but Rachel is barren. The sisters’ servants provide Jacob with another four sons; Leah then has two more sons and a daughter. With strong echoes of Sarah, Rachel remains childless. And despite all these births, is there still a threat to the promise? Surely God’s faithfulness to the promise must be bound up with Jacob and Rachel.

Finally, after a long, heart-rending wait for Rachel, who had to live through the experience of Leah and female servants giving birth to Jacob’s children (Genesis 30:22-24):

22 Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. 23 She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” 24 And she called his name Joseph,[j] saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!”

That is the Joseph of the ‘Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’. His story is below.

Once Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob asked Laban to release him from service. He had fulfilled his commitment to his uncle and wanted to return home (verses 25, 26):

Laban is not enthusiastic, but Jacob (whose name means ‘tricky’) out-foxes his wily father-in-law, having acquired Laban’s daughters, and true to character steals what is due to Laban’s sons. It is time to get out of town (again!).

Genesis 31 describes Laban’s coldness towards Jacob as well as his own daughters Rachel and Leah. It’s understandable. Rachel then stole her father’s household goods (verse 19). Afterwards, they all left. Laban was furious and left with his kinsmen in hot pursuit. On the third day after their departure, God appeared to Laban in a dream and told him to say nothing at all to Jacob (verse 24). When Laban finally caught up with Jacob and his daughters, the two men reconciled (verses 43-54). Before leaving the next day to return home, Laban kissed and blessed Rachel, Leah and their children (verse 55).

The next chapter in Jacob’s story, told in Genesis 32, was to reconcile with Esau:

When we remember the last words of Esau, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob’, God’s promise of presence and protection needs to take concrete shape, and it does:

Jacob went on his way and the angels [malachim] of God met him; and when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God’s camp!’ (32:1-2)

(Remember Psalm 34: ‘the angel of the Lord is encamped around those who revere him to rescue them.’)

This encourages Jacob to send his own messengers (malachim) to Esau to announce his arrival with a hint that he is now rich, and that it might be in Esau’s interests to receive him. The messengers return, and strike fear into Jacob’s heart: Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. With his brain working overtime (what would someone need four hundred men for?), Jacob first splits his caravan into two in the hope that one of the two of them might escape.

In fear and humility, Jacob prayed for God’s continued blessings, especially safety for him and his family (verses 9-12).

After splitting his caravan up, Jacob and his family crossed the stream of Jabbok. From there, he sent them on ahead and camped out alone. That night, a man wrestled with him until dawn (verse 24). Jacob prevailed throughout. Finally, to stop the struggle, the man touched Jacob’s hip socket and put it out of joint (verse 25). The man told him that from henceforth his name would be Israel, as he had prevailed against God and man (verse 27). It was at that point that Jacob — Israel — realised he had been wrestling with God. After God blessed him, Jacob named that piece of land Peniel — ‘the face of God’ (verse 30).

Now we understand how and why the tribes were called the tribes of Israel, Jacob’s descendants.

Genesis 33 recounts the meeting and reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. Instead of the violence Jacob expected, his elder brother rejoiced:

 But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

Yesterday’s post on the actions of the father towards the Prodigal Son mentioned what the embrace and kiss on the neck meant to the Jews; not only was it a loving greeting but, where there had been separation or discord, it also signified forgiveness.

Jacob brought with him servants and livestock whom he planned to give to Esau as a gift of reconciliation. He had sent messengers ahead to give Esau the message, after which Esau set off to journey to meet him with 400 men (Genesis 32:3-6).

Once the brothers were face to face, Esau initially graciously declined the offer, saying he had his full share already (Genesis 33:9). Esau was so godly at that moment that:

10 Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. 11 Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” Thus he urged him, and he took it.

In return, Esau offered Jacob some of his servants, but Jacob declined, equally graciously (verse 15).

The brothers left each other’s company and each group returned to their respective homes, with Jacob journeying on, ultimately to the city of  Shechem in Canaan (verse 18).

Joseph and his brothers

Thanks to the superb musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, most of us are familiar with his story, told in Genesis 37-50.

