Posts Tagged ‘Hermeneutics’

Author’s note: I am going to publish two versions of this essay, one that includes the referenced sections of scripture in the body of the essay, and another that does not include the referenced sections in the body of the essay but encourages the reader to keep their Bible handy and read these sections as I mention them. This way, the reader can enjoy whichever version works best for them. This will be the version without printed references, so here is you first chance—read Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 now.

The Olivet Discourse—Or Is It?

In academic circles, Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 are known as the Olivet Discourse. This is because the location the discourse took place was the Mount of Olives, or so we are told. To get straight to the point, the fact that all three sections are commonly referred to by the same title indicates that most scholars appear to believe that these are what are known as “parallel” records, meaning that they are simply separate records of identical events, and that variations between the records are insignificant enough to require them to be identified as records of distinct non-identical events. It is my belief however that these are not parallel records but are in fact records of separate albeit often similar discourses, and that the variations between the records are significant enough to require us to conclude that they are separate discourses.

Furthermore, the ramifications of this hypothesis are significant. If these three records are indeed parallel, then this can logically lead to certain theological and eschatological conclusions. If these records are distinct however, then this leads to different conclusions.

The first key point that must be made however is this—I do believe that the records in Matthew and Mark are in fact parallel records—the distinction lies between these two records and Luke.

The record in Mark is essentially an abbreviated version of Matthew. There is little variation, and Mark is shorter and contains fewer details than Matthew. It will therefore be a convention throughout this essay to imply that the parallel idea in Mark is included whenever I mention Matthew, unless otherwise noted.

Take a moment to re-read the three records again to see just how similar they can appear to be.

But now, let’s look at the distinctions—distinctions I believe are significant enough that they require us to conclude that these are separate records of separate discourses.

 

Jesus’ Audience and the Location of the Discourse-

Carefully read Luke 21:1, and Matthew 24:1. The record in Matthew clearly takes place on the Mount of Olives, hence the convenient label Olivet Discourse, where Jesus briefs his disciples, specifically Peter, James, John and Andrew on the signs of the end of the age. In the Luke account however, Jesus is teaching the people in theTemple, and there are no details in the record that suggest he departed from the Temple before beginning his discourse in verse six.

Compare and Contrast 1

Matthew 24 Luke 21
Audience? Jesus’ disciples The people
Location? Mount of Olives The Temple
Nature of the discourse? Private briefing Public teaching

 

Which Desolation?

Carefully read Matthew 24:15 and Luke 21:20. Both records use the word desolation, but the similarity stops there. Matthew speaks of the abomination of (or, “that causes”) desolation, while Luke addresses the desolation of Jerusalem. Matthew’s abomination of desolation takes place in the holy place, while a central feature of Luke’s desolation is the entire city of Jerusalem being surrounded. In addition, both the Matthew and Mark records cite the book of Daniel as the precedent for this event, while Luke does not.[1]

Compare and Contrast 2

Matthew 24 Luke 21
Which desolation? Abomination Jerusalem
Location? In the holy place Entire city of Jerusalem
Daniel cited as precedent? Yes No

 

Before or After?

Carefully read Matthew 24:6–9 and Luke 21:9–12. Even though the list of wars, rumors of wars, etc., is extremely similar, the other details are not. According to Matthew, these signs are just the beginning and after they happen Jesus’ disciples will be delivered to synagogues, etc. In the Luke account, the people are told they will be delivered to synagogues, etc., before these things happen. Additionally, in Matthew, Jesus’ disciples will be afflicted, killed, and hated of all nations,[2] whereas the people will be persecuted, imprisoned,and brought before kings and rulers. Similar? Yes. Identical? No.[3]

Contrast and Compare 3

Matthew 24 Luke 21
Who is targeted?[4] Jesus’ disciples The people
When? After these things Before these things
Nature of the trouble? Affliction/death Persecution/imprisonment

 

