Lectionary Commentaries for March 6, 2016
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Sharon H. Ringe

It was early September of 2001.1

I had assigned the “parables of the lost” (Luke 15:1-10) for the practicum in biblical interpretation at the seminary where I teach. We started by sharing our experiences of losing things. We came up with the inevitable lost keys and even lost pets, but the stories of the extravagant joy of the characters in the parables seemed over the top. After all, the celebrations for the friends and neighbors cost more than the lost items were worth.

A few days later the attacks of 9/11 happened, and following them, the news reports of posters and photos captioned with things like:




All too rarely, there would be celebrations when someone was located. The armor of our privilege had been pierced, and suddenly we understood the parables. When the class met again the following week, our conversations about the text changed.

These parables and the one about the two sons (15:11-32) follow teachings on discipleship (14:25-35), and the parables are Jesus’ response to grumbling by the religious leaders about Jesus’ indiscriminate welcome to “sinners.” The examples — a pair consisting of a male shepherd and a female with her dowry coins — are people with limited resources.

The sheep is a precious resource for which the shepherd would be responsible to the owner if it should be found missing, and the coin part of the limited personal wealth of the poor woman who is keeping her own house or working for another. (Such dowry coins were the only “insurance,” should the woman find herself without her husband as a widow or divorcee.)

Leaving aside the “reasonable” point (at least from the point of view of people for whom the missing sheep was simply one among many) that leaving the other sheep to fend for themselves while he searched for the missing one was irresponsible, the contagious joy expressed in exactly parallel terms when the lost items were found makes clear their value. In the same extravagant way, the religious leaders are to understand, God rejoices when a sinner is welcomed back into the community.

Yes, following 9/11 we could get now that those lost were precious, but they were missing through no fault of their own. Not so the sinners: they did it to themselves, didn’t they? Perhaps not, since poverty and the demands of survival often resulted in poor people living outside the demands of Torah for Sabbath rest and ritual purity. But what about moral sins? Would those sinners be part of God’s yearning to welcome them home? The third of the parables in Luke 15 addresses that concern, in the story of the two sons. 

The story is well known. The obedient elder son lives responsibly in his father’s household, doing his part in the running of the family estate of which the lion’s share will belong to him after the father died. The younger brother, who would get only a smaller portion of the estate as his inheritance, asks for his share while the father is still alive. He is almost wishing his father dead! And he is removing himself from the household, for legally he would no longer have any rights to the property or even to its use. Like a sinner whose actions remove him from the community, the younger son is no longer part if the family’s story. 

The story continues to detail his “prodigality” — wasteful and lavish spending — after he left home. Though the customary title of this parable as the “prodigal son” makes that behavior the focus of the story and the basis of his need to beg forgiveness, in fact the damage had been done when he asked for his money. That traditional title also masks the fact that the story tells of two sons who become lost to their father. The gracious father welcomes the younger son back into the family, running out to greet the young man instead of waiting for the son to come to him, then giving him a robe, ring, and sandals, which are symbols of his status as heir once again. Then he throws a lavish party for the son and his friends, much to his brother’s chagrin. 

We tend to focus on the lavish welcome offered to and accepted by the younger son, but the story of his restoration is framed by the story of the “loss” of his elder brother. That obedient son went about his work, but when he learned of the party already underway, he scolded his father for not following the rules, and for letting the “little brat” (I’m following the elder brother’s implied perception) come back home with no demand for restitution. The younger one “was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (15:32). The father offers a gracious blessing to the elder son: “all that is mine is yours” (15:31), but we do not learn whether he accepts his father’s generous spirit or whether he remains “lost.”

The word from this parable to the religious leaders in their reluctance to welcome sinners is clear. But what happened to the class’s reading of the parable in light of the experiences of those lost on 9/11? We found ourselves in the story as both brothers and as the religious leaders to whom it was addressed. We could appreciate the joy at the restoration of life to the younger brother, without asking about his moral worthiness, just as we rejoiced at every story of life and act of heroism by first responders.

Distinctions and feelings of preference and disdain for various groups among the victims and survivors were absent. But we joined the elder brother in not being able to accept the possibility that even those who perpetrated that terrible act might receive God’s joyful welcome to the feast. 


1. This commentary first published on this site on March 3, 2013.

First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 5:9-12

Samuel Giere

The people of Israel are fresh out of the liminal space of the wilderness.