Crampsey reminds us:

The spectre of fraternal murder hovers over the Joseph section of the book of Genesis. The coat of many colours has been interpreted as Jacob’s public declaration of Joseph as his heir, even though he is the youngest of eleven brothers. The brothers’ seething animosity towards Joseph increases as the dreamer, rather naively, tells them of his dream about the sheaves of corn. Then he has a second dream in which the sun and moon and eleven stars are bowing down to him. Jacob rebukes him for this but keeps it in his mind; the brothers are consumed by envy. Their chance comes when Joseph is sent out to them as they pasture their sheep.

They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another,

‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ (Genesis 37:18-20)

Reuben persuades them to put him in a pit but not kill him, as he intends to rescue him later. But while Reuben is out of the picture, the other brothers sell him to the Midianites. Joseph is taken to Egypt as a slave, while his brothers return with the blood-dipped garment to a distraught Jacob.

I wrote last month about Joseph’s amazing success in Egypt managing grain stores for the Pharaoh (as well as advising him) and how this gave rise centuries later to the pyramid-as-grain-silo theory.

As Joseph was stockpiling grain for the people of Egypt to keep the people fed during the famine, it spread to Canaan. Jacob sent his sons to buy grain from Egypt twice (Genesis 42 and Genesis 43). On the second occasion, Joseph and his brothers were reconciled (Genesis 45). Pharaoh was so delighted that he invited all of them and Jacob (Israel) to move from Canaan to Egypt so they could all be together (verses 16-20). This is how the Israelites came to be in Egypt.

They settled in the land of Goshen (Genesis 46:28). Joseph was finally able to see his father once again:

29 Then Joseph prepared his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen. He presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while. 30 Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.”

Joseph took Jacob to meet Pharaoh. Israel blessed him (Genesis 47:7). Pharaoh told Joseph to settle Israel, his sons and their families in the land of Rameses — Goshen — the best area in Egypt (verse 11). Israel lived there for 17 years (verse 48).

Before he died at the age of 147, Israel asked Joseph to take him back home to be buried with his ancestors (verse 30). He also blessed Joseph’s sons (Genesis 48). Finally, he gathered all his sons to give them his final blessing and foretelling of their futures, some of which were less than favourable (Genesis 49). He left his most fulsome blessing for his favourite son, Joseph.

Genesis 50 records the burial of Israel and the fear Joseph’s brothers had that he might seek revenge. They asked for his forgiveness:

19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people[b] should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

Crampsey explains:

As Esau had promised himself revenge when Isaac died, so the brothers think that Joseph will do. They manufacture a word of Jacob to persuade Joseph to re-write his narrative. But like Esau, Joseph has already freed himself from the need for vengeance. And despite his disclaimer about being in the place of God, Joseph aligns himself with God’s plan ‘to preserve a numerous people’, and says, ‘I myself will provide for you and your little ones’.

God’s promise is fulfilled by Joseph’s refusal to take vengeance on his brothers, by Esau’s magnanimity toward Jacob. The curse of Cain is not inexorably written into the script of the people of Israel.

When Joseph died, his sons embalmed him and placed him in a coffin in Egypt (verse 26).

Isaac and Ishmael

Crampsey does not go into their story, but Genesis 16 tells us that Abram’s wife Sarai was infertile and that, in order to have a son, he slept with her servant Hagar, an Egyptian. When Hagar conceived, she lorded it over Sarai, who threw her out of the house.

An angel of the Lord told Hagar to return to Sarai and Abram, adding that the boy would be called Ishmael and that:

12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
    his hand against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

Genesis 17 relates the circumcision of Abram and Ishmael, then aged 13, and God’s covenant with Abram, whereby his name is changed to Abraham. God also promised Sarai — now Sarah — would bear Abraham’s son Isaac.

Genesis 21 tells us that, once Isaac was born, Hagar laughed at Sarah. Not surprisingly, she told Abraham to throw Hagar out of the house. He was reluctant to do so but God spoke to him and told him to follow his wife’s wishes. There was more:

13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”

When Abraham died (Genesis 25), Isaac and Ishmael buried him together:

Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, 10 the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife. 11 After the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac his son. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi.

17 (These are the years of the life of Ishmael: 137 years. He breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.) 18 They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria. He settled[a] over against all his kinsmen.

Parallels with the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Until this week, I had considered the Prodigal Son rather a stand-alone parable.

Now — and particularly with today’s day-long research and writing of this post — I have come to see it as a continuation of God’s infinite love and forgiveness.

