Posted by: mattcolvin | January 6, 2017

Dalman on the Thief on the Cross

Gustaf Dalman was a scholar of Aramaic and rabbinic Judaism who was instrumental in recovering the Jewish background of the New Testament. I particularly appreciated these remarks from his Jesus-Yeshua: Studies in the Gospels (1929), p. 197-199. 

“Jesus was mocked not only by those who passed by the Cross, but also by one who was crucified with Him. Mockery of this kind once resulted in a person being punished for an action which he had not committed. He mocked a robber who was standing before the judge (kām lēh gāhēkh kol kebālēh, literally: ‘he stood mocking’; Lk. 23:10: ‘they stood accusing’; verse 35: ‘He stood beholding’), and when the robber was asked: Who was with thee? he pointed in revenge to the mocker as his fellow in the crime: ‘that mocker was with me’ (āhān degāhēkh hū ‘immī). How different is the fellowship which our Lord promised to the robber who did not join the others in their mockery.

This robber said: 

‘My Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy reign!’ (Lk. 23:42)

Aramaic: mārī, anhar lī kidētētē bemalkhūtākh.

“It is impossible to address a person in Aramaic with mār (‘Lord’) alone. Κύριε without a pronoun is a Grecism as is πάτερ without a pronoun (Lk. 18:12, 18; ο πατήρ Mt. 11:26; τέκνον (for υἱέ) Mt. 11:2; Mk. 2:5; Lk. 2:48; 15:31; θύγατερ (θυγάτηρ) Mt. 11:2; Mk. 5:34; Lk. 8:48; ἀδελφέ Acts 9:17; φίλε Lk. 11:5; 14:10; ἑταῖρε Mt. 20:13; 22:12; 26:50). In Aramaic the only possible equivalents (which are also used in the Peshito) are abbā, berī, berattī, ahī, habrī, while the Pal. Evang. often translates literally. For ‘remember’ the Galilean expression is anhar; cf. anā manhar lēh: ‘I think of him’, ‘I remember him’. But neither is the root dekhar impossible. Onkelos and Targum Yer. I have in Gen. 40:14 tidkerinnani (the better reading is probably, according to verse 23, the Itpeel tiddakherinnani). The imperative would then be iddakherinnani, ‘remember thou me’. ὅταν can be rendered by kide or ēmat de. 

“Concerning bemalkhūtākh, the Aramaic form makes it probable that here, as in Mt. 16:28, it refers not to the domain into which Jesus will return but rather to the royal power which at present He does not possess and which will later make it possible for Him to plead for others. Bemalkhūtākh would in that case mean the same as ‘being King’ (Words of Jesus, 133). Moreover, he took it for granted that Jesus will not be just a King of the Jews, as others were before Him, for in that case He would not be able to help a criminal once he had been executed. What he meant was that Jesus would ‘come’ as the God-Anointed One in the full sense if the word, i.e. appear from the invisible sphere. The often-heard question, ‘When cometh the Messiah? (ēmat ātē meshīach — p. Ket. 35a) will then be answered, and the future for which a dying Rabbi wished to be in readiness, when he said in ātē meshīcha wa‘anā me’attad (‘when the Messiah cometh, in order that I may be prepared’), become an actuality. But His kingship must, like God’s, extend to the living and the dead, and He must be able to show forth mercy. For the ‘robber’ asks for an act of grace, which cannot be fulfilled in this life; he does not base this on the Jewish conception that the experience of an earthly punishment gives one a claim to be absolved from the state of punishment in the world beyond. When a criminal prays on the way to the place of execution, ‘May my death be a propitiation for all my transgressions,’ his confession is supposed to bring him forgiveness (Sanh. vi.2), as it did to Achor, to whom Joshua (according to Joshua 7:25) said before the stoning ‘Today thou art ‘akhor (turbid), but thou art not ‘akhor in the future world’. (p. Sanh. 23b; b. Sanh. 44b) The ‘robber’ wishes to see with his own eyes the kingship of Jesus, as it is promised (Isa. 53:9, Targum) to the wicked whose souls God has purified, that they shall behold ‘the kingship of their Messiah’ (malkhūt meshīchahōn). It was only his companionship on the Cross that gave him the temerity to put forward this bold petition; as Joseph’s companionship with Pharaoh’s butler in prison gave him courage (Gen. 40:14). Consequently, it was not works, but faith in the future glory of the One who was being crucified with him, that underlaid his petition.”

