The Fourth Sunday of Lent - 10 March 2013

Paul Richard Brenner
2 November 1939 - 22 February 2013

These commentaries are dedicated to the memory of the The Rev. Fr. Paul R. Brenner, pastor, priest, and courageous author and musician.  May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
II Corinthians 5:16-21
Saint Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32


Background:  The Pattern of the Gospels
Advent, the Sundays after the Epiphany, and Lent are always remarkable to me in their pattern of the Gospel selected by the Lectionary.  Each series guides us either in our knowledge of Jesus, or informs us as we observe his progress in ministry.  During this Lent we meet a Jesus who not only understands his purpose and mission but also is intent in seeing its accomplishment.  On the first Sunday Jesus is intent in his stand against Satan and temptation, digging deeper into the Scriptures that the Devil tosses out as proof-texts.  On Lent II, Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem, in spite of its reputation as a place that kills the prophets.  We see a Jesus resolute in his purpose.  Lent III offers an almost psychological look at Jesus.  Is the fig tree Israel, or is it Jesus’ image of his own ministry?  Patience is the word that guides his observation.  The fourth Sunday gives us the familiar story of the Prodigal Son, and offers to us an image of a Prodigal Father as well.  It is a parable of what will be when all has been reconciled in the cross – a proleptic view of what will follow the journey.  Finally, on the fifth Sunday, it is someone outside of the company of the disciples who offers a sign of both faith and understanding.  Mary “gets it” in the gift she offers, and prepares a way for Jesus to enter the trials of Jerusalem.

Joshua 5:9-12

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.

Please take some time and read the entire pericope (5:2-9) that leads up to the selection for today.  In the etiological story that explains the name Gibeath-haaraloth (Hill of the Foreskins) and later the name of Gilgal (literally “circle” – perhaps indicating a holy place of a circle of stones) we see the important cultural elements of the religion that is developing around this people and their journey.  Thus we come into the reading proper with its directions concerning the Passover.  There is a tension between the then and the now.  All is renewed, freshened up, and determined so that the people could celebrate their relationship with the God that had chosen them and continued to lead them.  It is the meal that connects with the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel, and the graciousness that is not only modeled here, but in the Gospel as well, that drives this reading’s inclusion on this day.  The over-arching theme of forgiveness begins its vault here, continues especially in the psalm, is commented on by Paul in the context of his own suffering, and then completes its development in the parable of the Gospel.

Breaking open Joshua:

1.     What kind of promise do you and God share?
2.     How do you make that promise known in your body?
3.     How has God lead you in your past?

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.

One wonders why the framers of the lectionary didn’t limit this psalm to its first seven verses.  Verse six seems to be an intrusion from another text, and the concluding verses seem to have a theme all of their own.  For preaching purposes or for granting meaning to the theme of the day, the first seven verses will suffice.  The psalm states its theme quickly and succinctly – “Happy of sin forgiven, absolved of no offense” (Alter).  What follows is a variation on that theme, adding color, commentary, and image to the stark notion of confession and forgiveness.  The initial verse betrays a simplicity that is in the final analysis not there.  There is a struggle to come to confession – “my bones withered away”, “your hand was heavy.”  Is such suffering the “work” that is required to achieve the forgiveness?  Hardly.  It is however an important observation of the interior life of the person of faith who is suspended between the realization of sin, the confession of sin, and the absolution from sin.  The final verse, even though it may have been added from another source, describes the final state of righteousness and joy.

Breaking open Psalm 32
1.       Have you ever confessed a great sin?
2.       Have you ever been forgiven a great thing?
3.       What were the emotions that you experienced with these events?

2 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.

Paul discerns in the image of the Christ something new, not only for himself, but also for anyone who would know Jesus.  He has spent some time in earlier verses discussing and informing us about his journeys and the sufferings that seemed to accompany them, and then following a comparison of the old and new covenants, he describes a real dividing line – the period before the death and resurrection of Jesus and the period following.  He describes this cusp as the beginning of a “new creation.”  The key word in these passages (and, interestingly, in relationship to these readings) is the reconciliation.  Attributes of Jesus are soon to become attributes of the believer as well – Jesus is righteousness and now you shall become “the righteousness of God.” 

Breaking open II Corinthians:

1.               If you came to Christianity later in life, what was the deciding moment of faith?
2.               If you were baptized as a child or infant, what was the moment you decided to continue belief?
3.               How are you a righteous person?

St. 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.'"

Here Luke presents a series of three parables on mercy – The parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and finally the parable of the father and the sons.  I hesitate to use the usual title for this pericope (The Prodigal Son) for all the prodigal behaviors (of the younger son) are matched by the prodigal acceptance of the father in the last part of the parable.  The father not only deals with grace and acceptance toward the younger son, who has squandered his inheritance in a loose life, but also with the older son, who cannot even refer to the younger son as “my brother”.  Both waste the good intentions of the gift of life and wealth, and yet both are welcomed back into the father’s arms and relationship.  The final verse has a refrain that especially connects it to our Lenten observance, “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.”  The hearer, perhaps, needs to reflect on which of these characters best depicts his or her own life.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What was the wastefulness of the younger son?
  2. Of the older?
  3. Of the father?

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.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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