Friday, September 12, 2008

Jesus and the Law of the Wayward Son

This week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) according to the Jewish cycle of scripture readings includes the Law of the Wayward Son.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard." 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

What I find interesting here is how this law connects with the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In a way Jesus is providing Torah commentary through this parable. At least, that is one way to look at it. How does Jesus find a way around the penalty of death for the wayward son?

Luke 15:11 - 32 11 Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. 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. 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. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 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! 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; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' 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. 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.' 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. 25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.'" He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.'

Arguably the prodigal son would fall under the category of this law of the wayward son. He has refused to obey his father and demanded his inheritance so that he might squander it on dissolute living. Not only is the prodigal’s behavior a disgrace to his parents, but under this law his crime is punishable by death. Is this why his father counts him as dead?

The prodigal’s father—and his mother, who is not mentioned in Jesus’ parable—could have taken him to “the elders of the town” and have him stoned to death. But the father does not do this. Rather the wayward son is allowed to go his own way out of the presence of the father. The son’s dissolute behavior leads to its natural consequence of destitution, kind of moral death.

This is not far from other rabbinical teaching found in the Talmud.

Talmud, Sandhedrin 70a, 72a The wayward and rebellious son is executed on account of the future, as the Torah penetrates to his ultimate intentions. Eventually, he will squander his father's money, seek what he has become habituated to, not find it, and stand at the crossroads and rob people [killing them, thereby incurring the death penalty]. Says the Torah, "Let him die innocent, rather than have him die guilty..." [Source:]

Here the outcome of the son’s rebelliousness is of a quality that it would be better to die innocent than to die guilty. I do not believe that the Talmud is endorsing the death penalty—and certainly not a “pre-emptive” death penalty!—but rather is teasing out the inner logic of the law that reveals God’s compassion limiting our exposure to degradation.

Jesus’ parable clearly relates the natural consequence of the prodigal’s behavior and how the father counts the son as dead already. If the father counts the son as dead, then there is no taking him before the elders to be prosecuted.

The prodigal’s brother makes the stronger case against his brother who “has devoured [the father’s] property with prostitutes.” He contrasts his own obedience with his brother’s disobedience (Luke 15:29-30). Does the righteous brother have a right to call the death penalty on his brother? No, Torah states that only his father and mother, not siblings, may take hold the son and bring him before the elders. The brother is not permitted to bring judgment against his brother.

[Did the father allowed the prodigal to run off with his inheritance to protect him from the wrath of his brother?]

In returning to his father, the prodigal is taking the risk that his parents will bring him to judgment. His life has become so unbearable that he is willing to take this risk. The son has faith in his father’s mercy that he will receive him as a slave and spare his life. The son is willing to accept the judgment against him, but trusts his father more.

He is willing to confess, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” (Luke 15:18b) The consequence of sinning against heaven was the famine that brought him to near starvation. The repentant son goes two steps further when he pleads, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” (Luke 15:19) He had failed to honor father and mother (Deuteronomy 5:16), so he says he is no longer worth to be called a son. He is humbled. Finally, he pledges obedience, now the obedience of a slave, not a son. He has repented of his stubbornness and rebelliousness.

So how does Jesus get around the law of the wayward son? I believe the answer is in how the father counts as dead and as alive. The father counts the rebellious son as dead, in which case the law no longer holds. A dead son cannot be brought to trial. Meanwhile the judgment of heaven, famine, brings the son to repentance wherein the son has returned from the dead. Alive again, the son is no longer stubborn or rebellious, so there is no charge to be brought against him. New life and ultimately resurrection is itself redemptive. The father then is able to rejoice. Before the accusing brother, he says, “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 15:32)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

And in the Holy Spirit

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.

In the beginning before the word of creation, you hovered over the face of the deep.
At the end your knowledge will cover all the earth as water covers the sea.
Even now, you search the soul for a home of new creation.

Blessed are you who moves upon the heart that rivers spring forth.
Blessed are you who flows within the soul that dried things are restored.
You breathe in all that is green.

You shadow your saints wherein your word is hidden.
You whisper to your prophets and the word is spoken.
You shine upon your child, a revelation.

You hear the cry of the broken hearted and send prayer up to heaven.
You gather the meek of the land and scatter the proud in their delusion.
Through water, you drive your children into the wilderness.

You reveal yourself in blaring horns, fire and smoke upon the mountain.
You call your servant to come up higher and receive full instruction.
You inscribe your own soul upon these stones.