Posted by: mattcolvin | December 15, 2016

Never Seen a Pelican



Here’s a page of Greek text inscribed by Ange Vergéce, Renaissance era (1505-1569) calligrapher and scribe from Crete, in his edition of Byzantine court poet Manuel Philes’ De Animalium Proprietate. The illustrations are by Vergéce’s daughter.

It is evident that the daughter, at least, had never seen a pelican. Note the beak, the neck, and the label in red ink above.

(Claude Garamond used Vergéce’s handwriting as the basis for his famous Grecs du Roi typeface, which was used by Robert Estienne to print many of classics, as well as the first New Testament with verse numbers.)

Joshua Gibbs has a post on the Christian symbolism of the pelican, which medieval bestiaries such as Philes’ book misunderstood as stabbing its own breast, and feeding its young with its blood.

Posted by: mattcolvin | November 24, 2016

Jeopardy for Colvin Kids


I wrote this Jeopardy game for our kids. The categories are various Bible topics and books and places which they know well. If you’re from Davao City and know the Bible, Rick Riordan books, and especially Calvin and Hobbes, you might enjoy this game.
Read More…

Posted by: mattcolvin | November 2, 2016

Communion for Brats

Several years ago, I wrote a letter to the magazine Credenda/Agenda. My friend John Barach recently reminded me of it, and I thought it was probably worth putting it on this blog instead of leaving it in the Credenda archives. Here it is:

Dear Editor,

One thing still bugs me about the latest Credenda [C/A, 18.1]: all the kids described in the magazine— Nathan Wilson’s son, little Calvin Hurt, Grace Evans—are precocious, bright, cute little things whose charming expressions of their paedofaith are so winsome that they would probably inflict a nagging voice of self-doubt on the mind of any pastor who denied them the Supper. And that, of course, is why they were mentioned in the magazine.
We are in danger of giving people the impression that we give kids the Supper because they are precocious in their expressions of faith. No matter how far you lower the bar, unless the only requirement for coming to the Table is baptism, the focus is still on the achievements of the person coming to the table. Is this supposed to challenge credocommunionists?
The Supper isn’t something we can achieve. The whole Presbyterian tradition of being admitted to the Table by the elders is false—whether the test involves memorizing the Larger Catechism or just nodding your head when asked if you love Jesus.
No one wants to write about giving the Supper to unloveable, bratty little two-year-olds who habitually squirm and kick and fuss in church; who have to be coaxed, cajoled or even spanked into answering any catechism questions; who are liable to wad the bread up into a little ball, or throw it on the floor, or spill the wine out of its dinky medicine cup; who don’t have a pious bone in their bodies—kids, in short, who are everything that the credocommunionist thinks ought to be barred from the Supper. These are the kids that pose a challenge to our credocommunionist brothers. To give these kids the supper, one has to change one’s doctrine, not just lower one’s standards.

If we are to be real paedocommunionists, and not just low-bar credocommunionists like Virgil Hurt, then we must advocate for the terrible tots too. By all means, take them out of the service when they are misbehaving. But do not take it upon yourselves to admit them to the Table. God has already admitted them by giving them to Christian parents and baptizing them. It is no pastor’s job to examine them at all.
Pastors must come to realize that they do not have the right, let alone the duty, of examining the infants of believers to admit them to the Supper, anymore than they have the right to refuse to baptize the infants of believers.
If we only confront such pastors with lots of cute communing babies — like so many Hallmark cards or advertisements for Pampers — then we are not challenging them at the crux of the issue: it is about their wrongful usurpation of power and unbiblical judgment of others, not about the precociousness of any toddlers.
 Yours for paedocommunion in the churches,

Matt Colvin 

Cincinnati, OH

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Questions on PFG 11.1-5

Questions on Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 11.1-5:
1. Notice the deeply Jewish phrasing of the Prayer of Humble Access from the BCP as Wright, perhaps because he’s an Anglican and has heard it so many times, uses BCP phrasing in his translation of Daniel 9. (Footnote 50)

2. What is the correct understanding of the phrase “the righteousness of God”? How does this differ from medieval and Reformation era uses of that same phrase? (Footnote 55)

3. (footnote 305) Why can we not keep Aristotelian virtue ethics?

