OUR BIBLE Study for the Fourth Sunday in Lent comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. A parable concerns both errant and faithful persons within the church family, and the work of God on their behalf….
“NOW THE tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he (Jesus) told them this parable…
"There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.' And he divided his living between them.
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine.
And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants."'
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 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.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.'
But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!'
And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.' “ (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Luke’s gospel first addressed this scripture to the diverse Christian communities composed of both Gentiles and Jews. His initial audience was located across the geography of Rome, Greece and Asia Minor. This text we read was apparently was added by the scribes onto an earlier discourse found in the “Q” document… the parables concerning the lost sheep and the lost coin. We testify to this based on the fact that these earlier parables are also found in the Matthew’s gospel, published in written form about 85-90AD, which is a scant few years after this Lukan account that we discuss today. However, our subject text today, often termed as the, “wandering Jew” parable, is found exclusively in Luke. The story tells about Jesus relating a parable of extravagant forgiveness.
Within this story is a lad who strays from the fold of family, unconstrained fromtribal morality and expressed faith. The errant youth soon finds that his inheritance is gone, and gets a job working for a farmer or herdsman. There he is given the task of feeding a herd of pigs. Significant then is that his youthful folly brought him not only to financial and environmental hardship, but he received greater insult that he had to feed that which yet is repugnant to the Jewish kosher palate. Worse yet, he existed as starveing and those unworthy animals had plenty to eat! Consequently, he was thus portrayed as being a situational repentant. As such he was motivationally challenged to return to his sorrowful father, even though we as readers might think his reasons may be suspect. Once there, he received a royal welcome from his father, much to the chagrin of the elder brother.
This parable has similar foundation in several Old Testament teachings. They each challenged the ancient tribal custom of male primogeniture, where the first born son got everything at the father’s incapacity or death. and then at will shared only what he saw fit. The first story we might hold up where God chose to honor persons according to his will, rather than observing human custom, was in the inheritance between Isaac and Ishmael. This fully described in the book of Genesis.
We also raise the example of Joseph.., who was sold into slavery because of his endangering of primogeniture rights… since his father loved him the most… though many brothers proceeded him in birth order. God, working in the unfolding history of Israel, granted him what may be considered as first born honors...
“Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; and he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, "Bow the knee!" Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:42-43)
We note that the man, Joseph… was not the first born of his father. But the Genesis text about Joseph reveals that Pharaoh did not have to abide by Hebrew primogeniture, and as such bypassed the custom because of need and favoritism.
Also found in the writings of the prophets, we find that God chose to honor one who had once again come in second…
“Now Joshua, standing before the angel, was clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, "Remove the filthy garments from him." And to him he said, "Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with rich apparel." And I said, "Let them put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments; and the angel of the Lord was standing by.” (Zechariah 3:3-5),
Therefore we see a pattern concerning exceptions to Jewish tribal primogeniture. We become clearly convinced by Zechariah that God will do what God will do, irregardless of what humans may consider as traditionally right. As Saint Paul clearly states, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… thus condemns all, and chooses according to his divine purpose. Hebrew history reveals that God often chose a family’s second-born to do great tasks.
This principle holds true in Luke. During Jesus’s ministry, Luke related that our Lord echoed this scriptural truth when approached about a lawsuit between two brothers, Jesus related in Luke 12:13, “Who made me a judge or arbitrator over you”. Thus we rightly consider that in this earlier text, Luke worked to set the basis for the later telling of this parable. This was so that we already know before God… birth order is a matter that our Lord may entirely disregard. As well, it highlights that God’s purposes are to restore broken family ties.
Why the Younger?
We must note that two issues arise before the radically forgiving father, issues that came before our God as the early Christian church history unfolded. I contend that the wandering son represented the Gentiles that were found in Luke’s churches; whereas, the elder brother embodied apparent inheritance jealousies within the long, seemingly faithful Jewish contingent.
Because the story was found as such only in Luke, I postulate from this singularity that in the infant Christian communities dispersed widely in geography… and ranging greatly in ethnic population having both Jewish persons and Gentiles… there may have been Jewish elders lamenting. These may have thought that they were not treated properly with seniority deference. Hence this story not only related the luxury of undeserved forgiveness for the Gentiles, which brings them back into the household in royal fashion.., but a gentle smack of “get over it!” to the beloved Jewish persons within the early church. These latter had erroneously believed that their dietary adherence and Sabbath laws and good works should cause them an earned priority. But, we are not saved by works, but by faith in Christ Jesus, our Lord!
Take note that the elder son in the story, when arguing his case for primacy, challenged the right of his father to dispense free grace. Is this not a sign of disrespect… a sin was thus committed before the father… by accusing that he was unfit for the task of leading the family?
Now we must ask today whether the church walks the same paths of pride-filled faith expression. Do we stagger before God making accusations, falling beneath satanic powers that whisper into our jealous ears? Do we retain a self-centered false righteousness? Do we harbor against our God, growing discomfort that the divine nature gives to another an undeserved, grand reception. Do we jealously see acceptance and celebration as unfair? Do we make nasty noises whenever a denomination, a faith community, or person returns to the household of God without blatant compensatory sign… and are blessed by our Father for so doing? I fear that in all cases the answer is in the affirmative. We elder children yet have much to learn.
I dare say that recent headlines found in modern church publications call those who have strayed from right interpretation of scripture to return to the farm. We wish them to cease feeding the secular swine of popular, worldly opinion, but we act superior when they do repent. In the name of our Lord, I say that all elder brothers need to be reminded by this text whenever such wanderers return. We would be well advised to drop haughty “works righteousness” attitudes. Let us rejoice in our Lord’s grace!
Those who repent, even those whose motivations are suspect, yet are forgiven. This needs to be celebrated. Churches that develop a tightening of cliques in reaction whenever a lapsed or heretical member shows up at the door, or a new family begins to attend with secular-tainted faith expressions, often incredulously wonder when their stiff-necked behavior causes participation and attendance to fall away. This attitude should not stand among us!
I conclude therefore, with these words of admonition and guidance from scripture…
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders.
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you.
Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you.
To Him is the dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:1-11).
We who are called unto the Lord’s purpose… say again… let us be reconciled to one another for the planting of the gospel seeds. So may it be… Amen