Lectionary Commentaries for March 31, 2019
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Amanda Brobst-Renaud

Preaching much-beloved parables is both a blessing and an immense challenge.

The Parable of the Prodigal Sons, also called The Parable of the Father’s Love, offers tantalizing opportunities to connect the parable to our daily lives, to our families, and to our experience of God. One of the main struggles in reading this parable is that once we hear the words “A man had two sons,” we quit listening — even as preachers. The challenge of this parable is to keep listening, to listen to it again, and to be open to the possibility it may say something new to us. Stepping into a parable — even a much-beloved parable — is like stepping into a river; you cannot step into the same river twice, as Heraclitus of Ephesus reminds us.1

Many interpretive strategies involve allegorizing the story, which frequently entail assigning identities to the sons and the father to people outside the immediate narrative.2 Amy-Jill Levine cautions against such interpretations: “In these readings and more, the younger son is the repentant Christian, the older son is the Pharisee or the Jewish people, and the father is God. Such interpretations not only yank the parable out of its historical context; they lessen the message of Jesus and bear false witness against Jews and Judaism.”3

While allegorical interpretations in a sermon can provide explicit connections to one’s daily life, the risks such interpretations present are manifold. At best, allegorical interpretations run the risk of missing details in the story. At worst, they mis-characterize and bear false witness in their interpretation of whom the characters might represent.

Resisting allegorization does not represent a dead end for preachers, but rather, it presents an opportunity to read the parable as if we do not already know what it says. The parable invites us to be re-introduced to the son who asks for his inheritance and squanders it, the son who works as though a slave and receives nothing, and the father whom love inspires to chase after both of his children. Who are these characters, and why does the truth of their stories resound with us so powerfully?

The sympathetic aspects of each of the characters in the parable are heightened by the speech attributed to them. We hear the younger son hatching his plan to return home and the elder son’s frustration when he realizes there was a party in his house of which he was unaware — for his property-squandering brother, no less. The contrast between the brothers draws the reader into the tension between them.

  • The younger son travels to a distant land; the elder son remains home.
  • The younger son indicates he is no longer worthy to be called a son and asks to be made into a servant; the elder son describes himself as slaving away and receiving nothing.
  • The younger son is dead and then alive, lost and then found; the elder son is always with the father.
  • The younger son is the guest of honor at the party; the elder son learns about the party from a slave.

It is as though the narrative itself tempts us to distance these brothers from one another, inviting us to choose which is the more beloved of the two of them. The parable refuses us this luxury. We must not forget that the father crosses the threshold twice. He leaves the threshold once to welcome the younger son home, and he leaves it a second time to invite the elder son to the party.

We must not forget the extravagance of the father is not only illustrated by his directions to the slaves upon the younger son’s return but also in his response “all that I have is yours” to the elder son’s protests at the extravagance of the party. The father cannot imagine the party without both sons’ presence. Though the younger son may be the guest of honor at the party, the party is just as necessary for the elder as it is the younger.

The parable invites us to sit with the younger son in the messes of his own making, with the elder son in the bitterness and fear of being overlooked, and with the father as he leaves the comfort of his home to bring in all that is lost and all that feels forsaken. The truth of this story invites us into a deeper relationship with the text than allegorizing allows.

Part of the reason this story is so compelling and so beloved is because we are never only one of the characters. Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given? Who among us has not felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear at being left out? Who among us has not chased after love, hoping it will be returned? Perhaps the temptation to allegorize will prove too tantalizing to resist, as we recognize in ourselves the deep hope and hunger that someone — God — will leave the threshold to come find us when we are lost or will invite us into the party in the midst of our fear of being left out.


  1. Quoted in Plato’s Cratylus, 402a.
  2. Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 133; Charles H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 94; Heiki Räisänen, “The Prodigal Gentile and His Jewish Christian Brother,” vol. 2 of The Four Gospels: Festschrift Frans Neyrick, Frans van Segbroeck et al., eds., BETL 100 (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1992), 1619.
  3. Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper One, 2014), 28.

First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 5:9-12

Bryan J. Whitfield

We mark key transitions with rituals — a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, the birth of a child.

These events punctuate our lives, preparing us for the challenges and opportunities ahead. In these moments, we honor our past. But we also prepare to leave our old lives to forge new commitments and covenants. We shape new identities and move into the future.