4. What is the relation of eschatology to Christian ethics? Relate this to 2 Timothy 2:17-8. Think about how we can make this work in our pastoral care and exhortation. (310-312)

5. Why is self-control such a central virtue? How does it relate to anger and sexual immorality? In turn, how do angry speech/behavior and sexual immorality relate to eschatology and the church? What applications might this have for our day? (Footnotes 312-313)

6. What is the relation between Christ’s death on the cross and Christian ethics, in the letters of Paul? Is it a pattern for us? Is it somehow causative of our ability to please God?

7. In the paragraph with footnotes 350-354, Wright has some remarkably beautiful thoughts about how “salvation” is shaped differently in every Christian’s particular life. Give some time to discussing this paragraph.

8. How does Galatians 6.16 encapsulate Paul’s redefinition of Israel? (Footnote 426-440) How has Israel changed through Christ? What are her distinguishing characteristics now?

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Questions on PFG 10

My questions on Paul and the Faithfulness of God, chapter 10, were written after we left the States. That also means that I had no access to my physical copy of Wright’s book, and thus, I had to refer to pages by footnote numbers rather than page numbers. (Footnote numbers are consistent between the paper book and e-book.)

  1. What Biblical warrant is there in the OT (especially in 2 Samuel) for the “incorporative” idea of the messiah that Wright claims was operative in 2nd Temple Judaism?
  2. What word should we supply, according to Wright, in order to rightly understand Galatians 3:19’s statement that “now the mediator is not of the one _______, but God is one”?
  3. Talk out how Paul makes these logical moves: from monotheism, to eschatological monotheism, to a unified eschatological Israel, to the temporariness of the Torah.
  4. What is the flip side of the temporariness of the Torah? Answer: the permanence of ______________ as a marker of membership in the people of God. 
  5. In Romans 5:17, how does Wright think we should understand “one man’s obedience”? How is this different from how both Roman Catholicism and modern Reformed thinkers understand it? Obedience to what?
  6. What does Wright say Romans 5:20’s phrase “so that the trespass might be filled out to its fullest extent” means? (Also his understanding of Rom. 7:13) How is this related to the fact that Jesus came as a Jew? How does it result in a “scandal of particularity”? How does it relate to the purpose of the covenant with Abraham?
  7. Wright says that “To say it once more: the division between ‘juristic’ and ‘participationist’ analyses of Paul’s soteriology is based on a failure to understand his underlying ‘covenantal’ thought.” (Same page as footnote 347) If this is correct, then we as pastors need to be able to explain how the juristic (or forensic) aspects of justification fit with our “participation” in the Messiah, and how this all works through the very historical covenant, coming to its climax in Jesus. So, go around the table and articulate how this fits together, and how it is to be preached and taught in our churches.
  8. What is the purpose of election, in the story of Abraham? (Page with footnotes 356 and 357) How often do we talk about the purpose of election? How does talking about election as having a purpose change the way the doctrine of election works in our theology?
  9. What does Wright understand by “theosis”? (footnote 694 and 700) How is it connected to the Holy Spirit? And to the temple?
  10. How does Wright understand Romans 1:7’s address of the church in Rome as “called to be saints”? (Footnote 713)
  11. What does Wright think is the relationship between “initial justification” and “final justification” and “a complete life lived”?
  12. What’s the difference between seeing Torah as “a set of commands” and seeing it as a narrative? (Footnote 730)
Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Questions on PFG 9

Here are questions on PFG 9:

Questions on ch. 9

1. What was Jewish monotheism, polemically speaking? What was it directed against? What was it not concerned with?

2. What point about Jesus did Paul never have to argue or try to prove against his Jewish opponents?

3. How does the story of Israel provide Paul with the means for recognizing Jesus as included in the identity of Israel’s God? How does this work differently than the 19th century way of framing the question of how high Christology developed? Which is more plausible?

4. Do you agree with Wright’s claim that theology itself takes the place of boundary-marking praxis (kosher, sabbath, circumcision) in bearing the weight of defining the people of God in Paul’s thinking?

5. (Talk the group through 1 Cor 8, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1 so that they will be able to unpack the divine identity christology and the OT allusions.)