Unprecedented or Just “Really Bad” Tribulation?-

Carefully read Matthew 24:16–21 and Luke 21:21–24. Matthew qualifies his statement that the events he describes are a season of tribulation or affliction like none that has ever been seen before—or ever will be. Luke does not make this qualification, he just says that there will be great distress. One possible consequence of believing that these are parallel records is a doctrine known a preterism, which is the belief that most, if not all, prophetic events described in the Bible have already taken place, primarily during the 1stcentury at the destruction of the Temple. The distinctions between Matthew 24 and Luke 21 present real problems for preterism however, and especially the distinctions cited here. The destruction of the Temple, although horrific, was not unprecedented. But even more importantly, the qualification in Matthew states that the tribulation that corresponds to these events will be the worst the world has ever seen or will ever see. The destruction of the Temple simply does not meet this criterion.[5]

Contrast and Compare 4

Matthew 24 Luke 21
Nature of the tribulation. Never anything like it before or after. Yes No

 

Hebrew or Gentile Perspective?

Carefully read Matthew 24:16–21 and Luke 21:21–24. The gospels are widely considered to have different emphases. While all readers can benefit from the various perspectives, Matthew is generally considered as being delivered to a Jewish audience from a Jewish perspective, while Luke is considered as being delivered to a Gentile audience from a Gentile perspective. The Matthew record warns those who hear to pray that their flight is not on the Sabbath, a point that would only matter to Torah observant occupants of Judea.[6] The Luke record makes no such reference.

Altogether, this makes for a pretty convincing list of distinctions.

Contrast and Compare All

Matthew 24 Luke 21
Audience? Jesus’ disciples The people
Location of discourse? Mount of Olives The Temple
Nature of the discourse? Private briefing Public teaching
Which desolation? Abomination Jerusalem
Location of desolation? In the holy place Entire city of Jerusalem
Daniel cited as precedent? Yes No
Who is targeted? Jesus’ disciples The people
When? After these things Before these things
Nature of the trouble? Affliction/death Persecution/imprisonment
Nature of the tribulation, never anything like it before or after. Yes No
Hebrew or Gentile perspective? Hebrew Gentile
First century or future? Future First century

 

Conclusion-

Luke 21 was written to primarily Gentile believers who would witness the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Matthew 24 is written to a future generation of Jewish believers who will witness the abomination of desolation.

This is important in the debate between preterist/post-millennial believers, and pre-millennial believers. Preterists and post-mils claim that the events of Matthew 24 were fulfilled in the first century and therefore to expect a future fulfillment of these events is futile. A pre-mil believer on the other hand suggests that it was the events of Luke 21 as distinct from Matthew 24 that were legitimately fulfilled during the first century, but that the events of Matthew 24 (since they are an entirely different record) have yet to be fulfilled.

The Luke record offers no assistance in understanding what the “abomination of desolation” (spoken of by Daniel the prophet) is, only Matthew and Mark’s records accomplish this.

Preterism and post-millennialism hold that ancient Israel finds its continuation and/or fulfillment in the Church, and as a result it is very difficult for preterism and post-millennialism to not turn into subtle or even flagrant anti-Semitism.

Partial and full preterism and post-millennialism are seeing a resurgence today, especially in certain charismatic circles. The arguments are rarely convincing to well-educated believers as they are usually an ad hoc mixture of pre and post-millennialism.

 

[1] Once the precedent of the prophet Daniel is understood, it is impossible to reach the conclusion that the abomination of desolation occurred at the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. The abomination of desolation involves defiling the Temple in a rather specific manner. In A.D. 70 the Temple was destroyed but not defiled in this manner.

[2] The implication here is international, even global. The events of Luke 21, circa 70 A.D. were localized or at most regional.

[3] While the tribulation of the Jewish/Roman War ~A.D.66–70 clearly included many deaths, not merely persecution and imprisonment, the clear implication of the Matthew 24 record is that far greater numbers will die.

[4] Another key distinction is in view here. Between A.D. 66–70 the Jewish nation was at war with Rome, resulting in the destruction of the Temple. In the Luke account all who dwell in Judea are encouraged to flee Jerusalem/Judea. In the Matthew account, “those who dwell in Judea” are encouraged to flee, but with an added distinction. The phrase “pray that your flight is not on the Sabbath” targets Torah observant followers of Christ—a very unique group indeed.

[5] When confronted with this inconvenient fact, most preterists quickly become “partial” preterists—those who believe only some of the prophecies of scripture were fulfilled in A.D. 70, leaving room for them to cherry pick which prophecies have been fulfilled and which have not.

