Lectionary Commentaries for March 14, 2010
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Matt Skinner

Hearing this parable can be like hearing from a longtime friend. Strong memories rush in, and we are eager to resume conversation with a familiar voice.

Those dynamics offer preachers opportunities and challenges. Chances are people already connect to this parable in meaningful ways. They have found their space within it and allowed it to speak to them already. This offers opportunities to build on that preexisting relationship and acknowledge its importance.

The challenge lies in crafting a sermon that lets people discover newness. If we think we already know what the parable is about, or think that it only means a couple of things, then we close ourselves off to its depth. How might we twist the kaleidoscope to allow people to see the parable’s pieces arranged in different ways, so people might experience its power even more greatly?

Lost Things in Luke 15

Part of understanding parables involves noting where, when, and how Jesus tells them. This one comes in response to Pharisees and scribes who criticize Jesus’ penchant for associating too intimately (and perhaps too raucously) with “sinners.”

Actually, Jesus tells three parables. Each involves recovery or reclamation followed by celebration. The first two (15:4-10) declare that finding a lost thing legitimately results in rejoicing. They also equate finding and recovery with repentance, an idea that was central in last Sunday’s Gospel reading.

By contrast, Jesus’ third parable, in 15:11-32, does not include the word repentance or any of its cognates. It offers a different answer to the scribes and Pharisees, for the three parables do not simply repeat the same point. The three parables’ characters evidence a variety, for the third moves away from society’s more invisible members (shepherds and women) and takes us inside a privileged family. Furthermore, this is a much thicker parable, not merely due to its length, but because of its narrative complexity and ambiguities.

That’s Odd

Jesus’ parables typically include moments of odd behavior. These details seize attention through their strangeness and illustrate the alterity of the kingdom of God. That is, they depict God’s ways as alien to our usual expectations and to conventional wisdom. Notice the odd aspects of the interactions between the father and his younger son:

*The son affronts his father. His request for his part of the inheritance is out of line, perhaps the equivalent of wishing his father were dead. The son could have expected a share of the family estate, a much smaller piece than that due to the elder son, but only upon his father’s death. Nothing compels the father to grant the request.1

*The father appears recklessly indulgent. Because the son’s request would bring such shame to the household, granting it makes the father appear foolhardy, not generous.

*The father appears recklessly credulous. Dignified men in Jesus’ culture would not run like this man does. Clearly the father longs for the son’s return, for he sees him “while he was still far off.” But by welcoming him as he does, greeting him before hearing a word, the father appears ripe for exploitation. He does not wait for his son to express contrition (only a brief confession) before restoring him to full status in the household, symbolized by the robe, ring, and sandals.

Is this what grace looks like? Is God’s grace a grace so eager to give and restore? Will not those who value responsibility and propriety consider it dangerously permissive?

That’s a Surprise

We encounter at least two interpretive cruxes. That is, our decisions about what is happening in two places affect our perspectives on the parable as a whole.

First, does the younger son earnestly repent, or is he a manipulative scoundrel?

Some argue that the son’s repentance is implied, even if it is not clearly named by the ambiguous expression he came to himself (verse 17). After all, he hits rock bottom, longing to eat what unclean animals eat, once he is done in by a trio of calamities: “dissolute living” that squanders his resources, a “severe famine,” and a social neglect in which “no one gave him anything.” As signs of contrition, he confesses sin and plans to ask his father to welcome him home as a slave instead of a son. As signs of sincerity, he rehearses his speech and begins to deliver it even after his father embraces and kisses him.

On the other hand, “he came to himself” can indicate that he came to his senses and got clarity on his situation (see Acts 12:11). The absence of repentance language is striking, particularly since the previous two parables condition readers to expect it. The son’s rehearsed speech smacks of insincerity and a plan designed to tug at his gullible father’s heartstrings. Perhaps Jesus’ point is that even scoundrels are joyfully welcomed in God’s household. Just pointing oneself toward home is what unleashes God’s welcome. Any motive will do.

However we judge the younger son’s motives, still the story retains a deeply scandalous flavor in the father’s exuberant response to his returned son. The father welcomes home a loser, as a loser, and restores him to his standing as a son. Coming home at rock bottom was all he had to do.