6. How has Paul changed the Shema?

7. What are the main ways Paul includes the Holy Spirit within the identity of Israel’s God?

8. How tightly enmeshed, how inextricable, are Jesus and the Spirit, in Paul’s doxological and hymnic statements? How has Paul woven them in?

9. Why is the problem of evil more acute for Jewish monotheism than for other religions? How is Judaism’s answer different?

10. What do you think of Wright’s opening and closing comparison of Paul and Akiba, dying for Jewish monotheism, but of radically different varieties?

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Discussion Questions on PFG 1

Above: Another pastor takes delivery of Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

The Cincinnati/Dayton REC clergy, together with two friendly priests from TEC and the APA, have been studying N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

Here are the questions on chapter 1:

1. What did you think of Paul’s reading of Philemon? Any comments on objections? Appreciation for it?

2. What is the role of theology – of beliefs about God, Israel, and Jesus – in explaining why Paul urges Philemon to do certain things?

3. How does Paul in Philemon go further with “imputation” than Reformed theologians who insist that it is the core of the doctrine of justification? How might we do the same?

4. What does Wright think has gone wrong in Pauline studies in the past, especially with F. C. Baur’s history-of-religions approach?

5. What is the three-fold test of any interpretation (or of an exegetical “hypothesis”, as Wright calls it)?

6. What do you think of Wright’s opinions on the authorship of the Pauline epistles?

7. What is the role of history in Biblical scholarship? What effect does it have on interpretation?

8. What is the central thesis of Wright’s book, as stated in this opening chapter? How does it differ from other approaches to Paul that you have seen?

9. What benefits can you see to the church if we approach Paul in the way Wright recommends?

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Sermon Notes on Joel 2

These are notes for a sermon I preached at Holy Trinity REC in Houston. The text is Joel 2, and the title is “An Army of Bugs”:

  •  “The Day of YHWH is coming”: judgment within history, not just at the end. 
  • God’s most common means of chastisement is military disaster, as described in Dt. 28:47-68. (Read it.) There follows a description of the horrors of conquest and siege warfare, resulting in cannibalism. And God did indeed bring foreign invaders to punish Israel at various times in their history. But here in Joel 2, the army marching to invade Israel turns out to be even more frightening because it is not human.
  • 2:2 – the lowering clouds threaten, but the symbolic threat turns out to be a literal threat: clouds turn out to be locusts. I have discussed the lexicography here
  • They are actual bugs sent by God to punish Israel. God cares more about Israel than about the rest of humanity. In the book of Jonah, we see him send Jonah to Nineveh because He cares about the 200,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left. But how many things does he send to focus on Jonah and ultimately change his attitude? Sea, winds, rain, Sun, a fish, a vine, a worm. God cares about His people and he focuses His created works upon them for their conversion. We’ll come back to Jonah later. 
  • This plague of locusts is a fulfillment of Deuteronomy’s threat that “the Lord will strike you with all the plagues of Egypt”, and especially 28:42’s threat that “locusts shall consume all your trees and the produce of your land.” 
  • Joel 2 calls these locusts “a people great and strong”. Some church fathers say that this means they aren’t really locusts, but a foreign army like locusts. But it’s pretty clear that they are real locusts. Their location moves across the country as a storm front on a weather map; a boundary between green and bare: the garden of Eden before them, a desert behind. But the way they are described reads like something out of a Stephen King novel. 
  • The science fiction author Arthur Machen wrote a classic story called The Terror. It opens with a series of puzzling deaths, apparent murders and freak accidents: airplane pilots downed by flocks of birds clogging their propellers; men trampled by sheep and gored by oxen; children suffocated by swarms of moths that appear as a cloud rising from the forest. The premise of The Terror is that God has somehow temporarily removed from every animal the fear of Man that had been put upon them by the Lord after Noah’s flood in Genesis 9:2. Joel 2’s locusts are intended to evoke similarly terrifying emotions. 
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book On the Banks of Plum Creek describes the inexorable march of migrating grasshoppers:

    “Caroline!” he said. “Here’s a strange thing. Come look!” All across the dooryard the grasshoppers were walking shoulder to shoulder and end to end, so crowded that the ground seemed to be moving. Not a single one hopped. Not one turned its head. As fast as they could go, they were all walking west.Ma stood beside Pa, looking. Mary asked, “Oh, Pa, what does it mean?” and Pa said, “I don’t know.” He shaded his eyes and looked far to west and east. “It’s the same, as far as the eye can see. The whole ground is crawling, crawling west.” Ma whispered, “Oh, if they would all go away!”

