Fourth Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day
God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
There are more ways than one to be “prodigal.” That term, synonymous with “wasteful,” usually gets applied to the younger of the two sons in Jesus’ well known parable. The role of lead character is given to this restless and impulsive young man who demanded from his father his rightful share of the family inheritance, left home and promptly squandered it on “riotous living.” At least that is how it was told in Sunday School. But there were two sons in the parable and thus two stories. Lately, I have been drawn to the lesser known elder son. Here was a boy who did everything a good boy should. He was obedient and hard working. He never talked back, stayed out past his curfew or got into trouble with the law. He put his whole heart into helping his father run the farm, but Dad never paid him any attention. His eyes were always turned down the road where he last saw the image of his other son disappearing over the horizon. So the boy worked harder than ever, harder than anyone of his father’s servants. He kept on working even when there was no more work to be done. Still, his father didn’t even seem to notice.
Then one day, as the boy was coming home from his work in the field long after sunset, he heard the sound of singing, dancing and celebration. “What does this mean?” he asked one of his father’s servants. “You haven’t heard?” he replied. “Your brother has come home! And your father has slaughtered and roasted the finest calf in the herd to celebrate!” This was more than the poor boy could bear. He fell to his knees, slumped over and wept. What will it take to make his father see that he has two sons? What will it take to make him understand that he needs to be loved and cared for as much as his wayward brother? What more can he do to earn the love his father lavishes so freely on his brother?
Jesus brings the parable to a crescendo with a confrontation between the elder son and his father. The last word we hear is the father’s plea for his eldest son to join in the feast of celebration which is, after all, for him as much as his brother. “We had to celebrate,” he tells the boy. This day belongs to all three of them. So ends the parable.
I must say that the conclusion is most unsatisfying. I cannot help wondering what happened to this family going forward. Did the older son ever hear the ocean of grace in the words of his father, “Son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours?” Did he finally join the party? Did he ever learn to stop trying to earn his father’s love long enough to receive it as a gift? Did he ever come to understand that love is not a finite resource that diminishes as it is shared?
I also wonder about the younger son. I am not convinced that repentance is what turned him back home to his father. His decision to return seems driven more by a calculated analysis of his situation: “I can stay here and fight the pigs for a share of their slops; or I can go back to my father’s farm. Even if he treats me as one of his servants, I will be better off there than here.” I don’t know whether beneath his well rehearsed speech there was any true sorrow on the part of the younger son for all the pain he had inflicted upon his father. So I have to wonder, did his father’s lavish and generous welcome have any effect on him? Did the younger son ever come to appreciate the love he had so carelessly thrown away and had now so marvelously received back again? Is the heart of this boy melting with thankfulness or is he smugly congratulating himself for having once more pulled the wool over the old man’s eyes?
Jesus doesn’t give us much closure here, but that is not surprising. Jesus is not big on closure. His parables are layered and textured. They draw us into stories where judgment, grace and redemption are made possible. There we are left to struggle with our wasteful efforts to win praise, approval and recognition at the expense of love. We are confronted with the pain our self centered choices have inflicted upon those who love us most faithfully. But most importantly, we are left with the image of a God who loves us desperately in spite of all the obstacles we keep throwing in the path of such love. That’s where Jesus leaves us: not with closure, but with hope.
Sunday’s reading from the book of Joshua marks a significant transition in the story of Israel. Moses, the man who led Israel through the wilderness for forty years is dead. Israel’s nomadic existence is ended. No longer will she eat bread from the hand of God and water from miraculous springs. She will now get her bread from the good earth God has given to her-and therein lurks the next temptation. Israel has no experience with agriculture. Though the God of Israel is clearly competent when it comes to leading nomads through the wilderness, what does he know about farming? Can Israel manage to transform herself from a nomadic society into an agricultural society without losing her soul to the Canaanite gods of fertility? Her new Canaanite neighbors’ entire culture is founded on farming and fertility. Where religion permeates all of life, it is nearly impossible to separate the mechanics of planting, growing and harvesting from the mythical underpinnings and cultic practices that accompany these tasks. It is hard to download this new agricultural app from the surrounding culture without importing the designer’s malware into your spiritual hard drive. The tales recounted in the much older book of Judges suggest that Israel’s transition was a rocky one. The conquest narrative in the book of Joshua reflects the gravity of the issues involved and the stark choices Israel must face every time she finds herself in a new cultural context-whether that be Canaanite, Babylon, Persian or Roman.
I sometimes wonder whether the internet and the cornucopia of communication media it makes available does not pose some of the same problems for the church. I have heard terms like “virtual church” and “liquid church” tossed around in some circles. Online discussion groups consisting of faceless monikers and online IDs can sometimes approach a sort of closeness that resembles intimacy. Yet how, I wonder, can intimacy exist in such a medium where you cannot even be sure that the people you are communicating with really exist? (Ask Monti Te’o about that!). More to the point, how can a church professing to be the Body of Christ, claiming that the Word of God became flesh and asserting that the body and blood of Christ are truly present in bread and wine exist in a virtual universe? How do you share the peace of God in a chat room?
Yes. I recognize the irony involved in making an argument like this on a blog. Obviously, I am not a Luddite rejecting all things digital. The internet brings together people and perspectives that might not otherwise meet. Online discussions may lack the warmth and humanity of a face to face discussion. Still, they enable persons who might otherwise lack time or mobility to engage in conversation with others about things that matter. Moreover, I tend to think online discussions give introverted persons who usually get shouted down and talked over in face to face meetings a better shot at being heard. This blog, Trinity’s Facebook presence and our webpage provide valuable links to folks we might not otherwise reach. Still, I am fully aware that whatever else I might be doing here, it is not church. The folks who regularly interact with me on these posts might arguably be classified in some sense as a community, but they are not the Body of Christ. For that you need to be physically present at 167 Palisade Avenue on Sunday at 9:00 a.m.