Second, is the elder son correct?

The elder son makes the parable especially complex and interesting. He surprises us by breaking the pattern set by the two parables in 15:4-10. One sheep was lost while ninety-nine stayed together. A woman searched for a coin while holding onto nine. But both sons in this family are lost, including the one who never left home.

As soon as the elder appears in 15:25 we sense his alienation. No one bothered to call him in to join the party! Accordingly, he does not enter the house. He does not address his father as “Father” and speaks to him about “this son of yours” instead of “my brother.” His refusal to celebrate stems from his deep resentment.

Why is he resentful? He is taken for granted. No extravagance celebrates his reliable service. He accuses his father of showing preferential treatment. He expresses this with the visceral intensity that such unfairness can generate within family systems. The elder son forces us both to digest just how scandalous are the father’s actions and to ask what this son’s reactions say to us.

This son cannot see the situation in any way but according to his own conventions of justice and through the torments of the lack of appreciation he suffers. The father’s response to the younger son utterly confound the rules, doctrines, and convictions that confine the elder son.

Is the elder son correct? By his own reckoning, he surely is. And many of us need to be brought to the realization that, deep down, we tend to reckon things in similar ways, according to similar standards of fairness and belonging. How can we not?

Church folk fall into a trap when they write off the elder son as different, an outsider, or especially reprobate and self-righteous. He is the consummate religious insider, for he understands and articulates the scandal of God’s grace better than any theologian.

The father does not cast the elder son away. The parable denies a zero-sum economics that would have one child accepted and another rejected. “There is no ‘Jacob, I loved, but Esau, I hated’ (Malachi 1:2-3) note here.”2 For the father calls the elder son “son” and confirms his full place and favored standing within the family. All that remains to be seen is how this son will respond.

A Parable for Feasting

Wise preachers will avoid gorging congregations on this rich parable by realizing that they cannot serve up each and every thing it offers. I close, then, with a handful of recommendations around any one of which a preacher might construct a homiletical meal.

*Both sons, each in his own way, misunderstand the workings of grace. The younger seeks to bargain or manipulate, while the elder cannot let go of sacred canons and grudges. Yet both are welcomed home, regardless. They call us to reassess our own standards and the basis of our relationship to God.

*The elder son crystallizes questions about who has the rights to enjoy benefits as a member of God’s family. Who rightly belongs to this family? Who gets to determine the benefits? Who in God’s family remain objects of our disdain?

*The parable focuses on coming home as an occasion for celebration. This gives it an odd but powerful relationship to Lent, given that season’s associations with temperance. Next week’s Gospel text offers another story about surprising extravagance. Live it up!

*Sensitive preachers will be careful not to romanticize the notion of home. This parable only hints at how messy a place home always is, perhaps never quite what we want it to be. Our own ideas of home usually simultaneously attract and repulse us. Those who have read Marilynne Robinson’s powerful novel Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) might think of this parable with Jack and Glory Boughton in mind, two characters who want to find themselves at home but seem unable to recover from the wounds that home and family inflict. Where can people like this experience grace and inclusion?

*Likewise, people see themselves and their relatives in the passage. This begs us to consider how we relate to the parable’s characters in light of our family systems and all their rifts and resentments. If we are going to persist in referring to congregations and the church with familial language (which is problematic in several ways), then we need to be honest and careful about what we promise and how people will hear such imagery.

*Preachers might devote three Sundays to this parable, using each to examine a different character in detail.

1To be fair, a handful of scholars insist that law or custom allowed the son’s request.
2Mikeal C. Parsons, “The Prodigal’s Elder Brother: The History and Ethics of Reading Luke 15:25-32,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (1996): 171.

First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 5:9-12

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

Even though the Old Testament reading for this week is brief, it plays a critical role within the book of Joshua.

The two central events at Gilgal, circumcision and Passover, become the final acts of the nation prior to possession of the land. Clearly the author desires for the reader to understand them as preparatory events to what follows, preparing the people for possession, but also acknowledging the identity of this generation.