  •  Insects are wondrously made, but there is something creepy about them too. Owen Barfield summer it up: “The trouble about insects is that they are like French locomotives – they have all the works on the outside.” And that’s part of the terror of God’s arthropod army in Joel 2: they are the original robots – non-human, automated, operating in fearful synchrony and with no apparent will to be reasoned with or pleaded to. They are inexorable. Even to this day, if a movie director wants to make an army less sympathetic, he makes them more like insects. The faceless storm troopers of StarWars are clad in exoskeletons like insects. 
  • The locust army is without any of the weaknesses of humans on the march. Their synchrony is perfect: “every one marches in formation, and they do not break ranks.”(2:7) Compare my oft-repeated classroom demonstration of Greek hoplite warfare: break the shield wall or turn the end of the phalanx, and the fornation breaks down. Not so the locusts: “though they lunge between the weapons, they are not cut down.” (2:8) Walls and ramparts are no defense: “they run on the wall; they climb into the houses; they enter at the Windows like a thief.”(2:9) 
  • The overall effect is to make the reader more afraid of bugs than he would be of enemy soldiers. The people’s expected reaction is actually shown in the passage (2:6): “Before them the people writhe in pain; all faces are drained of color.”
  • So great is the terror that it is described in the cosmic imagery of the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars (2:10). These are the powers that had been set to rule the day and night, to govern times and seasons; they are the authorities set over the original creation, and their glory is bodied forth visibly as light. But now they are completely overshadowed by the Day of the Lord. “For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; Who can endure it?”