[6] This point is examined more fully in my essay The Remnant and Israel’s Petition.

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There is a saying making the rounds in certain circles of Christianity today that both excites me and bothers me at the same time. That saying is…

“Jesus is perfect theology.”

Most people who use this expression love it, frankly because, who could possibly argue with it? How could Jesus ever not be perfect theology?

Just so we’re clear, I believe this statement is true—Jesus is perfect theology. He was, is, and (always) will be perfect theology—and therein lies an additional and important insight.

You see, what always bothered me about this saying wasn’t so much the saying itself, but how people used it, in other words what people who said it said next. Because whether they realized it or not, they were using this catchphrase as a kind of binding maxim, that is, “an established principle or proposition,” and (again, whether they realized it or not) were counting on this “established principle” to preempt any dissent from their next statement.

The next statement varies, but one of the most common ones is, “I’ll take the words of Jesus over the words of Paul any day.” And now we have a problem, a big problem, because that statement is simply bad theology, hence the need to preface it with what appears to be an unassailable truism.

First, the statement “I’ll take the words of Jesus over the words of Paul,” ignores the orthodox hermeneutical principle that “holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). The same Holy Spirit that “moved” Peter, also moved Paul, and also moved Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. A statement in scripture is not somehow “more inspired” because Luke (for example) is quoting Jesus as compared with Paul receiving revelation and writing “the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations but has now been manifested to His saints” (Colossians 1:26).

Second, as is almost always the case with biblical issues, the statement “Jesus is perfect theology” must be put in context. Was Jesus “perfect theology” five minutes after he was born? Hmm? Or did he grow in wisdom as the scripture says? (Luke 2:40.)

Finally, these combined statements essentially ignore the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost—one of the most extraordinary and significant events is scripture and in the history of the world, and the profound changes that occurred as a result. Very simply, the rules changed at Pentecost. Jesus himself anticipated this and spoke to his disciples during his earthly ministry to be ready for it when it came.

You see, Jesus was perfect theology is his earthly ministry and he is perfect theology now in his ascended ministry. But the Gospels do not represent his ascended ministry—the Church epistles do.

The Bible is full of stories about migration. Whether Abraham’s journey to Canaan, the children of Israel going to Egypt, or the Exodus there from, the Bible is replete with such stories. In fact, there are so many I am not going to attempt any kind of summary at this time. What I am going to do however is cherry pick one story… BUT! I am telling you in advance that I am going to cherry pick one story, unlike most of the other articles I am seeing about “What the Bible Says About Immigration” that cherry pick one story and then claim how “clear” the Bible is on the subject.

One very famous story that involves migrants is the story of Ruth. It begins with a Hebrew family migrating to Moab due to a famine in Judea. After living there for apparently a rather short time, the father dies, and in due order, the two sons of the family marry Moabite women. After about ten years, the two sons also die, leaving the women alone. Soon, word arrives that the famine in Judea has ended and the mother, Naomi, determines to return home. Although all three women start the journey, Naomi rather quickly adjures her two daughters-in-law to return to their parent’s homes as she has nothing to offer them. One heeds her counsel and returns home, while the other, Ruth, insists upon going with her.

The rest of the story is a striking tale of redemption. Ruth meets and marries a great man who provides for both her and her mother-in-law, and the two (Ruth and Boaz) are early ancestors of both King David and eventually the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

During the story (and how Ruth meets Boaz) Ruth receives a kind of “welfare” stipulated in the Law of Moses for the poor, widows, orphans, and “foreigners.” It should be noted that Ruth had to work for it, and there were no government programs where one could receive benefits and not work. But a key point in the entire story is this… Ruth was so thankful for the kindness and generosity showed to her that she made the following declaration…

“Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” [Ruth 1:16 NAS]

The point being this. Yes, the Bible urges us to be kind to immigrants, but it also urges immigrants to adapt to the culture of their host country and be thankful they were allowed to come and become productive members of society.

Yes, I am cherry picking one Bible story that involves immigration, and there is much more that can be said about this and other similar stories, but this one very famous story stands against the all too common and permissive interpretation that we are supposed to allow everyone in who wants to come without limits or conditions. If we consider ourselves to be a “Christian” nation, should we welcome immigrants? The Bible seems pretty clear that we must. But it is also equally clear that to require them to do so in compliance with our laws, values, and customs is equally appropriate.