Make not for me an altar of stone nor ascend by steps, only sacrifice on an altar of earth.

You terrify them from your holy hill to make no gods of gold and to server no other.
You burn hot against brazen children.
You sanctify your people to make them holy.

You say, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God am holy.”
Among your children you wish to dwell.
So you fashion from a virgin an earthly tent full of glory.

You hide my child in a peasant’s cloak to walk a bitter journey.
You fall to depths where no one escapes.

Turn, my child, the kingdom is at hand!

Awake! You, the ear of those who listen.
Awake! You, the eye of those who see.
Behold, the beloved is stricken.

Come O wind and bear them up.
Come O driver, wheel, and chariot.
Come knit my beloved and bride forever.

And I will dwell here among my people.

Friday, September 5, 2008

To love our neighbors, take 2

Blake Huggins offers a different take on love of neighbor, Solidarity & Love of Neighbor, the social justice aspect of loving neighbor. This includes a wonderful quote from Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. Blake asks "whether the giving and the solidarity are really authentic or simply cheap gimmicks to appease a guilty conscience either individual or collective."

One problem with charity and a "show of solidarity" is that we preserve even strengthens our own status as superior to the recipient of our sympathy. Socially we become more "deserving" when we are known to be a charitable person or even a "champion" for the cause of the downtrodden.

Even profit-driven corporations will give to charities and align themselves with social causes because it enhances "brand value" and "goodwill". It's a calculated move to enhance the position of the company. This is especially telling when a corporation spends more money advertising their goodwill than they ever gave in the first place. From a PR perspective, a gift of a couple million dollars to a high visibility cause can generate the equivalent of many more millions of dollars worth of advertising, and paid advertising can further boost the ROI of charity.

For example, all through the Olympics I saw ExxonMobil ads touting their work fighting malaria in Africa, "Roll Back Malaria." How many million more have they spent on prime air time to make themselves appear more socially responsible. At the end of the day, they post record-breaking profits and leave a massive trail of environmental degradation behind them. "Corporate responsibility" is self-interest.

Perhaps some good comes of this--and I hope that it does--but does corporate charity really fulfill the command to love neighbor?

It's easy to pick on corporations. They only exist to serve capital. They are what they are, but Christ calls his disciples to something higher. Loving neighbor as ourself needs to be more than loving ourself.

To love our neighbors

Trevin Wax asks the question: Do we have time to love our neighbors? He writes:

Living the slower pace of Romanian village life forced me to wrestle with the question: Do we in the United States have time to love our neighbors?

Surely loving your neighbor is more than just being there for them in case something goes wrong or they need help. Loving your neighbor means you’re ready to get to know them.To understand their mindset.To look past their quirks.To love them through their trials.To talk to them about the little events of the day and to confide in them in the big events of the day.

God has created us for more than shallow friendships that boil down to activities and entertainment that rob us of our time together. He wants us to go deep in our relationships with others. To spend time with people, for it is time with people that brings change in life.

I fear that many of our churches have chosen shallow waters over deep waters when it comes to Christian fellowship. Church has become a place for one activity on top of another. Game night, choir practice, youth activities, dramas, movie night, etc. Again, these aren’t bad things!

But here’s the important question: Do our churches foster opportunities to better know and love our neighbors? Or could it be that all our good activities actually hinder us from truly knowing and loving people?

written by Trevin Wax © 2008 Kingdom People blog

I would certainly agree that being too busy stifles our love of neighbor. Busy, overbooked people even have difficulty loving their immediate families! It would follow then that churches that push too many activities at people may actually suck up time and energy better reserved for being available to love our families and neighbors.

Often "community" is conceived as having significant social interaction, but I would like to challenge this by considering the experience of shy folks, the kind of people who need extra Powdermilk Biscuits just to go to a church function.

Introverts tend to weary of too much social interaction and appreciate time alone as a way to recharge. Conversely, extroverts thrive on lots of social engagement and may have difficulty spending time by themselves.

If we think of loving neighbor as depending on significant social engagement, then introverts are at a disadvantage to love neighbor. In this case, it's not just the lack of time that interferes, but also a lack of social energy.

I have trouble, however, accepting the idea that somehow sociable folks are more loving of neighbor than shy folks. It may be the opposite, but really, it is silly to take on such gross generalizations.

Instead, let's look at Jesus' answer to the question of "who is my neighbor?" In the parable of the Good Samaritan, it really does not matter whether the Samaritan was an introvert or extrovert. It matters not whether their relationship was deep or non-existent prior to the attack. What mattered was that he made himself available to the needs of the man who had been beaten and robbed.