II. Turn to Me

  • The horror of the locusts is revealed and described so luridly because God has a purpose for it: to frighten Israel into repentance:”Now, therefore, says the Lord, Turn to me with all your heart…”(2:12) This repentance is to be expressed with the usual Biblical gestures and rituals: fasting, weeping, and mourning. God’s people abase themselves and show contrition. They turn away from their sin. But it is also a turning toward God. 
  • This language of “turning to” God of course denotes repentance, but I wonder if perhaps we can get more out of with by considering it within the divine “marriage” of YHWH and Israel. Secular marriage expert John Gottman speaks of spouses “turning away, turning against, and turning toward”, where the former two responses are bad news for a marriage, while “turning toward” your spouse is what will preserve or save a marriage. YHWH is the husband of Israel; Israel is God’s wife. He urged her to turn toward Him, shuvu adhay.
  • And why? “For He is gracious merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm.” (2:13)
  • We cannot help recalling the words of Heinrich Heine: “Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son metier.” Yes, this is presumptuous, but it is also true. Exodus 34:6-7 (read it) is “God’s business card”. And it basically says that God is a professional forgiver. Our Anglican Prayer of Humble Access puts it well: “thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”(Property=distinctive attribute.)
  • Not everyone is happy about God’s business card. In Jonah 4:1-4, Jonah hates it. He kvetches about God’s forgiving character in a blasphemous parody of Exodus 34:6-7 that would be comical if it weren’t so sad. 
  • Notice the king of Nineveh’s decree and its rhetorical question: “Who can tell if God will turn and relent and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Correct our usual English understanding of “Who knows…?” – Esther 4:14, 1 Cor. 7:16.) Back in Joel 2, we can now understand properly 2:14’s rhetorical question. “Who knows if He will turn and relent…?” In Hebrew idiom, the question implies that He probably will; after all, it is His property to have mercy.
  • Israel’s repentance is described in Joel 2:15-16, but with imperatives: a series of staccato commands urging the response of national repentance. Like Nineveh, which repented in sackcloth and ashes from the king on his throne down to the beasts of burden, Israel’s repentance is total, from old men down to babies, encompassing every sex, age, status, and station of life.  
  • Just as Moses insisted that Pharaoh could not just let the men of Israel go out of Egypt, but said to Pharaoh, “We will go with our young and our old; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we will go, for we must hold a feast to the Lord.” (Ex. 10:9), so in Joel, the repentance is total, involving everyone, even those who because of age or extreme youth would not have been usual participants in temple worship. Even the bride and bridegroom, who are the last people you would expect to engage in mourning, leave the bedchamber where they would have enjoyed their wedding night, and trade their nuptial raiment for sackcloth. 
  • They are engaged in pleading the covenant, a God-and-Israel business. So we also repent corporately, and not just through representatives. The covenant was a means by which God was able to dwell with Israel. This involved a continual disinfectant process to deal with Israel’s sin, and that meant sacrifice. Thus, the priests are told to weep “between the porch and the altar” – the usual space they would have traveled on their way to sprinkle blood from the sacrifices before the veil of the holy of holies. 
  • Utterly absent here is any sense of entitlement: no pleading of Israel’s merits or good works; nothing but the covenant, God’s love for His people.
  • “Spare Your people, O LORD, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. “Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” The plea is like that of Psalm 115:1-2: “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, But to Your name give glory, Because of Your mercy, Because of Your truth. Why should the Gentiles say, “So where is their God?”” It is a plea for God to be concerned about His reputation. 
  • Or again, it is an echo of Deuteronomy 9, when Moses recounts how he pleaded with God for Israel after their rebellions; how the Lord told Moses that He would destroy Israel and make a new people from Moses himself. Note the pleading, how it is the same as in Joel 2: “Therefore I prayed to the LORD, and said: ‘O Lord GOD, do not destroy Your people and Your inheritance whom You have redeemed through Your greatness, whom You have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” – so it is in order not to waste the effort of the Exodus. “Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” – not their merits or good deeds, but the fact that you made a covenant with them. “do not look on the stubbornness of this people, or on their wickedness or their sin,” – if you do hat, you will find plenty of reasons to destroy them — “lest the land from which You brought us should say, “Because the LORD was not able to bring them to the land which He promised them, and because He hated them, He has brought them out to kill them in the wilderness.” Yet they are Your people and Your inheritance, whom You brought out by Your mighty power and by Your outstretched arm.’” (Deuteronomy‬ ‭9:26-29‬)
  • This is how we too approach God today: we do it corporately, together; we rend our hearts, not our garments; and we plead the covenant, and the blood of the sacrifice by which we were redeemed; we plead with God for His name’s sake, and that His name not be blasphemed, slandered, among the nations. It’s in our prayers in the BCP: “O Lord, save thy people. // And bless thine inheritance.” And in the Penitential Office (REC BCP, p. 51): Minister. O Lord, save thy servants; Answer. That put their trust in thee. Minister. Send unto them help from above. Answer. And evermore mightily defend them. Minister. Help us, O God our Saviour. Answer. And for the glory of thy Name deliver us; be merciful to us sinners, for thy Name’s sake.
  • Or again, p. 52 in the REC BCP: “TURN thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned. Be favourable, O Lord, Be favourable to thy people, Who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying. For thou art a merciful God, full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity. Thou sparest when we deserve punishment, And in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lord, spare them, And let not thine heritage be brought to confusion. Hear us, O Lord, for thy mercy is great, And after the multitude of thy mercies look upon us; Through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Sermon Notes on Prodigal Son

These are some further notes on the parable of the prodigal son, pasted straight from my phone’s Notes app, from which I delivered the sermon earlier this year. There is doubtless some overlap with this earlier post from six years ago. See also my response to Kenneth Bailey