I would like to introduce a new subject to my blog–the birth of Jesus Christ.

Many years ago I was introduced to a provocative theory regarding the accurate birth date for Jesus Christ—and you guessed it—it is not December 25th. This theory fascinated me because it was based on real biblical, historical, and scientific evidence, and not on tradition. Because of this, I have been investigating the historical events leading up to and surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ for over 30 years.

It may come as a surprise that it has been widely known for several centuries, that not only was Jesus of Nazareth not born on December 25th, but in fact could not have been born on December 25th. In over 30 years of researching the birth of Christ, I have yet to discover a single serious biblical or historical scholar who defends a December 25 birth date for Jesus of Nazareth with enough significant reliable evidence to even put a dent in the mountain of evidence that suggests an alternative date.

Given the fact that it is widely known that Jesus could not have been born on December 25th and that no serious biblical scholar has suggested such for several centuries, it is frankly rather astonishing how often people are surprised when informed that Jesus of Nazareth was not born on Christmas Day.

This fact is accompanied by the tragic and ironic fact that the sources for most of what we think we know about the birth of Christ tend to be Christmas cards, Christmas carols, Christmas pageants, and nativity scenes—most of which are built on the false assumption that Jesus was born on December 25th. When it comes to an accurate knowledge of Christ’s birth, and even to a significant degree, who Jesus was and what he was like when he walked the Earth—the “Christmas” sources have done more harm than good.

This is doubly ironic when we consider the fact, that I will share in detail in a later segment, that we have known for several hundred years that Jesus was not born on December 25th—which means that most, if not all, of the “Christmas” related sources that presume a December 25th birth date were developed within a time frame when this fact was already well-known.

The holiday we now celebrate (“Christmas”) is an invention that occurred primarily in America starting in the late 18th century and developing into its current form through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Any association with the birth of Christ is based, although frequently unknowingly, on incorrect facts.

More to come…

I love the Bible–I really do. I enjoy hermeneutics as well–the science and art of interpreting the scriptures. This entry however is about “unscientific hermeneutics”–in other words, this is not about a rigid set of principles, it’s about an observation I have made between those who seem to interpret scripture from a religious mindset and those who interpret scripture from a relational mindset.

I recently saw a Facebook meme by a high profile minister. It read:

“Those who repent will be given the grace to change.”

Now this may be true if we are speaking of an unbeliever confessing Christ for the first time. I say “may” because one could argue that God gave them the grace to repent in the first place. And therein lies the rub.

If we are speaking about a person who is already in Christ, then this quote is inaccurate and reflects a religious mindset. Once a person is saved, then the default paradigm of being in Christ is…

The accomplished work of the cross supplies the grace we need that enables us to repent and change.

If we have already been saved and yet still have to repent in order to receive grace, the cross was in vain.

Religion teaches us that there is something we must do and then God can respond. Relationship teaches us that God has already done everything that needs to be done in Christ and therefore supplies us with the resources necessary to fulfill what He has called us to do. In other words, religion essentially gets it backwards.

As I have said in previous entries, that if there could be such a thing, the Old Covenant would be the perfect religion–it was written by God, but is kept by human effort. And furthermore, that much of Christianity is merely Old Covenant paradigms veiled in New Covenant terminology. Jesus did not come to start a new religion, or perfect an existing one–He came to put an end to religion in favor of relationship.

So here are a couple more doctrines that got flipped at the cross.

Old Covenant: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all they soul, and all thy strength.
New Covenant: Behold, I give you a new commandment–to love others as I have loved you.

Old Covenant: Give and it will be given to you, pressed down, shaken together and running over.
New Covenant: Freely you have received freely give.

So here is my unscientific hermeneutical principle: If you suspect that something you hear smacks of religion, try flipping it over and see what you get.

Full Title: The Least, The Lost, The Last, The Losers, and the Little Ones: Revisiting the Parables of Jesus In Light of Religion Versus Relationship

The Lost: The Parable of the So-Called Prodigal Son (Or as I prefer to call it: My So-Called Life) Luke 15:11–32

Read: The Parable of the (So-Called) Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11–32

It has long been recognized that the commonly used title for this parable (The Prodigal Son) is less than the best. It does not accurately summarize the story as a whole or even the primary point(s) we are to take away. Even worse, it prejudices our opinion with regard to interpretation before we even read the story. This is a parable about a father and two sons—understanding all three of which is critical to understanding the parable as a whole.

