The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 31 March 2019

TheFourth Sunday in Lent, 31 March 2019

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

Background: Repentance

Martin Luther took a phrase from Augustine of Hippo to use as a description of sin – incurvatus in se. It is an image of one literally turned in upon oneself – a kind of selfishness that does not see God or the other. This image is useful as we begin to talk about repentance, which is really a description of the opposite kind of direction. The Greek word describes it perfectly – metanoia. This word, a compound, has two elements: meta –after, and noia – thinking, perceiving, observing, thus a “change of mind” a turning from one thing to another. There is something of the same feel in the Hebrew, where two words represent the notion: shuv – to return, and nacham– to feel sorrow. These two ideas are represented in the Confessio Augustana (The Augsburg Confession – Lutheran confessional document) when it describes repentance as having two aspects. The first is contrition – understanding the consequences of sin, and the second is faith resulting in the absolution of sin, a gift from God to the returning sinner. Repentance in the Hebrew Scriptures is most often expounded upon by the prophets, calling upon Israel to turn from the worship of the gods and once again honoring YHWH, the God of Israel. John the Baptist operates very much in that tradition in his sermons at the Jordan where he beseeches the people to repent and be baptized. The Gospel for today will give you a glimpse of Jesus’ take on repentance.

First Reading: 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.

The English translation does not preserve for us a pun evident in the Hebrew. The verb to roll in Hebrew is galoti, and serves as a pun on Gilgal, the place where the Israelites keep the Passover. It is a turning point in many ways. Now it is possible for the men to be circumcised – the sign of their covenant with YHWH. It is also the beginning of a new kind of subsistence – here on the fruits of the land rather than on the manna provided by God in the wilderness. The reading shows us a repentant Israel, turning from old relationships and ways to a new life in the land of promise. Once slaves, the people are now free to worship the God of their fathers and mothers.

Breaking open Joshua:
  1. When was your life turned around?
  2. What did you escape from?
  3. What is your promised land?


Psalm 32 Beati quorum

1      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.

Two elements are described in this psalm. The first is the element of thankfulness for the forgiveness that has followed a confession. The second element is that of Wisdom, especially form the ninth verse onward. The Robert Alter translation of the initial verse is especially helpful in describing this element.

 “Happy, of sin forgiven, absolved of offense.”[1]

The words are personal and experienced. The personal and intimate aspects of the confession and forgiveness that have been experience are further evidenced in verse 3 of the text. There is a physicality to the business of confession which is also set in a place of trouble, “my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.” What follows are observations of protection – the threatening waters do not reach (this may have been added to the psalm from another source), God is a hiding place, God surrounds and preserves. The wisdom that is provided is an understanding of what separates wickedness from trusting in God. The final verse gives us a suggestion as to what a forgiven people are bound to offer in thanksgiving – rejoicing.

Breaking open Psalm 32:
  1. What have you been forgiven of?
  2. Whom have you forgiven?
  3. What was your response to either?


Second Reading: IICorinthians 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 thinks on a question, “How do I know Christ, how do we know Christ?” There is something beyond the usual knowledge of Christ so that we no longer can see him, as our translation puts it, “from a human point of view.” What other point of view is there? For Paul there was the knowledge of Jesus, but from a distance, prior to his conversion. What followed was a new and different experience of Jesus. Paul looks to a new creation that happens with those who are “in Christ.” It is not just this relationship that is revealed to us in a new way – but all things are made new when living in Christ. The difference is the situation that obtains when one has been forgiven. The first verse of today’s psalm (see commentary above) makes it quite plain – there is a new experience of both God and self. What follows from that is what the psalmist does, rejoicing in the forgiveness given him, and what Paul expects from the Corinthians and himself. “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” We know Christ as righteousness, and now we must begin to know ourselves in that same light. It is good news to share.

Breaking open II Corinthians:
  1. Has your faith made you see anything new?
  2. Whom have you seen in a new way?
  3. Whom do you talk about in a new way?

The Gospel: 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.'"

There are three parables here. The first, “The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep” (15:4-7) describes the man who leave behind the majority of his flock to find the one lost. The second parable is “The Woman and the Lost Coin” (15:8-10). Both have been elided from the liturgical text, but it might be good to read through them as a preamble to “The Parable of the Two Sons”.

Here Jesus responds to the accusations regarding his relationship with tax collectors and sinners. There are similar themes to the two prior parables – a) a recovered loss, and b) the celebration that follows. This parable is set deeply in life. In it we encounter issues around sibling rivalry, inheritance, and jealousy, all elements we recognize from daily life. Jesus draws his critics into his story by making its elements recognizable in their own lives. The story unfolds in three distinct phases, each of which has grist for the preacher’s mill. In the first part of the story, the young man asks for his share of the inheritance. It is a situation with which Jesus is familiar. In Chapter 12:13someone in the crowd asks Jesus to intervene in such a conflict between brothers. Jesus demurs, preferring to speak on the evidence of greed. Here it offered as a life situation, a context against which we will see both father and son, and brother. The situation of inheritance drives the son into a difficult scene. First careless and lavish in his approach to life he is soon cast to the opposite extreme.

The second story makes an abrupt turn, with the son repenting and returning home. He now makes another request – that he be restored in some manner to his father’s household. Here the story is of repentance, forgiveness, and acceptance. It is the heart of the Gospel. There are actions in this story that signal the good news. One is weakened in our translation. “So, he set off and went to his father.” What is missing is the image that the verb intends – “rising” along with the participle anastas, noting to us the “Easter-like” quality to the young man’s repentance. The father receives the son with love and grace. The prodigality of the son is matched by that of his father.

The final story may be aimed by Luke at those who found it difficult to accept the Gentiles who were attracted to the Gospel. Here the faithful brother, the brother who stayed to attend to his father while the other one left, her that brother finds the gracious reception of his brother as something not to be borne. The older brother is the son of the inheritance, just as Israel was the people of God’s own choosing. For those hearing this part of the story, Jesus makes a claim on the appropriateness of those with whom he chooses to visit and to dine. For the readers of the Gospel of Luke, Luke accentuates his honoring of the “little ones”, the poor, the orphaned, the Gentiles, who will be lifted up in his Gospel.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. When have you been the younger son?
  2. When have you been the father?
  3. When have you been the older son?

General Idea:              Finding a reason to be prodigious

1stDevelopment:         What have we demanded from others? (The Younger Brother part one)

2ndDevelopment:        What have we demanded of God? (The Younger Brother part two)

3rdDevelopment:        What in God’s grace has offended us? (The Older Brother)

4thDevelopment:        Having a new perception (The Second Reading)

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Alter, R. (2019), The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 76729.


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