The book of Joshua speaks a word to us in such moments. It recounts the story of the Israelites’ transition from the wilderness to a new life in Canaan. God had promised that land to Abraham’s descendants in the patriarch’s initial call (Genesis 12:1-4) and reaffirmed that gift in subsequent covenants (Genesis 15:7, 13-16; 17:8).

In calling Moses, God promises to bring the people out of slavery in Egypt “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). But the people do not quickly see that promise fulfilled because they lack faith in God’s provision (Numbers 14:1-4). After years of wandering, their leader Moses dies in sight of the land (Deuteronomy 34:1-8).

But a new era begins as God commissions Joshua as Moses’ successor. God charges him to lead the Israelites across the Jordan River (Joshua 1:1-9), a command the people fulfill days later. The river’s flow stops when the feet of the priests carrying the ark of the covenant touch the water’s edge, and the people cross on dry land (Joshua 3:14-17).

Joshua commands that a representative from each of the twelve tribes carry a stone from the middle of the riverbed to set up a memorial (Joshua 4:1-9). These stones will prompt future conversations about their meaning, creating a ritual in which future generations will ask, “What do these stones mean to you?” (Joshua 4:6).

Joshua repeats instructions about the ritual a second time to underscore its importance. He then connects the river crossing with the earlier crossing of the sea that began the Israelites’ journey (Joshua 4:21-24). Just as children will ask about Passover so they can hear the story of deliverance from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 12:26-27), so they will ask about these stones so they can hear how God dried up the waters of the Reed Sea and the Jordan River (Joshua 4:23).

Joshua then explains two purposes behind the crossings: first, that all earth’s peoples might know God’s power, and second, that Israel might revere God forever. Both purposes soon find an initial fulfillment. First, the hearts of the Amorite and Canaanite kings melt in fear when they hear what God has done (Joshua 5:1). Second, Joshua circumcises the male Israelites, demonstrating Israel’s obedience to God’s commands. As the narrator explains, all males who left Egypt had been circumcised, but none born in the desert were. With this ritual act, the Israelites show their reverence to God and embody in their flesh the covenant God made with Abraham (Genesis 17:9-14).

Today’s text picks up the final verse of the account of circumcision. God speaks to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” (Joshua 5:9). With circumcision, the Israelites mark themselves as Abraham’s children, heirs of the promise of “all the land of Canaan” (Genesis 17:8). No longer are they runaway slaves, defined by their subservience to the Egyptians. Now they are God’s people, claimed by grace. God has not led them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, as some Egyptians might have claimed, but to bring them into the land (Numbers 14:13-16; Deuteronomy 9:28).

This promise fulfilled, the Israelites enter a new era with a new identity and a new future. In response to this word that God rolls away their shame, the people will call their camp Gilgal, a name that recalls the Hebrew verb “to roll” (galal).

Circumcision also prepares the people for the Passover celebration, a feast limited to those who are circumcised (Exodus 12:48). The Israelites celebrated the first Passover in Egypt, preparing for their exodus from slavery (Exodus 12:1-28). They had kept the second Passover in the wilderness (Numbers 9:1-5). But now they keep Passover in the land of Canaan, fulfilling Moses’ command: “When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you will keep this observance” (Exodus 12:25).

Thus, Passover frames the wilderness journey. It initiates the people’s flight from Egypt, and now it marks their entry into the land God had promised. Their long journey to Canaan is at an end.

The next day reveals that their new life in the land has truly begun. They eat food from Canaan’s crops — “unleavened cakes and parched grain” (Joshua 5:11). When the Israelites were nomads, God had rained daily bread from heaven to sustain them (Exodus 16:1-36). Now they are no longer wanderers but a people with a land. They no longer need the miracle of manna to sustain them since the bounty of the land will supply their food.

This brief passage in Joshua provides opportunities for preachers to reflect on the significance of religious ritual in times of individual and congregational transition. It matters that we mark the beginning and the end of journeys. And it matters how we mark them.

Because we live in stages, effective discipleship requires us to consider the shape of our lives in moments of transition. We need the space of ritual and reflection to discern God’s providential care.

Like the Israelites, we are called to remember God’s provision of deliverance and freedom. In such moments, we celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises and our new life as God’s people. But God also calls us to move forward into the future, discerning the forms of providence in our new circumstances, confident that the one who has called us is faithful to keep and preserve us all along our pilgrim journeys.


Commentary on Psalm 32

Amanda Benckhuysen

We don’t like to talk about sin. Especially if it means talking about our own sin.