Nearly all translations and commentaries assign verse 9 to the pericope concerned with circumcision (verses 2-9), and rightly so, yet those compiling the lectionary have opted to read this verse with what follows. The question then for the interpreter is not “Should verse 9 be discussed?” but what does verse 9 have to do with verses 10-12?

Verse 9 operates as a concluding and perhaps summative statement of all that appears in verse 2-8. In verse 2, the LORD calls Joshua to “circumcise the Israelites a second time.” The Hebrew word šēnît can, and often does mean “a second time.” The term, however, can also mean “again.” In this case, “again” implies the reinstituting of the rite of circumcision after a lengthy interruption in practice. The rationale for doing this “again,” or reinstituting the practice, is provided in the following verses.

Those who came out of Egypt had been circumcised, but all those who had been born during the wilderness period had not, as of yet, been circumcised. Those who had been circumcised had been part of the older generation that had walked out of Egypt, had crossed the Red Sea, and had received the covenant of God announced at Mount Sinai. The fact that the new generation was being circumcised did more than make them “look” like their predecessors. The circumcision of all males suggested that this new generation’s identity was rooted in the life of this covenant God. They were not “second class” citizens or replacements of a former generation; they were in fact the people of God being prepared to be full recipients of the covenantal blessings and full recipients of the “land flowing with milk and honey” that had been promised to their ancestors.

The act of circumcising itself takes on an added meaning in Joshua 5. At Gilgal, the LORD announces, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” The familiar “today” of Deuteronomy is intoned again in Joshua. On this day, circumcision opens up a new future for the people; they are released from the disgrace of Egypt. Such disgrace is not a reference to slavery or oppression in Egypt, as some suggest, but clearly a reference to the disobedience of those who came up out of Egypt. The act of disobedience of the former generation that disqualified them from entry into the land is met in Joshua 5 with an act of obedience by the present generation, thereby releasing them from the disgrace of the older generation and signaling their preparation for Passover as well as entry into the land.

Verses 10-12 shift from circumcision and wanderings in Egypt to Passover and life in Canaan. As the circumcised people of God who have had the disgrace of Egypt rolled back, they are prepared to celebrate the feast of Passover. Just as the earlier generation had celebrated Passover on the fourteenth day in remembrance of their liberation from Egypt (Exodus 12:6), this new generation celebrated Passover on the fourteenth day, but the celebration appears connected now with the entry into the land as had been promised to their ancestors.

Surprisingly, however, the theme of Passover remains a minor theme in this brief section. The emphasis has shifted from Egypt to the land of Canaan (verse 12). On the day after Passover, they ate from “the produce of the land” (verse 11). Not only had the “disgrace of Egypt” been rolled back at Gilgal, but the scarcity of food had been replaced with a productive land that would satisfy the people. The new generation will no longer be a people of the wilderness forced to live off of divine provision, but now will be a people of the land ably supplied by their inheritance.

The connection between Joshua 5 and Luke 15 in the Lectionary is often questioned. Yet together they echo the words found in the reading from the Psalms: “Happy are those whose transgressions are forgiven” (32:1). In both Joshua 5 and Luke 15, the theme of wandering is paramount. The nation wanders in the wilderness, abounding in disobedience. The youngest son wanders in a different sort of wilderness, nevertheless, lost in disgrace. In both stories, the wanderers make their way back home out of the wilderness, but in both stories neither the nation nor the youngest son is able to shake the disgrace that has resulted from disobedience and wandering. It is only the pronouncement by the “other” (God in Joshua 5; the father in Luke 15) that redeems them from their past. “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” Each pronouncement is followed by a feast. In both cases, the feast symbolizes that the shame of wandering has been rolled back and replaced instead with the promise of a new “today.”


Commentary on Psalm 32

Paul S. Berge

The Hebrew Psalter is a marvelous resource for a living response to the God who has created us and redeems us in Jesus Christ.

This Psalm gives us a classic form of confession of sin (verses 2-5) followed by deliverance (verses 6-7). Surrounding this heart of the Psalm is the assurance of joy in the LORD (verse 1), living in the instruction (Torah) of the LORD (verses 8-9), and in the joy of the LORD (verses 10-11).