(11) And he said, A certain man had two sons: (12) And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. [Luke 15:11–12 KJV]

As is often the case with such stories, there are details that are part of the initial premise that should arrest our attention. The first and most obvious of these details, the fact that the younger son requests his inheritance prematurely, should move us to ask: “When does one usually receive their inheritance?” The equally obvious answer is only after our parents have died.

From reading the parable even once through we are already aware of the fact that the younger son is likely foolish and arrogant, but this pretty much seals the deal. By asking for his inheritance prematurely, the younger son is indicating the depth of his contempt for his father—essentially declaring either “Would you just up and die already?” or, “You’re dead to me already.” Either way, he is rather clearly crossing a significant threshold with regard to his relationship (or more accurately his lack of relationship) with his father. This combined with what we will read in verse 13, most likely indicates crossing a point of no return.

What should really slap us in the face however is the fact that his father grants his request! For most of us, regardless of whether we are on the parent or progeny side of the equation, we generally understand the typical scenario to look something like this: Which ever parent dies first, the estate goes fully to the surviving spouse first. Then once the surviving spouse dies, the children will get their share. Although there certainly may be some variations on this theme, it is reasonably certain that this is how it goes down most of the time. And even if we take cultural considerations into account, primarily the right of primogeniture—the practice of the eldest son receiving a double portion in order to care for his mother if his father dies first—the younger son’s request is severely out of order. One does not inherit until your parents, or at least your father, is dead.

But not this father, and not this time. This father grants his younger son’s request and presumably sells off enough of his estate to pay him off in cash. The rest of the estate, from the context presumably a farm or other agricultural interest, goes to the older brother—a point that becomes critical later on.

I prefer the King James Version of the Bible for this text because of the translation of one particular Greek word. In the second half of verse 12, we read: “And he divided unto them his living.” The word his is in italics here due to the practice of the King James translators to call our attention to any words not found in the critical Greek text. But the word I want to focus on is the word living. Most other translations use words like wealth, assets, substance, or possessions—the WEB uses the word livelihood—but the word living is actually the most accurate, because in Greek it is ton bion—one of the Greek words for life. In addition, although no English version I am aware of tips us off, the Greek word for goods (v. 12—“give me the portion of goods that falleth to me”), is the word ten oisian, which can be translated either substance or being. The net result of these Greeks words yields the understanding that by giving them their inheritance early, the father is in effect “dying.” In other words the father is willingly laying down his life (being) for his sons. So in a manner of speaking, when his younger son said, “Hey Dad, drop dead”—he did. As previously indicated, and as is usually the case, this sets the stage for all that follows.

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. [Luke 15:13 KJV]

As hinted at earlier, when we combine the fact that the younger son considered his father to be “dead already” with the now revealed fact that he wasted no time getting out of Dodge, and to a far country no less, it is fair to assume that he had some pretty significant “Daddy issues” and didn’t plan on returning. And now that his father is “dead” so to speak, there seems to be little doubt that we will never see him again.

But even before verse 13 ends we get a hint that this may not be so. We soon learn that the “get-rich-quick” younger son just as quickly squanders his existence on what the King James Version calls “riotous” living. We are not told specifically what his particular vices are, but again it is fair to assume that it is a least “wine, women, and song,” if not worse.

And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. [Luke 15:14 KJV]

I am particularly fond of this verse. Not because I wish any greater harm to fall on this insolent little twerp, but because this scenario, although fictitious, rings so true. I have little doubt that the younger son didn’t plan on running out of money. As a matter of fact, he may have held a small portion in reserve for when the major partying would eventually come to an end. But now the unexpected happens, a famine “just happens” to come along—and no ordinary famine—a mighty famine. If the younger son wasn’t “dead” (hint, hint) broke already—he is now.