We would much rather talk about injustice, or evil, or the ways in which another’s sin has contributed to our own brokenness. It’s easier to eschew our own agency and claim victimhood. Because talking about sin is hard. It is hard to acknowledge that there is something wrong with us of which we are the main authors and contributors. It is painful to feel the shame of not measuring up to what we know we should be. It is unsettling to recognize that our thoughts, actions, and behaviors hurt others and contribute to the brokenness of our world. Acknowledging where we have fallen short can be brutally disturbing.

According to the psalmist, however, the alternative is not an especially comfortable place either. To keep silent is to let our sin infest and infect our whole being, compromising the goodness and vitality with which we were created. It is to cede what God intended us to be to our sin and allow it to affect our ability to function and enjoy well-being in this world. The psalmist describes it with images of physical depletion, “my body wasted away … my strength was dried up” (verse 3a, 4b). Sin sucks the life out of the psalmist. The point is that silence about sin, according to the psalmist, can be deadly. It allows sin to fester and spread and ravage like a cancer coursing through the body and mind.

The antidote, the psalmist offers, is confession. Not silence. Not covering up. Not ignoring. But going to that uncomfortable place, facing our sin and shame, and admitting them to God. “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (verse 5). The point here, as the psalmist notes, is not for the confessor to wallow in their failure or feel the shame of their wrong-doing. Rather, it is in confessing our sin that we open ourselves up to the miracle of forgiveness. What is astonishing and remarkable in this psalm is not the confession of the psalmist, but the attentive ear of God who is ready and eager to forgive.

We see this exemplified in the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32. While the younger son struggles with how to go home, ashamed of what he has done and embarrassed to face his father again, the father runs out to greet his wayward son before the son says anything. So eager to be reconciled to his son, so ready to forgive, the father couldn’t wait for the son’s confession.

This eagerness to forgive is reflected in the language of the psalm as well. At the beginning of the psalm, the psalmist piles up term upon term to give expression to sin — transgression, sin, iniquity, deceit — four terms used eight different times in five verses. But more prominent than the terms for sin are the expansive and wide-ranging terms used to describe forgiveness.

The psalmist’s sin is forgiven, covered, and not counted against him. The force of these terms is not that the sin is ignored, but that the relational damage resulting from the sin is absorbed by God himself. God doesn’t hold sin against the psalmist and as a result, takes away the guilt and the accompanying shame of the wrong-doing. Restoration of the sinner to God is complete and total.

Some scholars have noted the parallels between Psalm 32 and Psalm 1. Both open with a wisdom saying, “Blessed is the one … ”offering counsel about how to live well in this world. Furthermore, both contrast the way of the righteous and the wicked (32:10-11). The effect of this connection is to put the two psalms in conversation with each other about what it is to be righteous.

In Psalm 1, to be righteous is to mediate on God’s law day and night. Psalm 32, however, adds the important insight that to be righteous is not to be perfect in adhering to that law, but to be forgiven of one’s failings, to open oneself up to God’s gift of forgiveness, to be made right with God, to be credited with righteousness apart from works, as Paul says (Romans 4:6). If to be righteous is to be forgiven our sin, then to be wicked is to remain in sin, to keep silent or hide one’s sin, to refuse to acknowledge one’s sin.

In other words, sin by itself does not necessarily determine one’s status before God. After all, according to Paul, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Instead, it is God’s willingness to forgive and our willingness to receive that forgiveness that makes us right before God.

Having received forgiveness himself, the psalmist directs his attention to his audience, instructing them to do the same. “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you … I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go … Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding … ” (verses 6a, 8a, 9a). In other words, the psalmist exhorts his audience — don’t be stubborn about this. Don’t think you can be happy without God. Don’t think you will thrive going your own way. Choose righteousness instead of wickedness. Choose confession and forgiveness over ignoring or hiding sin. Choose relationship with God over autonomy.

This is the ego-bruising work of Lent. Acknowledging that we are not all that God desires us to be, that we have indeed fallen short, that we too are the reason Christ was nailed to a cross. But it is also to rejoice in the truth that we are forgiven, that in Christ, our sins are covered. In Christ, we are a new creation. So, in the season of Lent, let us be counted among the righteous, those who know that yes, we are sinners, but that in Christ, we are forgiven.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Frank L. Crouch

On this fourth Sunday of Lent, the epistle lesson speaks of the reality of the grace and forgiveness of God.