Herein is our sermon on the text: simply to let the text have its say among those who have come to hear the faithful word of the LORD. We are called to live in the joy of these words and their assurance of forgiveness for those to whom we are called to proclaim the good news: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (verse 1).

End of the Working Preacher response to Psalm 32 for the week! I’m serious! The words that follow the opening verse are so gracious from the psalmist that we could never imagine them on our own.

The translation “happy” to begin the opening verses is not a happy translation for the Hebrew word “‘ashre.” The word expresses the gift of living in a right relationship with God. The prominence of this word at the beginning of the Psalm assures the gift of the right relation for “those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (verse 1). This is the LORD who “imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (verse 2). This is the LORD God in whose presence we are called anew to live in a right relationship.

In fear and trembling in the presence of such a God of majesty, our broken nature keeps silent and our being wastes away “through my groaning all day long” (verse 3). The awesome reality of God stands against us “for day and night your hand was heavy upon me” (verse 4a). There is no escape day and night from such a God who never gives up on us and pursues us with love continually. God’s overpowering strength contrasts with our lack of strength and power on our own to save ourselves from our transgression and sin: “My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (verse 4b). There is no place for us to hide from the God who has created us and redeems us.

What turns us from our fear and trembling in the presence of such a God of salvation? “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity” (verse 5a). The revealing of our broken and alienated self from God is precisely that which frees us: “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (verse 5b). The burden of carrying our own brokenness and alienation from God has been removed; we cannot atone for our own sin and transgression. Only God is able to forgive the creature God has created in his own image.

The “therefore” of verse 6 is a common rhetorical work throughout scripture. It is a little word, but it signals a powerful reversal. The admonition of the psalmist brings us to the all that the preceding verses have expressed: “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you” (verse 6a). The call to faithfulness is what we need to hear. God has been waiting for our prayer “at a time of distress” that we might live in the assurance that “the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them” (verse 6b).

The one from whom we hide now has become our hiding place. What a reversal! “You are a hiding-place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with the glad cries of deliverance” (verse 7). The one whom we fear finding us hiding has in fact found us and is the one from whom no one or power can snatch us. We are firmly enfolded in the embrace of our creator and redeeming God.

This is also the God of Torah — “instruction.” The gracious word of God is the promise: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (verse 8). The instructive words of the LORD are true promise. The eye of the LORD is true counsel upon us. What more could we want?

The truth of our humanity is that we are created to hear the instructive word of the LORD, and to see and know the LORD’S eye of counsel and understanding upon us. We have been uniquely fashioned in contrast to the other creatures of God’s creation: “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding.” God does not control us “with bit and bridle,” but with his holy and precious word of grace and assurance of forgiveness. In this word of promise our LORD will “stay near you” (verse 9).

In the world that God so loves and cares for, the power and presence of the adversary remains a force: “Many are the torments of the wicked” (verse 10a). Over and against the wickedness present in our world we live in the hiding place of the LORD from whom no power can snatch us as we live in the promise that God’s “steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD” (verse 10b). In faith we live in God’s promise anew each day.

Because of this assurance the psalmist brings us to the final word of joy which has been carried through these marvelous words of faith. Our identity has been assured in the LORD who is present with us every day, and the psalmist breaks forth in conclusion with words that are emphatic in their placement of all the words of this Psalm: “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous” (verse 11a). We are the righteous in the identity that our God has bestowed upon us in Jesus Christ in whose death and resurrection we have been given the gift of God’s righteousness.

For all of this the psalmist calls us to “shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (verse 11b). The gift of Christ’s righteousness has given us the identity of being the “upright.” In this gift of life, even life eternal, our response is as the psalmist proclaims: “Shout for joy!”

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Holly Hearon

As I read through this passage, I am struck by how many of the verses have been pulled out of context for use as catchy ‘one liners’:

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation”; “. . .in Christ, God was reconciling the world to God’s self”; “We are ambassadors for Christ.” The up-beat nature of these individual verses belies the tense relationship between Paul and the Corinthians at the time of this correspondence. When we place them back in context, we get a glimpse into some of the ways theology and life come together.