And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. (16) And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. [Luke 15:15–16 KJV]

Although we are never told with any certainty the ethnicity of the family in this story, we are certain of who Jesus’ audience is—and it is fair to assume that Jesus utilized this portion of the story to deliberately provoke Jewish religious sensibilities. The younger son was clearly young and foolish, and most likely cocky or even flat out arrogant—but we can all relate to unforeseen tragedy, and famine in the ancient Middle East was a matter of life and death. Was the impudent whelp, young? Who hasn’t been young at least once in their life? Was he foolish? He certainly isn’t alone on that count. But a mighty famine isn’t his fault—is it? Did the young man deserve to perish simply for being young and foolish? And this can’t be an example of reaping what he has sown because it is affecting everyone. So for a Jew, or at least a Jewish audience, this is about as low as you can go. Working for a pig farmer is bad enough, but he is now hungry enough that pig food sounds appealing, and still no one would help him.

(17) And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! (18) I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, (19) And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. [Luke 15:17–19 KJV]

Shazam! Thank God he finally “comes to himself.” The younger son wakes up one morning and realizes that his life as he once knew it is now over—in other words, he wakes up dead. As a matter of fact, I have waited until now to take note of the fact that the substance he wastes in verse 13, is the same Greek word as verse 12 (ten oisian) meaning his being—his life. (He has wasted life.)

Furthermore, he realizes his folly and begins composing his confession to his father. And while I have little doubt that he is genuinely remorseful and this is truly a critical turning point in the story, we must remember to keep it within the context of the whole story. Take note of the content of his “confession” as it stands at this point.

• I have sinned against heaven, and before thee
• I am no more worthy to be called thy son
• Make me as one of thy hired servants

“Make me as one of your hired servants.” This isn’t confession—it’s negotiation. So apparently he’s not quite dead yet—but he’s close—he’ll be stone dead in a minute. But for now, with his last gasping breath, he is trying to make a trade—one life (albeit a wasted one) for another—because it may be as a servant, but it’s better than my wasted life—all without actually having to “die.”

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. [Luke 15:20 KJV]

This is clearly one of the most important take-away points of the entire story—you simply do not see someone “yet a great way off” if you’re not looking for them. Despite the enormous price he paid, despite the fact that his son rather clearly considered him dead, despite the fact that for all he knew his son was dead, or never returning—the father has never stopped hoping his son would come home. And when he does (come home), the father does not “make sure he learned his lesson” first, doesn’t make him wallow in remorse, or even let him blurt out his confession first—he runs to meet him and smothers him with affection.

I have heard it said that culturally, elder men such as this father simply did not run in public—to hike up one’s robes and sprint through the pasture was undignified—even shameful. If this is so, it makes this parable all the more poignant, because it demonstrates that the father was willing to pay any price for his son—even taking the shame upon himself. Whatever shame and mockery the son felt in returning with his tail between his legs was trumped by the father dashing through the dust and dung to meet him.

And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. [Luke 15:21 KJV]

Take note of the distinction between his actual confession and his planned confession. The “make me as one of your hired servants” clause is conspicuously absent—no more negotiating, no more trading—finally—stone dead.

(22) But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: (23) And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: (24) For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. [Luke 15:22–24 KJV]

Did I say “Shazam” already? I guess I should have saved it for now—Shazam! Although there are many take away points from this parable, this is clearly the crux (pun intended) of the matter—death and resurrection. The dead are made alive, the lost are found. And right in the middle of it all—a veal roast.

The fatted-calf is a rather unusual “sacrifice”—because we usually don’t look at this as a sacrifice—just a good meal. But think about it. The fatted-calf has but one purpose in “life”—death. It stands around in a stall all day, getting well-marbled and waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice so people can have a cookout. In my opinion this makes the fatted-calf the most conspicuous Christ figure in the whole story.

(25) Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. (26) And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. (27) And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. (28a) And he was angry, and would not go in. [Luke 15:25–28a KJV]

Angry? Why is he angry? Your long lost brother is home, your bereaved father who has never given up hope is beside himself with joy, there’s beef on the barbeque, and you’re angry? That’s carrying one huge grudge for an awful long time. Forgive me for being blunt, but here goes. This is where I believe the traditional title “The Prodigal Son” prejudices our interpretation from the start and we totally miss the point we are supposed to take away about the elder son—that the elder son had no better relationship with his father than the younger son.

