There is broad agreement among commentators that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is, as Michael Wilcock says, “the most familiar and best loved” of Jesus’ teaching stories. Even so, the tale is called by numerous names by eminent scholars, as the parable of the Lost Son or the Father’s Love or the Waiting Father.
In any case, the broad outlines of the story are clear. The younger of the two Hebrew sons receives from his father, as was his right, an early distribution of the family estate, his inheritance, amounting to as much as one third of its total value. Feeling his oats, so to speak, he converted the bequest into cash and went off and “squandered [it all] in loose living.” Having blown all that he had and lost all semblance of his Jewish dignity (having to work for Gentiles and eat slop fed to pigs), he resolves to return home, confess his misdeeds, and throw himself upon his father’s mercy. Before reaching home, while “yet at a distance”, his father senses his son’s repentance, has compassion, and embraces him, not so much in mere warm greeting but in forgiveness. Not only so, but the father puts on a welcome home feast commanding that all “eat and be merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again, lost and is found.” As Jesus had said shortly before the story here, there is joy [even] in heaven over one sinner who repents.
Repentance, as has been mentioned from our pulpit from Ash Wednesday on, and on until Palm Sunday, is form a Greek word meaning “turn” or “return”, in some sense of remorse. It’s easy to understand, therefore, why the Church has selected the turnabout of the younger son in this beloved parable of Jesus to demonstrate repentance in the middle of the otherwise quite somber Lenten season. Yet, it’s somewhat surprising to find a note of joy in such a time. On the other hand while a bit of let up midway through the usual rigors of Lent is a welcome respite for even the very pious, the intent is doubtless to demonstrate that true repentance opens out into joy and gladness, both on earth and in heaven.
Over against this is the attitude of the older son. While full comment on his behavior has to be put aside for now, it is evident that his self-righteousness and recalcitrance prevented him from sharing in the joy of both the earthly household and in heavenly places.

Christ in Our Midst

In the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of this month, Jesus instructs his disciples, so the church, on how to resolve disputes within the fellowship, not on minor personal matters but presumably serious matter of Christian doctrine. On the basis of Old Testament practice, such is to be settled privately; then, if unsuccessful, with intervention of two reputable witnesses; finally, when all this fails, by a council of the whole Church, up to the point of banishment from its fellowship. Paul in Romans 12 clarifies just how close, tight knit, exclusive the early Church was: those who firmly believed were called “saints”, “holy ones”, “brothers and sisters” in Christ Jesus; those who didn’t were cast out, relegated, as he says in our primary reading, to the realm of sinners. Clearly, fellowship in his Name was a rich possession, not to be trifled with. To the extent that it’s conducted truly in his Name, says Jesus, “I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Indeed, he implies, faith in him deepens fellowship and advances the work of His Church. Contrary to modern, secular habits, spiritual discipline in and for him yields spiritual results!

Of great significance, too, is the way the mentioned principle of discipline broadens out into the practice of Christian discipleship. Just before his promise of presence, our Lord qualifies such, saying that such occurs “where two or three are gathered in my Name”. This declares, quite emphatically, both the conditions and consequences of true discipleship. One who follows him must act always in His Name; that is, seek to know His mind, labor to do His will, work to establish His rule in every human endeavor. Furthermore, when He declares “I am in [your] midst”, he is declaring that he’s with His followers in the fullness of the Spirit He gave to His Church; He’s thereby able to direct them effectively in the way they should go; He’s prepared to empower them in every cause they are engaged in His Name. Not only so, but Matthew ends his account by reporting Jesus final words before sending His disciples out in mission in His behalf: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:20).

Psalm 24: An Alpine Meditation

In early July I was privileged to spend a week or so in Mürren, Switzerland, just opposite what is arguably the most beautiful panorama in the world, namely the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau range of mountains.

Each morning, with their snow-covered peaks to our left, Marcus, his and I would begin an arduous hike to the right of such, some going up from the 5,500 feet elevation of Mürren to the 6,500 feet level of the Almenhubel, some even to the staggering 10,000 feet heights of the Schilthorn. Due to somewhat gimpy knees, for four of the six days of such hiking, I was only able to manage this time the first stage. On the fourth and sixth days, however, I stirred up my courage and strength to press on to a peak named Birg, a mere 9,000 or so feet up. At dinner each of those evenings, after some recovery time, I was roundly applauded by the family – and I was pleased!

As I winded my way up and up on the exhausting switchbacks, on both of the occasions when I ventured higher, the mentioned panorama now and then in view, but with Birg and the Schilthorn as goals ever in my mind and in the last stages clearly I in my sight, I found myself meditating on Psalm 24: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” (vv. 3, 4). My immediate thought, given great fatigue and difficult breathing in the thin air, with yet an hour or so more to go, was that mentally and physically I needed determined will and a strong heart if I were to indeed to make it to Birg. Besides, at this point, there was no alternative but to press onward and upward; I had reached a point of no return.