The Situation
At the time Paul writes 2 Corinthians, he apparently felt that he was being viewed from a “human point of view.” One issue that emerges later in the letter is his standing as an apostle: he just does not have the powerful presence and demeanor that the Corinthians expect (chapters 10-11). They are frustrated also because Paul says he is going to visit, and then he doesn’t come; thus Paul appears to be a man who does not keep his word (1:15-2:4). In the ancient world (and no less so today), a person’s character is revealed by what they say and what they do. The Corinthians are trying to match Paul’s status as an apostle with their experience of the man and finding it difficult.

Paul, on the other hand, views the Corinthians as his very own. He is pained that they are drawn to apostles other than him, and he desperately desires to achieve reconciliation with the community. Five times in three verses he introduces the word “reconciliation.” A careful reading of the first two verses (18-19) reveals that Paul is driving home a point by having the one verse simply repeat what is said in the other: namely that God, through Christ, reconciles the world to God’s self, and that God has entrusted the ministry and message of reconciliation to Paul. Paul repeats this final point one more time in verse 20 when he asserts that “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” This leaves the Corinthians in no doubt that Paul sees himself as speaking for God; this is, after all, what ambassadors do. Therefore, Paul goes on to urge the Corinthians, be reconciled to God. Yet one wonders if what Paul really means to say is “be reconciled to me.”

The Theology
Paul’s appeal for reconciliation arises out of a complex, messy human situation. Much as he desires the Corinthians to be reconciled to God (and it is not wholly clear in what ways he thinks they are not), Paul also earnestly yearns for some kind of reconciliation between the Corinthians and him. I doubt that Paul thinks of these as two separate issues. Rather, I suspect Paul recognizes that what goes on in human communities, how we relate to one another, has implications for how we relate to God. It is not just about us; nor is it just about God. It is about how we understand ourselves to be in relationship with God and with one another, all in the same moment. The two are inextricably linked.

To illustrate this, Paul juxtaposes two ways of viewing one another, using the example of the Christ. At one time, he says, we looked at the one we call the Christ and saw, well, nothing special: perhaps a prophet, perhaps a fool. We judged on the basis of our human experience (what Paul calls “a human point of view”). Then something happened: something that allowed us to see in Christ the one in and through whom God reconciles the world to God’s self. Paul does not specify what this “something is” and it is very likely different for each of us. However, the affect is that we experience the presence of God not only in our own lives, but come to recognize the presence of God permeating the entire cosmos. Our way of seeing has changed, as well as our understanding of how we are in the world.

Paul goes on to say that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (verse 17). I am inclined to leave out the “a” and simply say “new creation” because this more nearly renders the idea that the creation is ongoing, reflected by Paul’s use of the perfect tense in the phrase “become new.” Ongoing, here, does not mean in the sense of evolution, but in the sense that creation, when it is sustained as we are in Christ, is in a constant state of renewal. This on-going act of creation, says Paul, occurs through Christ who restores the tear in the relationship between the Creator and creation. “In Christ” we experience God reaching out to us and ourselves as creation restored.

If we recognize ourselves as a part of this new creation, then we no longer view one another in the same way. Our vision has changed. Reconciliation is not simply something to be desired; it becomes an imperative because we have experienced reconciliation with the one who has given us (new) life. If, in this most important of all relationships, we find that our “trespasses” (which can also be rendered “missteps”) are not held against us, we too are challenged to reach across the boundaries and barriers that separate us, whether due to missteps, misunderstandings, or misconceptions, and find ways to renew our relationships as a part of the on-going act of creation.

When Life and Theology Meet
Were Paul and the Corinthians reconciled? We do not know. The danger remains that one or the other side will confuse their status as ambassadors with the role of God, and reconciliation with conformity. As it stands, we are only left with the issues and the possibilities. Much as I like tidy endings, I am drawn to the open-endedness of this situation because it gives us room to consider what we might do in this, or any other, situation where we are still searching for the reconciliation that will open up the potential for the renewal of creation. It is in this act, says Paul, that we may become the righteousness of God.