The Fourth Sunday in Lent
I Corinthians 5:16-21
Saint Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
On this Sunday’s readings we can see how the Lectionary is designed to augment one, both or even all three of the readings. Usually the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures has something to say to or provides context for the Gospel Reading, and on occasions the psalm also will provide context or commentary. The second lesson may or may not. In some seasons it runs on its own track, providing a continuing reading over a series of Sundays from one of the letters of Paul. This Sunday we have the Hebrew Scriptures supplying an emotional background for the Gospel, while the Psalm provides the theological background. I shall comment more when we come to those readings.
The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
First off, let us answer the question of “why this reading on this particular Sunday, with this particular Gospel?” The situation described in Joshua becomes a point of comparison with the situation that the Prodigal Son, in the Gospel, finds himself. The description of plentitude and abundance contrasts with the hunger of the son, who has squandered his inheritance, and is now relegated to sharing food with the swine he is keeping. It is no accident that he is keeping and sharing food with an unclean beast – but more about that later. For the Israelites this is a transition from the privations of the journey in the wilderness (an appropriate theme in Lent) to the promised abundance of the new land. The section opens with a reference to their deliverance from Egypt, and indeed they name the place with that in mind. The name “Gilgal” is phonetically similar to the Hebrew verb form which means, “I have removed.” This may be an etiology (an explanation of an already existing place name, or site) that the writer of Joshua uses to make a theological point. Here they are redeemed, made free, made full. In this way they become symbols of what God promises to do, when redemption and forgiveness break in on us. The key, I think, is remembrance, the effort to keep the memory of moments of freedom and forgiveness alive by refreshing their memory in our minds. Perhaps the following questions will help.
Breaking Open Joshua:
- Who is Joshua? Do you remember?
- Is your life abundant? In what ways is it abundant, and in what ways is it not?
- Have you experienced freedom in your life? From what have you been freed? From what would you like to be freed?
Psalm 32 Beati quorum
Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
I said," I will confess my transgressions to the LORD." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
"I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; *
I will guide you with my eye.
Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; *
who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you."
Great are the tribulations of the wicked; *
but mercy embraces those who trust in the LORD.
Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the LORD; *
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.
This psalm of thanksgiving begins with an individual remembrance of what God has done for the author. He begins in a general sense, acknowledge the forgiveness that is available generally to anyone, but then becomes quite particular about his own situation. The scene is almost psychological with the hand of God lying heavily upon the conscience of the author, so that he becomes “dried up as in the heat of summer.” That point becomes a revelation for him, when he realizes that all this is necessary is confession – an admission of what has gone amiss. From that point on the psalm takes on a different tone, with God being seen not as an accuser (in the Hebrew Scriptures that is Satan’s function) but rather as a “hiding place”, a forgiver, a preserver and instructor. The psalmist reminds us that we are in a “higher order of creation.” We are creatures, but creatures that know the creator. Thus the psalm ends with invitations to others to recognize God’s graciousness, and to rejoice in God’s forgiveness. All of these themes provide theological grist for the Gospel’s mill.
Breaking open Psalm 32
- Have you ever confessed something to someone? What was the experience like?
- Have you ever confessed something to a priest? What was that experience like?
- Have you ever verbally forgiven someone, following his or her confession to you?
- Have you confessed and then been forgiven by someone you might have harmed?
- Do all the emotions that are evident in the psalm, ring true to you?
II Corinthians 5:16-21
From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
In this reading, Paul supplies us with the Christian theology about forgiveness, and the Gospel will provide us with examples of how this theology is lived out. Paul wants his readers to look in the mirror and see something different. It is similar to the situation in the first reading, where the Israelites looked into the mirror and no longer saw themselves as slaves but rather as free men and women. In a way, Paul tries to teach his readers about this by reaching back to creation, only this time new men and women, indeed the whole of creation is reshaped and reformed not from the stuff of chaos, or from the mud of the earth, but from the lives that were formerly bound in sin. It is not only the reader who can see him or herself in this new guise, but God also; who know sees us as renewed and reconciled. The problem comes when we can’t see ourselves the way God sees us in Jesus Christ.
Breaking open I Corinthians:
- Are there aspects of yourself that you would like to “recreate”?
- Is this something that you do by yourself, or does your faith and prayer life have a role?
- What does it mean when Paul says that God made Jesus “to be sin” for us?
- What does Paul mean about our being “ambassadors for Christ”? Ambassadors to whom?
Saint Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So Jesus told them this parable:
"There was a man who had two sons. 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. 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 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. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 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! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands."' 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. 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.' 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.'"
This story has always been called “The Prodigal Son.” I feel that it should be called “The Prodigal Son and the Prodigal Father.” Too often we dote on the situation of the son – his asking for his share of his inheritance, which was allowed at a certain age, and then his misuse of the resources that he had been given. Think, however, on the prodigiousness of the father: welcoming his son back, giving him more stuff, and holding a big party. The same “spendthrift” nature is there. Jesus wants us to not look at the son – we like the Pharisees and scribes take great delight in pointing out the faults of others. No, Jesus wants us to look at the outrageous behavior of the father – who forgives when many would not have forgiven. The point of this story is “the coming home.” St. John Chrysostom (Bishop of Constantinople, ca. 950) put it best in his famous Easter Sermon when he invites all to the feast. The invitation, he says, is to those who have come early, and who have come late, even after the door has been closed. Like the Israelites who were freed from Egypt, and who grumbled in the desert, and who complained when they were thirsty, the wayward son is forgiven. Even the complaining son, the one who seems slighted by the party and the welcome, is forgiven (“you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”)
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Which of the characters in the story (the Scribes and the Pharisees, the son who takes his inheritance, the father, or the faithful son) do you identify with? Why?
- What can you take from these examples to make your own life better? How about the life of those you don’t really care for?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.