(28b) Therefore came his father out, and intreated him. (29) And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. (30) But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. [Luke 15:28b–30 KJV]

Because the elder son wouldn’t go in the father comes out and entreats him. I imagine he said something to the affect of, “I know you’re upset with your brother—but please do this for me”—but the elder brother would have none of it. Furthermore, he feels compelled to explain to his father why he won’t go in, and in doing so describes his “life” and how he feels about it—and in so doing also describes his “relationship” with his father (again, or lack thereof). “Lo, these many years do I serve thee…” The Greek word for serve here is the word douleo, which is better translated slave—“Lo, these many years have I slaved for you.” Some relationship—huh? And furthermore, he goes on to whine, “I did everything right, and he did everything wrong, and yet you love him more!” Plus, “You gave him the most costly sacrifice of all and never even gave me a stupid goat!” In other words, “You never gave me anything!” And this is where he is dead wrong—not dead (and that’s the problem)—but definitely dead wrong.

Also take note of the fact that the elder son accuses the younger son of wasting his father’s living (“devoured thy living” v.30). But the father has been “dead” since the beginning of the parable. Therefore, the younger son could not have wasted his father’s living—he wasted his own living. But possibly even more important is the fact that the elder son implies “But I didn’t waste your living like my brother did.” But this is equally fallacious. The elder brother didn’t “not waste” his father’s living—he didn’t “not waste” what already belonged to him (since his father has been dead the whole time)—his own life. But there are two points we should take away from this. The first is that the elder brother can’t accuse the younger brother of wasting his father’s money and pat himself on the pack for not wasting his father’s money in the same breath—since in both cases, it wasn’t his father’s money. The second is, when we once again realize that they are talking about wasting their “lives,” the elder brother is under the mistaken impression that while the younger brother clearly wasted his “life,” that he (the elder brother) didn’t waste his! But the quality of his so-called life, “Lo, these many years have I slaved for you,” speaks for itself and betrays him.

(31) And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. (32) It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. [Luke 15:31–32 KJV]

Remember how I said at the outset that the father’s actions set the tone for the whole story? The father preemptively laid down his life for both his sons. From the moment he “died” the elder son (since his younger brother soon beats feet out of town) owned everything. In other words, the “father’s life” has always been available to him this entire time, but instead of living by the father’s life, he lived as a slave, overburdened by rule keeping and obligation.

Parties (celebration, weddings, festivals, etc) in Scripture are indicative of relationship. And there is no greater cause for celebration than resurrection. If the elder son cannot recognize this, it is genuinely too bad—especially because he doesn’t seem to realize that his life isn’t really much of a life, and that he too should probably just admit that he is already dead and thereby get a new one.

Isn’t it funny, when we encounter a season of significant adversity, and everything seems to be going south that we sometimes say, “I want my life back”! Although I can relate to the frustration because I have done this myself, the reality is that the Father would rather that we just admit that we’re dead already so he can give us a new one.

In conclusion, the younger son rejected a relationship with his father by rebelling—the elder son rejected a relationship with his father by “living” (if you can call it that) a life of rule keeping and obligation—in a word—religion. And what’s worse, the elder son absolutely refuses to give up his crappy so-called life for a new one!

The tragic irony is that when the father entreats the elder son, he is asking him to join the party—in effect saying, “If you’ll just die to your twisted idea of what life is supposed to be, you can have a new one!” Or to put a different way—just admit the fact that you’re already dead!

But the ultimate tragedy is the cliffhanger ending—we never know if the elder son goes into the party—it doesn’t appear as though he does. The parable has been a plethora of death—dead father—dead younger son—dead calf—dead everything except a dead older brother.

What does the father have with his younger son at the end of the parable that he doesn’t have at the beginning? An affectionate relationship. What does the father have with his elder son that he didn’t have at the beginning? Unfortunately we’ll never know.

God does not want the indentured servitude of slaves—he wants the extravagant affection of a relationship with sons and daughters.

The kingdom of heaven in not advanced by human achievement and worldly methodologies, regardless of how cleverly disguised they are as “Christian principles.” If human effort gained anything then the Gospel of Jesus Christ is pointless (Galatians 3:21). God simply does not define success the way the world defines success. The kingdom of heaven is advanced by paradox. The last shall be first. Losers win. The least are greatest. The lost are found. And the dead… are resurrected.