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.
Probably from the time I first gave Jesus’ parable of the “Prodigal Son” more than a superficial glance, my sympathies lay with the elder son. I know this kid who grew up under the storm clouds of conflict between his parents and his rebellious sibling. I know the compulsion he felt to ease his parents’ heartbreak by being good enough to make up for the pain his brother’s selfish conduct was causing. I understand his deep desire to smooth things over and make peace in the family. I know the burden of guilt he carried for having failed at this hopeless task. I know well the nights he cried himself to sleep and, if he could have articulated his pain, might have said, “Daddy, I know my problems are not as great as my brother’s, I know my sins are not as weighty as his. But I hurt too. I am also afraid and insecure. I need your understanding and forgiveness. Forgive me, but I sometimes wish your heart would break for me too. You yearn for the son you have lost-but this son is still with you and needs you too.” The prodigal son learned some hard lessons in the far country. But the elder son’s journey on the home front wasn’t a cake walk either.
If we resist the temptation to place this familiar parable of Jesus into the straight jacket of a simplistic morality play or reduce it to mere illustrative scaffolding for some abstract theology of grace, the story can lead us into a deeper understanding of family, faith and salvation. Now that I have become a father myself, it’s easier for me to understand the anguish of the father in Jesus’ parable. We love our children, to be sure. Yet their needs exceed everything we have to give them. We yearn to save them from the mistakes we have made in life and arm them with the hard won knowledge we have gained through life experience. But the wisdom we have to share comes across as irrelevant, pedantic and judgmental. We want desperately to support our children with our love, but a growing child is a moving target. Just when it seems we have this parenting thing down pat, the kids enter into another stage of their development and all bets are off. We can never love our children enough in the right way at the right time.
Consequently, the results of our parenting are always mixed. Under the best of circumstances, our relationship with our parents is nuanced, conflicted and ambiguous. Love and admiration mix with resentment and disappointment. Thankfulness is laced with blame. Perhaps we can never do more than love our children the best we can, keep our doors ever open to them and continue urging them “to come home,” whether that means actually returning to the homestead or being reconciled with each other through repentance and forgiveness. That, in any event, is where Jesus’ parable leaves us.
There is a reason why the scriptures employ parenthood (not fatherhood exclusively!) as the strongest metaphor for God’s covenant relationship with Israel and with the church. That relationship, too, is laden with ambiguity and unreconciled conflict. Nowhere is the ambivalence in our relationship to God more evident than in the Psalms, that treasury of prayer found at the heart of the Bible. There, as in the parable, we find the whole spectrum of parent/child sentiment from profound love, pride and thankfulness to rage, blame and resentment. Yet the very fact that the covenantal dialogue continues throughout the darkest of times testifies to God’s dogged determination to keep that covenant alive and bring its promises to fruition. The father’s pleading prefigures Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem. The cross is finally the price God willingly pays to keep the covenantal line from going dead and hold together the fraying bonds of God’s covenant family.
At the end of the parable, we find the father pleading with his elder son to join the festive celebration for prodigal’s return. He offers the boy his very self and all he has. Still, it is not enough. Nor is it clear that his lavish welcome for the returning prodigal succeeded in turning that boy’s heart to obedience and humility. For all we know, the prodigal son might have been off the very next day to another far country for more riotous living. Like last Sunday’s parable of the fig tree, this story leaves a lot of loose ends for us to ponder. But that, after all, is the purpose of parables.
Here is a poem about parenthood by Langston Hughes. Perhaps you too can hear in this an echo of the God who urges us never to despair of his covenant love.
Mother to Son
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Source: The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.” Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).
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?
Israel’s 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 was hard for Israel to download this new agricultural app from the surrounding culture without importing the designer’s malware into her 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, Babylonian, Persian, Roman or American.
I sometimes wonder whether the internet and the cornucopia of communication options it makes available does not pose some of the same threats for the church that Israel faced in the land of Canaan. 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? 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?
Of course, I recognize the irony involved in posing these questions on an internet 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.
For some good background information on the book of Joshua, see the Summary Article by Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
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. (The others being Psalms 6, 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 17th 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. II Corinthians 2:1-13; II Corinthians 7: 5-16. 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 II Corinthians 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. Enslin, Morton Scott, Christian Beginnings, (c. 1938 by Westminster Press) pp. 254-261; Filson, Floyd V., “Introduction and Exegesis,” The Interpreter’s Bible, 10th Ed. (c. 1953 by Abingdon Press). If that is in fact the case, the reading for this Sunday comes from Paul’s letter of thanksgiving. As appealing as this hypothesis might seem at first blush, there are substantial grounds for dating the material found in chapters 10-13 after rather than before the composition of chapters 1-9. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 32A, (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 38-41. Accordingly, chapters 10-13 most likely are not Paul’s tearful letter.
“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 II Corinthians 5:14-15: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And 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 only 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. Jeremias, Joachim, The Parables of Jesus, (c. 1971 by SCM Press) p. 130; Marshall, I. Howard., The Gospel according to Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) pp. 610-611. 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.” Vs. 31. 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 lavish wedding invitation (Luke 14:16-24), 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.