Lectionary Commentaries for March 10, 2013
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Arland J. Hultgren

There was a time when the lectionary known to most churches of the West did not include the Parable of the Prodigal Son at all, even though it is surely one of the best known of Jesus’ parables.

To remedy the situation, it was assigned as an alternate reading for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (the Tenth after Pentecost, for which the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Luke 16:1-9, was the normal reading) in the American Book of Common Prayer (1928 edition) of the Episcopal Church and in the Service Book and Hymnal (1958) of major Lutheran Churches in North America.

But the three-year Revised Common Lectionary (1992) of today places it in the Season of Lent. It has been transposed therefore from being set in the “green” season of growth in faith and life to the more solemn “purple” season that has a more penitential accent, anticipating the Passion and the Resurrection of Our Lord.

The difference in locales within the church year has hermeneutical implications. If the parable is set on a Sunday in the Season of Pentecost, it takes on a more didactic and evangelic character concerning the mercy of God. But if it is set on a Sunday in Lent, and if one is insistent upon maintaining the mood of Lent, it can take on a more paraenetic (or hortatory) character concerning the hearers’ need for repentance.

While both of these themes can be drawn from the parable, it is the former that is actually more in line with the main thrust of the parable itself. And since Sundays during Lent are “Sundays in Lent,” rather than “Sundays of Lent,” it is fitting to allow the brighter, less somber, theme to dominate, providing a bit of relief within the Season only two weeks prior to the Sunday of the Passion.

In hearing and studying this parable, one should not give attention only to Luke 15:11-24 — the initial part concerning the wayward son and his homecoming (and so omitting 15:25-32) — to deal fairly with this parable. The reason for saying that is that at the outset Luke says: “Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons’” (15:11). In order to hear about both of the sons, one has to go all the way to 15:32.

The parable is framed well with the introduction at 15:1-2. Those verses set up the occasion for all three parables to follow (the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son). Jesus is accused by the Pharisees and scribes of drastically inappropriate conduct: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The challenge is put forth, and Jesus responds with parables that, in effect, speak of God as one who welcomes sinners. Jesus, in his own ministry, impersonates the divine welcome by receiving and eating with sinners.

The parable — the longest of all parables in the gospels — consists of three scenes: (1) the negotiations of the younger son with his father and his subsequent departure to a foreign country where he is wasteful and becomes impoverished (15:11-19); (2) the homecoming of that son and the welcome by his father (15:20-24); and (3) the interchange between the father and his older son (15:25-32).

There are features of the parable that are particularly striking. Among them are the following:

            (1) The younger son asks his father for his share of what would eventually be his inheritance. That is remarkable, even shocking. Even if ancient law (Jewish or Roman) had provision for doing what the son wants his father to do (which is most unlikely from what we know, based on the sources we have) it is an affront to the father. In the ancient world, as today, an inheritance is received only at the death of the parent. Therefore the son’s request amounts to saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead!”

            (2) When the son leaves home for a distant country, he distances himself from his father and older brother not only geographically, but also psychologically. He is, in short, done with being with his father and others in the household.

            (3) When the son comes into difficulty, he becomes a servant of a farmer in the far country. The latter is a Gentile, because he has a pig farm. The son is an indentured servant, working for a set number of months or years. Feeding pigs would be in itself bad enough for a Jew, but to consider joining the pigs at the trough is to add degradation upon shame.

            (4) The son “came to himself” and decided to go home again. That does not necessarily mean that he had remorse (as in repentance), for the motive given in the text is that he realized that he was better off at home. True, he produces a speech, but does it indicate true remorse, or is it preparation for manipulating his father?

            (5) While one can argue whether or not the son truly repents, the focus is on the father’s warm embrace. The father has no idea why the son is coming down the road; he does not even speculate about his son’s motive. He simply sees the son coming, and he “runs” to meet him (15:20). In ancient times, a dignified man does not run! This is a feature of the parable that is easily missed, but it is highly important. The father does not act like a normal father. The father that Jesus portrays acts out the love and compassion of God.

            (6) The son has practiced a speech, saying that he has sinned; that he is not worthy to be the father’s son; and that he should be treated as a servant (15:19). But the father will have none of that. He embraces his son, and when the son begins his speech, the father cuts it off abruptly in order that he can give directions to his servants (15:22-24).