  • Context in Luke 15: Pharisees appalled that Jesus is eating with sinners: “This man received sinners and eats with them.” For that’s the issue: what is the attitude of the Pharisees toward those who are joining Jesus’ movement?
  • Pharisees were actually not far from the kingdom of God. Doctrinally, they were orthodox. The scribe in Mark 12 was a Pharisee; Jesus tells him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” In Matthew 23:2, Jesus says that the Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat and tells his disciples to obey their interpretations of the Torah. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead; when Paul is on trial in Acts 23, he says, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” (Acts 23:6)
  • — No, the problem with Pharisees was not that they had the wrong beliefs, so much as that they had the wrong attitude. Their agenda was to bring about the kingdom of God by heightened and ostentatious purity and Torah-observance. That is why they regard those who did not comply with this agenda as “sinners”. And this term needs to be understood very precisely. In the Pharisees’ usage, it did not denote merely anyone who ever sinned; the Pharisees would have included themselves in that class of people. 
  • No, “sinners” has eschatological reference: “sinners” are people whose actions are preventing God from restoring the kingdom to Israel. Prostitutes who sat loose to laws of sexual morality; tax collectors who colluded with the occupying Roman imperial authorities to suppress Israel in the most offensive way; and anyone who by failure to wash hands up to the elbow, violating the Sabbath, or fraternizing with Gentiles and other unclean groups showed that he was not helping out with the Pharisees’ agenda, but hindering it. Jesus is in this category. 
  •  The Pharisees have a heart problem. They have mostly correct beliefs, but their affections are not loving what they ought to love. And heart problems are best addressed by stories. Consider David and Nathan. No one knew better than David what he had done. Nathan’s parable isn’t designed to impart that information, but to change David’s affections, his attitude toward what he had done. Jesus tells other stories designed to illustrate this heart problem: the parable of the Good Samaritan is one such. It shows someone whom the Pharisees would have despised actually loving his neighbor, while the priest and Levite, concerned with Pharisee-style purity, fail to love and pass by on the other side. 
  • It’s to address this Pharisaic heart problem that Jesus also tells the other parables of Luke 15. Two other parables were skipped over in our gospel reading: lost sheep and lost coin. They are about finding and recovering – to seek and to save – the lost. In these two parables there is a key word used that also occurs in the parable of the Prodigal Son: namely, συγχαίρω, the verb that means to rejoice together.
  • Rejoicing is central to what Jesus was all about. The Pharisees and disciples of John fasted a lot, but Jesus’ disciples did not fast (Mt 9:14): “And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Thus, Jesus’ movement resembled a perpetual party, feasting and dining with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus celebrated with His followers: He celebrated what His coming meant for Israel.
  • Understanding what the issue was between Jesus and the Pharisees, we are in a position to see how he addressed their heart problem by the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
  • Parable begins with “a certain man had two sons”. Straight away, we know that the father is Israel’s God; and we expect, rightly, that the two sons will have divergent fates, like Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Ephraim and Manasseh, and nearly all the other pairs of sons. And these two sons represent two groups of people within Israel:
  • Both start out in the household of the Father. Thus, neither represebts Gentiles. 
  • The experience of the younger son involves losing the presence of the Father; he goes “to a far country” and suffers in a severe famine. These are the experiences of Israel: of Jacob’s family going down to Egypt; of Elimelech and Naomi fleeing famine in Bethlehem to sojourn in Moab. These are not stereotypical Gentile experiences, but experiences of Israel. 
  • The younger son’s degradation reaches its deepest pitch in his job herding swine – a job especially calculated to be repugnant to Jews. Thus Jesus focalizes the experience of exile for His Jewish audience: they share in the younger son’s humiliation, are privy to his inner thoughts and desires (read verses 16-18). Because of these ways of telling the story, the audience sees the situation through his eyes; and thus they identify with him. But that means he cannot be a symbol of Gentiles. Rather, his narrative and his emotional situation is that of sinful Israel, Israel suffering continued exile.

The story presupposes certain Jewish social norms and practices:

