The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 6 March 2016

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
II Corinthians 5:16-21
St. Luke 15:1-3, 11bn-32

Max Beckmann, The Prodigal

Background: Inheritance in Jesus’ time

In the Israel of Jesus’ time inheritance was largely patrilineal.  I say “largely” because there are biblical instances of an inheritance passing from the father to a daughter (see Numbers 27:1-4). The laws of inheritance were complicated by the code that did not allow the land passing from one tribe to another. The whole of the code is transmitted in the later verses of Numbers 27 and again in Numbers 36. The firstborn son was entitled to receive a double portion of the estate, while other sons received lesser amounts.

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.

We must understand, at the very beginning, that a great deal of the material in Joshua is specious, probably coming from the same minds and hearts that formed Deuteronomy. Returning to the land of their fathers and mothers, the exiles must have felt that an epic work describing their initial entry into the land was necessary. The vicious and violent onslaught that is described probably did not happen as accounted for, but was, rather, the occupation of abandoned sites, or sites that were conquered during the monarchy.

The verses that precede this pericope describe the rite of circumcision that was deemed necessary for those men who had been born in the wilderness. The concern is not so much a matter of practicality (the men are readying themselves for battle three days later) as it is one of ritual purity. And that is where we take up the text, at Gilgal, getting ready for the Passover. The phrase, “I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” is a pun on the place name Gilgal that means circle, or wheel. The writer wants the reader to connect this important ritual site to the freedom that God had provided the people. In looking at this particular celebration of Passover, the people would have been aware of the first Passover in Egypt. This is a cultural cusp in which Israel moves from the wilderness and its manna to the land flowing with sweetness and milk. It may also mark the movement from nomadism to farming, for the people “ate the crops of the land.”

(I’d be interested in seeing any sermon that might come from this particular text!)

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. How do you mark momentous events in your life?
  2. What does God want Israel to remember?
  3. What is the importance of writing history?

Psalm 32 Beati quorum

     Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
2      Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3      While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
4      For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5      Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
6      I said," I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
7      Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
8      You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
9      "I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; *
I will guide you with my eye.
10    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."
11    Great are the tribulations of the wicked; *
but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.
12    Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; *
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

This is a particularly joyous psalm redolent with the happiness that comes with reconciliation and redemption – a perfect text for today’s Gospel. Quickly we are made to understand that the writer is thankful for forgiveness, “Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt.” The third verse describes the psychological trials that accompany the unrepentant, a situation that leads to a diminution of life itself. The following verse describes the relief that comes from confession. Verse 7 of our translation doesn’t seem to fit and may have been added by a later editor, but the following verses then take up the theme again with “you surround me with shouts of deliverance.”

With verse 9 of our translation we seem a theme of wisdom being pursued. It almost seems as though a new character or speaker has entered the discourse of the psalm with the words, “I will instruct you.” What follows are examples of behavior that are to be avoided: the horse and mule, or the wicked. Rather we are bidden to trust in the Lord, and shout for joy.

Breaking open Psalm 32;
  1. How do you feel when you confess something to someone?
  2. How does forgiveness feel?
  3. How does forgiving feel”
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.

Paul, in this fifth chapter, looks ahead to what is to come, and to what is promised. He is making an earnest effort to convince the people of Corinth of the necessity of this perspective and hoping for their subsequent transformation. He literally wants to see them, and they to see others, from God’s point of view. The situation has changed in that everything is now new. The goal is reconciliation with God, and the subsequent ministry of reconciliation that must be the stuff of the mission at Corinth. Paul wants them to understand their own agency in this ministry, “God is making God’s appeal through us.” Paul entreats his readers to become the very “righteousness of God.”

Breaking open II Corinthains
  1. How does God regard you?
  2. How do you generally regard others?
  3. How should you regard others?

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.'"

Jesus is in a teaching mood, and his students are the Scribes and Pharisees. His point is that they understand divine grace and forgiveness.  The students do not understand Jesus’ habit of “welcoming sinners and eating with them.” So now Jesus tells a parable of two sons, each representing the obstacles and difficulties that this good news represents. The lectionary skips over parables about the loss of property (a lamb, and a coin) and focuses on the story of the prodigal. The question that confronts us in entertaining this parable is one of seeing who is the true prodigal, the son who wastes his inheritance, or the father who so quickly restores and forgives. The plot is complicated by the behavior of the other son who looks askance at his father’s behavior, and it is further complicated by the theme of familial or tribal shame that lurks in the background. It is one thing for individuals (the father and the first son) to be reconciled, but something else when we include the whole community.  Thus Jesus' lesson pierces to hearts of not only the individual scribes and Pharisees, but to the whole community, which they lead and influence.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How is the father a prodigal father?
  2. What is your opinion of the second son?
  3. How would ou have responded to the father’s actions?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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