            (7) While the party is going on in the house, the father leaves it and goes to find his other son, the elder one. He pleads with him to join the celebration, but is unsuccessful. Once again the focus is on the father. He tries his best to bring about harmony in the household.

            (8) The dialogue between three persons in 15:27-32 speaks volumes about how alienated the elder son now is from his father and brother. He too has, in a sense, gone into “a distant country,” psychologically speaking. The servant tells him that his “brother” has come home (15:27). The elder brother, in addressing his father, uses the term “this son of yours” (15:30). But the father addresses him as his “son” (15:31), and then he says “this brother of yours” was lost but now is found.

            (9) There really is no point in going beyond the story as given to wonder whether the father finally prevailed upon the elder brother to join the party. The parable is open ended, and it is best not to try to rescue it to fulfill our own wishes for resolution.

The parable leaves two themes in tension. On the one hand, Jesus illustrates the love of God that is beyond human love as commonly understood and practiced, for no typical father would act as this father does in the parable. On the other hand, Jesus addresses the parable against his critics, vindicating his message and ministry, by which he consorted with the outcast. His critics are illustrated by the behavior of the elder brother, who cannot join in the rejoicing over the lost being found.

The two themes stand on their own, independent of one other. But they have in common something at a deeper level. Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God. His message was about a God whose love surpasses all typical expressions known to humanity. That love is celebrated by those who apprehend it in the gospel of Jesus, as illustrated in the scene of celebration after the homecoming of the younger son. But the expression of divine love also evokes resentment in those who assume that they know all about it and claim to know who is worthy of it, and who is not, as illustrated in the scene of the elder son’s refusal to join the celebration.

The congregation at worship is the place for celebrating the homecoming each week of the prodigals, including all of us, and driving away all thoughts of righteous resentments about who all is coming to dinner. Resentment leads to alienation, going off into a far country of our own making. As the father welcomed the son, so God in Christ welcomes us. That has implications for the life of a congregation. As Paul put it so well, “Welcome one another… just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 5:9-12

Ralph W. Klein

The first five chapters of Joshua describe the preparation for Israel’s attack on Jericho in Joshua 6-8.

Chapter 1 reports Yahweh’s commissioning of Joshua, and Joshua 2 tells of Joshua’s sending spies to Jericho and their meeting with Rahab the prostitute. In chapter 3 Israel crosses the Jordan, and in chapter 4 they set up twelve stones, perhaps in the Jordan and on its west bank, in order to stimulate a question by children in the future: “What do these stones mean?” At that time, parents were to tell their children about how Yahweh brought Israel safely across the Jordan.

I have always loved the third verse of the hymn “Guide Me Ever, Great Redeemer”1 it describes our own future passage through death to the life everlasting with an allusion to Joshua 4: “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death and hell’s destruction, land me save on Canaan’s side. Songs and praises, songs and praises I will raise evermore.”

After two verses describing how all the surrounding nations were struck were terror by Israel’s passage through the Jordan, chapter 5 continues with an unusual account of a circumcision ceremony. Since the first generation that came out of Egypt had died off, and no one had been circumcised who had been born during the forty years in the wilderness, Joshua circumcised all these (600,000?) males at a spot called “Hill of the Foreskins” (Joshua 5:4). Imagine 600,000 foreskins piled high! After a few days of rest and healing (5:8), the Israelites were ready for their next steps, namely, the Old Testament lesson assigned for this day describing the first Passover in the land. According to Pentateuchal law, every male who participated in Passover had to be circumcised (Exodus 12:48).

The safe arrival in the land meant that the disgrace associated with Israel’s slavery in Egypt had been undone. This is stated in a metaphorical way: “I have rolled away” (gallothi) “the disgrace of Egypt” (Joshua 5:9). Therefore the first town they occupied in Palestine was called ever after “Gilgal,” interpreted here as a pun on the words “I have rolled away.” This place, much like the stones in and alongside the Jordan, would be a perpetual reminder of the liberating character of our God. Here is the place where our deliverance from the slavery was so real you could almost taste it.