I would like to emphasize the word, "available." Perhaps the priest and the Levite who passed by without helping were simply too booked to take the time. They had social engagements that left them unavailable for an unexpected need. I'm sure they had some pity for the man, but they had other things they "had to do."

So I would reframe Trevin's question. It's not that we don't have enough time. God saw fit to create our 24-hour day and commanded us to observe a weekly Sabbath. That ought to be enough time to love neighbor.

I would ask this question. How available am I to respond to the need of a neighbor? This means pulling back from over-involvement. I may need to "unstructure" my time so that I have energy and time in reserve.

There is a Torah prohibition against reaping a field all the way to its edges and corners. Rather a little is to be left for the poor to glean from it. This law is a concrete way to love the stranger, and it holds a basic principle. Our schedules need to leave some edges left over for our neighbor in need. Otherwise we are stealing from our neighbor.

This, of course, is easier said than done, but it does give us a helpful principle to evaluate our commitments. We can ask, does this commitment leave me with enough spare time, energy or flexibility to be available to my neighbor?

Image by Lawrence OP

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Responsive Reading of Philippians 2:1-18

Philippians is perhaps Paul’s most passionate letter. Paul writes from prison. He has been ill and depressed. He is torn between living and dying. He would prefer to die and be with the Lord, but for the sake of the Philippians, it is better to remain in the flesh. He longs to visit this congregation he had planted. The prospect of someday returning to it is one of Paul’s few consolations.

Both Paul and the church in Philippi need encouragement. Things are difficult for these mostly gentile believers. Under the strain of persecution, they are full of disagreement, bickering and self-interest. Some are getting lock up in prison. Some are confused by arguments of others who tell them that to really be right with God one must be circumcised. Paul wants them to be of the same mind as they partner with him in the cause of the Gospel.

To get in touch with the pathos beneath this text, I like to read the whole letter aloud. In the early church, letters such as this were “performed.” One person would read it aloud and the others would listen. Philippians is full of mood swings, and I imagine a reader—who reads through the whole letter—alternating his or her voice to match each mood. I’ve begun to imagine how a congregation today might perform this text to create a sense of participation in it.

I would like to share a responsive setting for Philippians 2:1-18. This includes the Christ hymn found in verses 6-11. This was most likely a liturgical text used among the early churches. I feature a dramatic descent, the humility of Christ who empties himself to become human and suffer death, “even death on a cross,” and is followed by an ascent, the exaltation of Christ by the Father to the name above every name. The portions immediately preceding and following the Christ hymn are also compelling. They resonate thematically with the hymn.

So here is the responsive reading. Imagine if you will Paul speaking to the Philippians and the Philippians responding back to Paul. This is what we wish to enact. The leader corresponds to Paul and the group to the Philippian congregation.

Philippians 2:1-18


If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete:


be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.


4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,


6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.


And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—


even death on a cross.


9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,


10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.


16 It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.


17 But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you—


18 and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

If you try this with a group, please let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

An invitation to Prophetic Discipleship


I am starting an online Bible study called, Prophetic Discipleship in Luke.

We will trace how Luke develops a view of prophetic ministry and discipleship. I’ve selected twelve key passages in Luke and Acts. My intent is to take up a passage every two to four weeks. We will begin Sept. 8, 2008 at

Please join me for this exciting study.

Blessing in Christ, James

Monday, September 1, 2008

If you turn back

Jeremiah 15:19 Therefore thus says the LORD: If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them.

God's word is always "Turn back, and I will take you back." The spiritual life is not about always being in God's presence, but it is always returning to God--always remembering and responding to God's everlasting welcome. The righteous will fall seven times, but they will rise again (Proverbs 24:16). The spiritual life is penitential.

But notice that God's promise is not only to take us back--though that would be enough--but God calls us to priestly and prophetic service. This is the meaning of "you shall stand before me." Our priestly service is to come before God in worship, supplication, and intercession for others.

Moreover, "if you utter what is shall serve as my mouth." Our prophetic service is to speak the "precious" word that God gives us and not to utter "what is worthless," words that God has not given us to speak. When we return to God, we find that we have something worth sharing with others.

Today, God calls us and says, return to me, come before me in prayer, share my precious word. May God grant us a thousand ways to return again and again throughout the day.

May I always be ready to do your will.
O Spirit, guide me all through my day,
and help me to listen when you call my name.

Image by Annie62