I have an old post or a comment from a few years ago which explains that when the word ‘hate’ is used in the Old Testament, in ancient Hebrew it means ‘less loved’, therefore, not ‘loathed to the point of wishing death’, the way it is understood in many languages today.

We see this in the examples above. God loved everyone in different degrees.

God allowed Cain to stay alive and have his own family. He blessed him with life and told him that if anyone tried to kill him, that person would meet with His vengeance ‘sevenfold’. He also blessed him with a wife and a son, Enoch (a different Enoch to Noah’s ancestor).

With Ishmael and Isaac, God sent blessings of descendants and foreign lands to the former. So, although He loved and blessed Isaac more because he was Abraham’s son with Sarah, Ishmael did not want for anything. On a brotherly note, the Bible records that when Abraham died, the two sons buried him together.

Esau was impetuous. Through Rebekah, God punished him for selling his birthright for a plate of stew and for marrying the wrong women. Esau also married Hittites, who caused no end of grief for Isaac and Rebekah.

We have an example of the context of ‘hate’ in Esau’s — later Edom’s — life. Got Questions has a great explanation of how it unfolded. In Malachi 1:3, the Lord told the prophet (Malachi 1:2-3)):

“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”

St Paul refers to this verse in Romans 9:10-13.

Got Questions explains:

God chose Jacob (whom He later renamed “Israel”) to be the father of His chosen people, the Israelites. God rejected Esau (who was also called “Edom”) and did not choose him to be the father of His chosen people. Esau and his descendants, the Edomites, were in many ways blessed by God (Genesis 33:9; Genesis chapter 36).

So, considering the context, God loving Jacob and hating Esau has nothing to do with the human emotions of love and hate. It has everything to do with God choosing one man and his descendants and rejecting another man and his descendants. God chose Abraham out of all the men in the world. The Bible very well could say, “Abraham I loved, and every other man I hated.” God chose Abraham’s son Isaac instead of Abraham’s son Ishmael. The Bible very well could say, “Isaac I loved, and Ishmael I hated.” Romans chapter 9 makes it abundantly clear that loving Jacob and hating Esau was entirely related to which of them God chose. Hundreds of years after Jacob and Esau had died, the Israelites and Edomites became bitter enemies. The Edomites often aided Israel’s enemies in attacks on Israel. Esau’s descendants brought God’s curse upon themselves.

Therefore, what the Edomites did long after Esau’s death was less to do with him and more a result of their own sin.

Also remember how Esau embraced and kissed Jacob so warmly when they finally met up years later before going their own ways. Esau also offered Jacob the gift of servants by way of return for Jacob’s gift of servants and livestock.

And then we have Joseph who took care of his brothers and their families after Jacob’s — Israel’s — death. He bore no ill-will towards them. He loved them and their families.

Crampsey ties Cain’s, Esau’s and Joseph’s stories in this way with the Parable of the Prodigal Son:

I would suggest that the murder of Abel is redeemed by the transformation of Esau and his reconciliation with Jacob. This allows the sons of Jacob to grow up in the land of the promise, and even if they mimic the fratricide of Abel with what they plan for Joseph, the spectre of retaliatory homicide at the death of Jacob is removed by the magnanimity of Joseph. It is in refusing the temptation to fratricide that Esau and Joseph are god-like, are in the image and likeness of God, and allow God’s plan to take root. It is almost as though the first verses of the book of Exodus are the conclusion to the book of Genesis:

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. The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. (Exodus 1:1-7)

I would also suggest that these stories of brothers in the book of Genesis may be a fruitful context for the interpretation of the Prodigal Son. And is there anything to think about soteriologically [in terms of salvation through Christ] when reconciliation with the brother is more challenging than reconciliation with the father?

It is very rare for me to praise a Jesuit, but this time I will. Today, the Revd James Crampsey SJ has taught me about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Far from being an outlier parable, it ties together the loving-kindness and mercy of God to brothers in the Old Testament, their many blessings, their reconciliation and to redemption through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Do keep in mind those first seven verses of Exodus. Those are the subject of tomorrow’s post. I meant to post on it today, but today’s topic needed more exposition than expected. If you have read this far, many thanks.

Tomorrow: The Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Twelve Tribes of Israel

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

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