Passover had first been celebrated on the night of the Exodus itself, with blood on the doorposts and the lintel of their houses, as a sign of their faith and their identity, leading Yahweh to pass over without allowing the Destroyer to enter their houses and strike them down. The repeated observance of this Passover festival would again cause children to ask what this observance was all about and give parents a chance to tell The Story one more time (Exodus 12:23-27). But there had been no intervening celebrations of Passover until Joshua 5. Conveniently enough, the year in Joshua 5 had advanced to the fourteenth day of the first month, the normal time for Passover.

Life returned to normal in one more way. On the first day after this Passover, they ate the produce of the land. The yeast used in Old Testament times was a type of sourdough and since there had not been opportunity to prepare such “natural” yeast; they ate unleavened cakes and parched grain. And then the Manna stopped. Ever since Exodus 16, when Yahweh in response to Israel’s complaint had given them Manna and quails to spare, that Manna had seen them through. Manna had taught them not to hoard their food because Manna that was carried over to the next day bred worms and became foul (16:20).

They had also deposited a jar of Manna in their sanctuary so that future generations would recognize that their ancestors had survived in the wilderness only because of Yahweh’s providential hand (16:32-34). Not that the Israelites had always been happy campers. In Numbers 11:5-6 they had griped about the monotony of their diet. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Did they also remember their slaving on government building projects or their perpetually bad breath?

God’s promises had come true. The Manna was always only a stopgap measure, designed to come to an end after forty years (Exodus 16:35).  From now on the Israelites would raise wheat and barley and forget what a miracle daily bread is. Would they forget that first meal in the land? Would they forget their joy at the return to normalcy? Would they long for the good old days of Manna?

The relevance of this wonderful story for the Fourth Sunday in Lent is not immediately obvious, but there are possibilities. The Gospel for the day is the parable of the Prodigal Son and his elder jealous brother, who was bent out of shape because the father had killed a fatted calf to welcome the prodigal brother home. This link to the Parable might remind us that our daily supply of food is not to be taken for granted and minimalized as if receiving it meant nothing. Of course the father threw a big banquet over his son whom he thought to be dead but who was now alive. But every other day he kept the elder son alive with plenty of food. Every Sunday God offers up a Eucharistic banquet for a bunch of ever-returning sinners, as if it was the first real meal after a barren week. Is not our deliverance at the table so real that we can taste it?

1ELW 618. Once known as “Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah.”


Commentary on Psalm 32

Paul O. Myhre

What does it mean to be counted as blessed? How might we know? The psalmist here weaves a tapestry of tones together that invite reflection about the mercy of God and the importance of confession.

They are like the tonal variations in an Ad Reinhardt painting that invite viewers to consider simplicity and complexity at the same time. Reinhardt’s “Abstract Painting, Blue” looks at first glance to be only blocks of different shades of blue paint set next to each other.1

Careful contemplation of Reinhardt’s paintings invites viewers to consider the edges and tones of their own lives and how those tones reflect significant movements in the journey of faithfulness.

Daily living is both complex and simple. Many everyday tasks involve reflection and action. In some cases reflection precedes action. In others the action provokes reflection and a spiral of subsequent actions and reflections.

Either way there is some catalyst for human cognitive rumination about something or someone that provokes new understanding. Our mistakes and missteps — that could at times be called “sin” — provide as many motivations for reflection as do our deeds of faithfulness. They invite patient observation about what provoked the acts of unfaithfulness and cognitive decisions about confession, repentance, and renewal.

In many Christian contexts worship practice provides a time, space, and environment for public confession followed by the affirmation of God’s grace of forgiveness. The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. It seems that sometimes parishioners see confession as something of a transactional agreement. I confess and God forgives because I confessed. However, here the order is reversed. Grace comes first in the order of things and it is the experience of grace itself that prompts confession. The confession is followed by another affirmation of God’s grace and a call to corporate confession.

For the psalmist, God’s grace isn’t contingent on human confession. The grace and mercy of God is a given. It seems that the Psalmist is more concerned about the effects of confession on the human spirit, human community, and how it signals a change of heart and mind in individual and communal ways. It is a means by which individuals and communities might focus more concretely on the patterns of living that are in accord with that which God has established as good.

Confession provides a way for people to admit to God and to oneself that a wrong has been committed. People know it and cannot free their minds from the guilt that is coupled with wrongdoing. Even if they harden their conscience against the wrong, the wrong remains and the guilt hovers over it like a hawk waiting to descend. The psalmist affirms that it is what it is and that it cannot be covered over until God has provided the covering.