It proclaims that part of God reconciling the world to God’s self involves “not counting [our] trespasses against [us].” This grace engenders the possibility of transformation and new creation. We will focus on the nature and quality of that transformation.

The pericope begins by linking our future life back to assertions that have previously discussed: “From now on, therefore … ” The word “therefore” connects our future life to “the love of Christ” and Christ’s death not just for us, but “for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14). “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” (5:15). Our stories emerge from Christ’s story, and our calling is to live not only in celebration of what this means for us (though that is certainly worth celebrating). Our calling leads us along the path of death as Christ died, and resurrection, as Christ was raised, for our sakes and the sake of others.

Transformation born out of death and resurrection does not entail incremental, gradual changes. It does not merely recycle old ways and tweak familiar personal or communal habits to produce slightly improved upgrades. It opens us to new modes of travel altogether, new types of journeys that we could never have imagined.

The weight of custom and tradition, polity and practice, the institutional domestication of the gospel often deceive us into thinking that, yes, like the tortoise and the hare, when it comes to the course that we are called to run, place your bet on slow and steady to win the race. However, that is not Paul’s claim in this passage. God calls for all-encompassing change. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17).

Ironically, in a world in which we so easily fall into literal, fundamentalistic readings of scripture, doctrine, and practice, we equally easily minimize the radical implications of Paul’s claim.

  • “If anyone is in Christ” — well, not just “anyone,” but only the special few, like apostles, prophets, saints, and martyrs. Paul doesn’t mean everybody, particularly not those who like things the way they are — either for themselves, their families, or the church.
  • “There is new creation” — well, not like big changes that could cause us to make big decisions that might make a pastor or the chair of the board or big givers unhappy.
  • “Everything old has passed away” — well, practicality demands that not “everything” passes away. We’ve still got the building and the parking lot, the church graveyard, bills to pay, and a whole church year’s worth of events already on the calendar.
  • “See, everything has become new” — well, no, actually, see all the things we’re already doing? They don’t all need to become new. Maybe some little things or a new project like others we’ve done before or a mission trip to places we’ve already visited — those would be okay.

We have an astounding capacity to talk ourselves out of new creation — both in our individual lives and in our communities of faith. Like the prodigal son in the middle of his story, we often squander our possibilities, turn away from the feast set out by the God of grace, and settle for the pods the pigs are eating (Luke 15:13-16). The season of Lent (or any season) calls on us to hear Paul’s proclamation anew, to open ourselves to new possibilities, new creation — whatever that might mean.

Paul goes on: “All this is from God” (5:18). Maybe that is what makes new creation seem so daunting. Maybe it’s something God could pull off, but it lies beyond our reach, our abilities. But we hold onto such reservations only by ignoring the plain sense of the sentence — all this is from God. It’s God’s desire for us, God’s way for us, God’s love for us that brings the possibility of new creation before us. We are not asked to do it on our own based on our own abilities. The call comes to us simply to step into what God has already done and to let that move us forward where God would have us go. “[God] reconciled us to [God’s self] through Christ” (5:18). That is where new creation and new journeys begin.

And, again, this new creation is not ultimately focused just on us, as wonderful as those new possibilities can be, as life-giving as an all-encompassing transformation from the God of grace can be. That new creation, based on God’s past and present action, gives us both a new future and a new ministry. “God … reconciled us to [God’s self] through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). This ministry means more than just paying it forward. It means God not only transforms us but equips us and, even, believes in us, “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us … making [God’s] appeal through us” (5:19).

New creation means really new creation. Think of people or communities who have dramatically changed — leaving behind lives of addiction, of inflicting violence, of dishonesty, of greed, of adultery, of bigotry and discrimination, of hated and exclusion. The headlines and media can make us forget that these changes really happen within people and communities we actually know. They can happen to us, too — individually and communally — based on our openness to the truth that Christ came not only to die for us, but also to die for all.

For our sake, Christ died and was raised, so that in Christ “we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). Here’s an even more radical thing than new creation — not just knowing about it, hearing about it, talking about, pondering it from afar, or considering it reluctantly, but actually becoming the righteousness of God. It takes a new creation to become people and communities whose reach outside of ourselves begins to match the reach of the love of God.

Becoming a new creation means the creation of new dimensions of love and desire for righteousness and justice within our lives and the lives of others. (The Greek word, dikaiosune, used here means both righteousness and justice.) New creation means ministries and actions through which others experience the nature and reality of the transforming power of God. A Lenten path worth taking.