Having been a teacher of the Old Testament for years, my thoughts went on to biblical/theological things. Recalling that one of my favorite commentators on the Psalms, Artur Weiser, famously opined that the mentioned “pure heart” referred to the moral purity of one who would therefore be qualified to ascend into God’s holy hill, come into his presence in the temple. I always strenuously opposed this view. One could very well have a morally pure heart without believing in God. Rather then, in my view, the Psalmist was setting forth a theological truth, that those who would come into God’s presence in the temple, in worship, or in communion must believe in him in an absolute, plain, straightforward, unadulterated way, even in a binding, legal way, according to covenant law, thus adoring, cherishing, worshiping him at every turn in his covenant life with them, especially so in his new covenant life in Christ Jesus.

J.R. Hiles

Christ Our Passover

According to the Gospels, Jesus placed all events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter within the context of the Jewish Passover. See especially Matthew 26.1-2, 26-29; Mark 14.17-25; Luke 1414-23; and John 13.1-5; refer also to Paul’ statement in I Corinthians 5.7-8. A thoughtful and prayerful reading of these passages would make an exceedingly fruitful Holy Week devotion.

The Passover is the first and probably the greatest of three major Jewish festivals. While origins and details are obscure, two fundamental features of the developed observance stand out clearly.

First of all, the Passover commemorates God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from long captivity in Egypt. Secondly, central to Passover is the sacrificial offering of an unblemished Lamb, which shows general thankfulness to God on the part of the people for their rescue, and the blood of such sacrifice marks the homes of the faithful as God “pass(es) over” the Hebrews while slaying the first-born of the Egyptians, an unspeakable plague resulting in the Pharaoh’s freeing of the Hebrews.

By placing his last supper, death, and resurrection in the midst of these things, Jesus is, in effect, creating an entirely new context, a totally new covenant.

He states thereby that his sacrifice on the cross is to be understood as the offering of the New Israel, his Church. Moreover, he declares that his resurrection is the new deliverance from the greater captivity of sin. Finally, he shows in all this that the Last Supper (or Eucharist, Communion, or Mass) is the New Passover meal celebrating God’s presence and the people’s thankfulness in the new relationship.

As a notable commentator observes, in the early Church Easter was called Pascha, a Greek form of the Hebrew term Passover. Our English name comes from an old pagan festival in honor of the goddess of spring, Eastre.

Borrowing such festivals and terms was good in itself, for it sought quite successfully to convert pagans by assimilation. Unfortunately, it also has the effect of emptying the Christian faith of much of its original meaning, leaving it vulnerable to re-paganism by the increasing secularism of the modern era.

The powerful expression of our Prayer Book Eucharist (page 263) has matters right and provides the faithful with an effective hedge against such danger: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us! Alleluia!

– JR Hiles

Epiphany: Its Haunting Message

January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany, one of seven principal holy days on the Church calendar. Its season extends for six weeks or so (this year it’s eight) until Ash Wednesday.

The central story of the Epiphany, a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” is that concerning the Wise Men and how they were beckoned from the East by a great star marking the birth of Jesus. As the Gospel of Matthew records it (2.1-12), they came for two purposes: worship him and offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Having sensed that a new ruling force had come into the world, they brought to him gifts fit for a king.

Gold simply represented primarily material things, and inasmuch as the givers in this instance were astrologers, highly esteemed and rewarded intellectuals of their day, it may be supposed that the gift was substantial.

They also brought frankincense. Due to its rich fragrance, this points somehow to inner treasurers which these notable figures likewise presented to the one marked by the star.

Finally, they brought myrrh. Since such was used in embalming dead bodies, this very likely indicates a desire to lay before this new being all their grief and sorrow for what had gone wrong in their lives.

These were indeed gifts fit for a king, for these wise men were somehow persuaded that the star marked the coming into the world a king who could give a life fit to live.

The Epiphany poses a haunting – yea, spiritually tormenting – message for Christians in every time and place, right down to today. Do we truly worship him? Because we name ourselves after the Christ child, we may feel confident that we have indeed sought him, found him, and adore him sufficiently.

In as much as most members of the Church attend services from time to time, put something in the offering plate, and see to it that their children are baptized, educated in the faith, and confirmed, they may think that they have offered to him adequately. But have we? Have we really given Christ our myrrh, our sorrow, pain, and disappointment in life, believing that He is the one sent from God to “turn our sorrow into joy?”

Have we given Him our frankincense, our inner treasures of thought and influence, understanding that, as God amongst us, he is worthy of our deepest devotion?

Have we given Him and his Church sufficient of our gold, our material substance, believing that life is worthless unless dedicated to Him?

– JR Hiles
Adapted from a sermon on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1991