There are many things that make people different. However, it seems that Scripture is clear about the common human experience of sin. No matter how hard people may try, the capacity of sin to cling to us is stronger than human capacity to fully overcome it apart from God’s grace and mercy. Yet sin is a slippery fish to hold in a fast flowing stream. It is sometimes difficult to discern. The subject of sin itself in contemporary scholarly writing has been widely debated and at times those things that may be regarded as sin are later seen to be something other than sin — even not sin at all. The line in the sand sometimes becomes blurry or removed altogether.

So people may wonder what is sin and how will I know if I am committing it or have committed it? The complexity of sin cannot be understated. In personal life some would argue that it is viscerally known. In some cases people may sense something is off, but can’t quite name what it is. Sometimes people need someone to help them identify the sin so that it might be confessed. But even there, the one naming the sin might be mistaken in calling something a sin.

In corporate contexts sin is even less easy to discern. People are interlinked with hosts of other people through contracts, credit cards agreements, social networking relationships, business arrangements, employment, and so on. The list is extensive and could extend for pages. In every one of those links there is a potential for sin and a capacity for complicity in some kind of sin. Relationships are complex and can be quite chaos ridden and messy.

In my experience, relationships are not generally well ordered or cohere to some mechanical framework. They are more like complex ecosystems that involve more dimensions than can be observed immediately. Hence, sin can be connected to us by a spider’s silken strand that we cannot even feel. Yet, it is there nonetheless. How might we discern and acknowledge the sin when we don’t even know that a sin has been committed or that we have participated in it? Perhaps this is where corporate confession can be helpful.

In one of the many congregations I have served there was a practice for congregational members to lead most of the worship service. One particular layperson was fond of saying that the silent prayer of confession was usually too short. He claimed, “I have not even made it through Tuesday before they are announcing that I am forgiven.”

So when he led the worship service, the corporate prayer of confession — including the silent prayer of confession — would be longer than most people felt comfortable with experiencing. I think the discomfort in part was shared because the list of things for which any one person could confess is generally longer than an entire worship service might take.

Teaching & Rejoicing
God is a teacher who provides people with that which they need to know about how to live a life worth living. Perhaps this is one of the clearest statements that the Psalms articulate.

No one method is elevated above the others. Although ancient Semitic cultures would have had a preference for oral, visual, and kinesthetic forms of knowledge transmission, the Psalms suggest a wider array of possibilities. Learning modes are as diverse as there are people on the planet. No one teaching method will work for all people. Variety and diversity are more the norm than not. The human mind is complex and culturally, socially, environmentally, generationally, and so on conditioned. People learn in different ways because of the environments in which they were formed and in which they live.

“Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!” (Psalm 32:11). It is a beautiful thing to be able to sing and rejoice — to be glad in heart and mind. Those who experience gladness cannot help but rejoice over blessings received. The Psalmist invites those who are counted as right with God to rejoice, be glad, and sing. The liberation of God’s grace frees the human bird from its cage of despair so that it might be free to sing praise without restraint.

The Psalm’s tapestry tones invite reflection — thoughtful rumination on God’s mercy, the gift of confession, teaching methods of God, and causes for human rejoicing. Each tone suggests intimate connections and variations that are part of individual human lives, threads of human communal connections, and patterns of human systemic relationships. Variations abound and simple tones remain side by side. Together they form a tapestry for theological reflection and hope.

1Ad Reinhardt. Abstract Painting, Blue. http://www.moca.org/pc/viewArtWork.php?id=61 <Accessed September 28, 2012>

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Carla Works

In 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God’s new creation has dawned, and they are part of God’s handiwork.

As recipients of God’s grace, they are called to share the good news of God’s reconciliation.

Human Point of View
It is unfortunate that most English translations render the Greek phrase kata sarka, literally “according to flesh,” as “from a human point of view.” For Paul, “flesh” (sarx) is not simply a “human point of view.”

Rather, the apostle speaks of the “flesh” as a power that is diametrically opposed to God’s Holy Spirit. According to Romans 8:1-17, to live according to the flesh is to have a mind that is hostile to God and a life that displeases God. Living according to the flesh leads to death (Romans 8:6, 13).