  • Dividing inheritance before the death of the father. Kenneth Bailey says this is offensive and implies a wish that the father were dead. But while that might be true of the modern Middle East, it is not accurate for Israel in the Second Temple period. It says in 15:12 that the Father “divided his livelihood to them.” Plural: so both sons received their inheritance. Nor does anything in the story suggest that the father saw the younger son’s request as a horrible wish that the father were dead; if that had been the implication of it, surely the older son would have mentioned it in his complaint against the father’s welcoming of the younger. But he does not, restricting his grounds of complaint to the younger’s “squandering your livelihood with harlots”.
  • The problem with the request is rather that it breaks up a family’s shared livelihood and life together, an arrangement called CONSORTIUM. Psalm 133 celebrates this: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity…” We see consortium is the arrangement in Genesis 29:14 when Jacob is part of Laban’s family (“surely you are my bone and my flesh”), and shares in the family livestock and wealth; this lasts for one month later, Laban demotes him to a hired hand: “Are you my relative? And should you serve me for nothing?” Implication: you are not my relative and you should receive wages. This ultimately ends with Jacob taking his own flocks and leaving from Laban’s land. Again, in Genesis 13, Abraham and Lot’s possessions were so great that “they could not dwell together”; they therefore go their separate ways.
  • To return after breaking consortium is this an affront to the older brother, to whom the remainder of the estate belongs. He is the one offended. 
  • Confession: “I have sinned against heaven and against you.” That is, against God and against you. It is as full and contrite a confession as can well be imagined. 
  • The father runs to embrace the younger son. He commands that a robe be brought, a sign of a father’s favor, as Jacob gave to Joseph; that a ring be put on his finger, as a symbol of the authority that he shares as the son of the father — no slave, but a son. And he commands that the prize animal, the fatted calf, be butchered for him: because his lost son has been found, there will be feasting, rejoicing together, sugchairo, even though with a different verb. “It was necessary for us to rejoice”. 
  • Notice how the parable cleverly shifts its point of view. We see the return of the younger son from the perspective of the father: ““And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” (Luke‬ ‭15:20‬) Thus our response to the younger son’s return is conditioned by the father’s response. We are being trained in what we ought to feel; our heart is coached by the parable to have the right sort of response. Remember that this parable is told along with the lost coin and the lost sheep, to a room full of Pharisees who were failing to respond rightly. 
  • This is the standard type scene of reconciliation: In Genesis 33, when Esau and Jacob meet again after a long estrangement and hostility, ““But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Or again, when Joseph finally sees Jacob again, who thought he was dead: “So Joseph made ready his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet his father Israel; and he presented himself to him, and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while.” (Genesis‬ ‭46:29‬)
  • But the next shift of perspective, the next focalization, is that of the older son: ““Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.” ‭‭(Luke‬ ‭15:25-26‬) We hear from his perspective, see with his eyes, and are privy to his emotions — because the parable is designed for Pharisees who would share these emotions, and Jesus intends to challenge these emotions. He intends to do a Nathan to the Pharisees’ David. 
  • And it is telling that the return of the younger son, the end of his exile in a far country, the restoration to the presence and favor of his father, is described using the language of resurrection: “for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ (15:24)
  • Remember that Jesus is telling this parable to Pharisees. The older son “was angry and would not go in”; he cut himself off from the banquet, from the rejoicing together, from the Father’s love. The father, for his part, loves the older brother too. He longs for him no less than for the younger; he goes out and pleads with him, and he assures him, in words that I have rarely heard any preacher explain, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
  • Let us give the older son his due. Let’s not shortchange him the way people shortchanged Martha of Bethany. The older son did better than the younger by not leaving his father’s house; he loved him and stayed with him. He obeyed him: “I never transgressed your commandment at any time” – and so the younger son’s faithlessness appalls him. But by his failure to understand and welcome the younger son’s repentance, by his anger, he cuts himself off from the father. Jesus was not against obeying the Torah; He affirmed that His Jewish disciples had to obey it. When the rich young ruler responded to Jesus that “all these commandments I have kept from my youth”, Jesus’ response was not to rebuke him and tell him that “all your righteousness is filthy rags.” No, obedience to God is pleasing to God. Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” But it is not ultimately what marks out who will be with the father. That is determined by whether the older son has a heart like the father, or if his affections are at odds with the affections of the father. True faith, true loyalty, has love as its unfailing mark. And the relationship of love with the father is not earned by obedience; nor can past disobedience prevent its restoration. 
  • A parallel parable, Luke 7:36-50, gives us a similar rebuke of a Pharisee’s failure to love and failure to rejoice at the salvation of Israel being extended to sinners.
  • That, ultimately, is what the parable is for: Jesus would perform heart surgery on his Pharisee listeners: to change their affections, their loves. He wants to bend their pride and kindle love for the lost. And now, 2000 years later, the story works upon us as well. 
  • We Anglicans, in our Book of Common Prayer, pray for the impenitent: “O Merciful God, who wouldest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live, and hast revealed thyself as pardoning iniquity through thine only Son; We beseech thee to have mercy upon the impenitent and unbelieving, especially upon such as may be here present. Awaken in them by thy Holy Spirit, a deep sense of their sinfulness and peril. Take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word. Make them to know and feel that there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby they must be saved, but only the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so fetch them home (I love this phrase!)and number them among thy children, that they may be thine for ever; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.”
  • We are called to have hearts that rejoice at repentance. We dare not see the father’s generosity as an affront to our own poor faithfulness. We pray “have mercy on us, miserable sinners.” We are called to rejoice together in the kingdom of God, because we have been forgiven much, so that we may love much. And that rejoicing together is best done at a feast, to which we now turn.

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