This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self examination.
In this case, the psalmist’s self examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicine and Post Nicine Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.
This advice is good as far as it goes, but the psalmist’s experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. As the case of Job illustrates, illness is not always the result of sin. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” As last week’s gospel makes clear, sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39.
A few introductory words about the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians are in order. The church in Corinth, you may recall from previous weeks, was a congregation only Paul could love. See Post for Sunday, January 20th. Paul’s first letter makes clear just how divided, conflicted and scandal ridden this church was. Paul evidently made a visit to the church in Corinth after writing his first letter. This visit was “painful” and did not result in any reconciliation of differences between the apostle and his congregation. Rather than attempting another visit that he feared would also be unsuccessful, Paul wrote a “letter of tears” to Corinth sent by the hand of Titus. Fearing the effects of this severe letter, Paul left Troas in Asia Minor where he had begun a successful mission and returned to Macedonia in search of Titus. Paul rejoined Titus in Macedonia and was greatly relieved to learn that the Corinthians had indeed responded favorably to his “severe” letter with a change of heart toward him. Paul wrote his second letter to express his gratitude to the Corinthians and to encourage them in their faith.
For centuries biblical scholars have puzzled over the abrupt change in tone between II Corinthians 1-9 and 10-13. Most scholars now agree that these two sections represent different letters, though both authored by Paul. To further complicate matters, there is a fragment at II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 that seems to have no bearing on what precedes or follows suggesting that we might have part of a third letter in the mix. Some scholars believe that chapters 10-13 constitute all or part of Paul’s “letter of tears” while chapters 1-9 constitute a letter of thanksgiving written in response to Titus’ favorable report. If that is in fact the case, the reading for this Sunday comes from Paul’s letter of thanksgiving.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” To fully understand the import of this sentence, you need to back up and read verses 14-15: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” To regard no one from a human point of view is to regard everyone from God’s viewpoint-as people for whom Christ died. Consequently, I believe when we read that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” or, as some translators put it, “when anyone is in Christ-new creation,” Paul is not talking about some inward individual spiritual renewal. We are talking about a radical reorientation in terms of how we see the world and the people in it. Because Christ has died, all have died. Because all have died, all are reconciled. It is the task of the church to live as an embassy of God modeling and proclaiming the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus.
From a human point of view, our enemies are defined for us by the U.S. Department of State. Our interests are defined by national borders and international treaties. Our neighbors are defined by accidents of geography, demography and history. But from the perspective of God in Christ, these are distinctions without a substantive difference. The starting point for viewing every individual is the conviction that such individual is reconciled to God in Christ. Whether he or she knows it is entirely beside the point. We know it and that knowledge shapes our thoughts and actions. The implications of this text are subversive to say the least. Reconciliation is a fine objective-as long as it applies only to neighbors with nothing between them but white picket fences. Take it into the arena of geopolitics and you could get yourself crucified.
I have expressed my reflections on the gospel lesson above. Here are some interesting points that may or may not influence your understanding of the story.
A father could dispose of his property in one of two ways: 1) by a will that is probated after his death; or 2) by a gift made during his lifetime. Though there is no specific provision for disposition of an estate prior to the testator’s death in the Old Testament, there is some evidence that the practice existed even if discouraged. The book of Sirach written in the early 2nd Century B.C.E. contains the following admonition:
“To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, in case you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are still alive and have breath in you, do not let anyone take your place. For it is better that your children should ask from you than that you should look to the hand of your children. Excel in all that you do; bring no stain upon your honor. At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance.” Sirach 33:19-23.
In any event, it would be highly irregular, to say nothing of presumptuous, for a younger son to initiate the settlement of his father’s estate with his living father. The parable tells us nothing of the son’s motives in making such an unusual request or those of the father in acquiescing. At first blush, it might appear as though in “dividing his living between them” the father had made a complete disposition of his estate between his two sons. But it is obvious from the balance of the story that, at the very least, he maintained control over his property. His gifts to the returning prodigal, slaughter of the “fatted calf” and preparation of the lavish celebration all indicate that the balance of the estate remained under the father’s control.
The degree of the younger son’s reinstatement is a matter of dispute. Some commentators see in the provision of the robe and the ring an echo of Pharaoh’s elevation of Joseph, the implication being that the younger son was being included once again in the father’s inheritance. I think that is something of a stretch. The father assures his older son at the end of the parable that “all that is mine is yours.” In view of this assurance, the only conceivable complaint the older son might have is that the lavish party for his brother was diminishing his future inheritance. I am not convinced that the legal framework of the transactions in the parable can be reconstructed or that doing so would give us any clearer picture of what is going on. Like the ungrateful guests who refused the royal wedding invitation, the circumstances of this parable appear to be exaggerated for literary effect. No one could imagine a son so blatantly disrespectful and imprudent. Nor could anyone imagine a father forgiving and receiving back such a son, much less with so lavish a reception. Against this seeming madness, the elder son’s protests come across as the single voice of sanity.
The one constant in this parable is the father whose love pursues in unrestrained measure both of his wayward sons. The lavish party is given not because the younger son deserves it, but because he needs it. The elder son must learn that his father’s love for him cannot be earned but only received as the free gift genuine love always is. We cannot know how these two sons will respond to their father’s love, but it is clear that their father is determination to continue loving both his sons, come what may.