For Paul, the desires of the flesh are in no way congruent with the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:16-24). In Galatians 5-6, the fruit of the spirit is the very sign of God’s act of new creation — God’s act of transforming and redeeming and calling all people into newness of life.

In 2 Corinthians 5:16, when Paul says that he no longer knows anyone “according to the flesh,” Paul is again acknowledging his life in Christ and the Holy Spirit’s work within him (see, for example, 2 Corinthians 3:5-6; 4:13-15; 5:5). God is the one who has granted Paul this new perspective (5:18). God has rescued him from the power of the flesh and enabled him to walk according to the Spirit.

The New Has Come
The Spirit’s work is the guarantee that the new age has dawned (5:5). The new and the old represent kingdoms that are fundamentally at odds with one another. God’s kingdom is the new age, and it has been inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

This not the first time that Paul has written to the Corinthians that the old is passing away. In 1 Corinthians, Paul frequently reminds this church that they are waiting for the fruition of the new age when Jesus will come again (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:7-8; 3:13; 11:26; 10:11; 16:22). The apostle has already acknowledged that this world is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31).

In the same vein, Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians does not attempt to hide the conflict between the old and the new, but rather highlights the tension. Paul sees the struggles of the church in light of a larger cosmic conflict between God and all anti-God powers. In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul shows concern that Satan not gain the advantage. In 4:4, it is the “god of this world” who is actively working to blind humanity to the truth of the gospel.

In chapter 3, he words the conflict in terms of two dispensations: the dispensation of death (3:7) and the dispensation of the Spirit (3:8), which he also equates with righteousness (3:9).

In 2:4, Paul acknowledges that God has triumphed over the anti-God powers and allows all who are “in Christ” to share in this triumph. The triumph is over all the anti-god rulers of the “old” age, whether death, sin, flesh, or Satan.

The Spirit is the very guarantee that all who are in Christ participate in this victory (2 Corinthians 5:5). God’s kingdom is invading the “old” age and is at war with it. But Paul knows that through Christ, God has already claimed the victory. When Christ comes again, God’s kingdom will make the world right, as God intended it to be.

New Way of Knowing
In the movies The Truman Show or The Matrix, the main characters each face a crisis of learning that the world that they have always known is not the “real” world. For Neo in The Matrix the world he knows is a complete fabrication, but learning this information places him in a war in the real world. For Truman, the world and lifestyle created for him by a TV producer are not satisfactory to him once he discovers that there is a whole new world beyond his experience. Knowing that there is another world makes him long to experience it. Neither character can go back to life as normal because they have a new way of knowing. They are now aware that the real world is beyond anything that they previously imagined.

The revelation of Jesus to Paul has produced such a crisis (Galatians 1:12, 16). Seeing the resurrected Lord has changed how Paul sees the world all around him. Paul is now aware that God has invaded the world as he knows it. The old is passing away. The world that Paul knew is not all there is. The new has dawned. God is in the business of rectifying God’s creation, and Paul has seen God in action. He cannot go back to life as normal.

The distinctions that matter in the old world — Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free — do not matter in the real world. Because in this new world, God is reconciling all to Godself — regardless of gender, status, sexuality, identity, or position. All are enemies of God and stand in need of reconciliation.

Ministry of Reconciliation
Christ’s death and resurrection represent God’s victory over all the powers that stand between humanity and God. God is reconciling the world. Through Christ, God has defeated the reign of sin. Thus, humanity no longer has to be enslaved to sin’s power (see also Romans 5). Rather, as Paul says in Romans 5:10, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” As a recipient of God’s acts of reconciliation, Paul is committed to being an ambassador of this new age (5:20).

Being reconciled to God indicates that God’s Holy Spirit is at work to sanctify the reconciled into vessels of God’s righteousness. It is amazing that Paul can say to this church in Corinth, a church that has bickered with him and challenged him, that God is powerful enough not only to reconcile them to Godself, but also to transform them into “the righteousness of God.”

God’s righteousness is on the loose. God’s kingdom has dawned. There are glimpses of God’s new creation even in the struggling church at Corinth. God’s power to rectify simply cannot be contained. For a world held captive to all manifestations of sin’s power — to fear, anxiety, social injustices, war, starvation, and exploitation — this is good news, indeed.