Forty years of wandering behind them. A generation has come and gone. They are now inside — albeit just inside — the promised land. Encamped at Gilgal. With the liberative threshold that was the Red Sea crossing, God brought their parents out of Egypt, out of slavery. Now they have crossed the threshold of the Jordan River into the promised land. Never mind that the Jordan is but a creek, as the waters of the Red Sea were stood up by the Lord, so the waters of the Jordan.1 The wilderness wandering, which began with an exodus, now comes to a conclusion with an eisodos.

The people entering with Joshua into the promised land are the children of those who left Egypt. Their fathers are dead.2 Lest the reader get sentimental about this homecoming of sorts, those who left Egypt and their offspring, the children of the wilderness, were not so squeaky clean. Recall the stories of the wilderness, whining, golden calves, and the like. Recall Jeremiah’s words that accompany the Lord’s promise to make a new covenant: “ … not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke … ”3 As pendants of their unrighteousness, these children of the wilderness entered the promised land uncircumcised.

This would not do. The Lord told Joshua to have them circumcised, and with this mass procedure the wilderness generation, like those from the time of Abraham, bore the mark of the covenant between the Lord and the people.4 From Gibeath-haaraloth (the hill of the foreskins),5 the newly circumcised returned to the community encamped at Gilgal to heal. The first verse (Joshua 5:9) draws the circumcision episode (vv.2-9) to a close with an ætiological explanation of the name of the place — Gilgal. It is the place where the Lord “rolled away the reproach of Egypt” from the people.

The movement out of the liminality of the wilderness is ritually marked. The generation of the wilderness had now come of age. Which made way for the celebration of the Passover.

Together with the crossing of the Jordan and the return to covenantal alignment (circumcision), the celebration of the Passover also marks this movement into the promised land. Perhaps the Deuteronomist resonates most clearly: “And you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place which the Lord will choose, to make his name dwell there.”6

With their entry into the promised land and the circumcision of the generation of the wilderness and the celebration of the Passover also came the cessation of manna. The liminality of the wilderness wandering was officially over. The people had arrived. Manna was no longer necessary. The fruit of the promised land would now provide. The Lord returned to create means to provide for the Israelites. The earth would bring forth. The Israelites have landed, so to speak.

The final verse of the pericope: “And the manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.” (v.12) This text is troublesome. Crops planted by whose hand? By whose labor?

With the crossing of a creek, the Israelites are conquerors. Land. Produce. Fruit. Population.

The nations for whom this is home are to be forced out. Dispossessed of land promised to others. The Lord promises to drive the inhabitants out.7 The trajectory of the exodus is eisodos.

Preaching horizons

This is an important text — a critical point in the narrative. It is the fulfillment of a promise. The movement out of the liminality of the wilderness into the promised land. The sign of the covenant is restored. The command to celebrate the Passover is fulfilled. The temporary provision of manna is proven truly temporary, something that it would have been difficult to convince any Israelite of during their incredibly predictable wilderness buffet.

Against the backdrop of our contemporary world, which remains God’s, this text by itself is rather ugly. The contemporary State of Israel and the occupied people of Palestine are more than a narrative foil to Joshua’s entry into the promised land. Is this situation, which has flesh and blood people created in the image of God on both sides … of the wall, the modern fulfillment of the Lord’s promise? While distinctive, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not unique. There is an ugly human tendency to wall-up, wall-out, expel, segregate, and dispossess. We should always remember the observation of Pascal, “Men (sic) never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”8

Nowadays, this rhetoric is disturbingly commonplace, especially in North American, and particularly in the US presidential campaign. Instilling fear of “the other” is a strategy. A cold, hard reality is that both parties participate.

You, dear reader, may think that I’ve strayed from the text. I can’t get up and preach this. What has this to do with Lent? I hear your hesitation, dear preacher, but consider preaching this text nonetheless.

Consider the penitential and pedagogical accents of Lent. What might it mean for people to hear again the story of the Exodus and the Eisodos with its ambiguities and complexities? What might it mean for people to consider this text in light of the reconciliation of all things, Scripture included, to God by the cross of Christ (Colossians 1:19-20)? What might it mean to explore this text in relation dynamic encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter (Matthew 15:22-28)?

The movement from the liminality of the wilderness to the occupation of the Promised Land is filled with both promise and problem. God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant with Israel, in spite of the fact that they have been a pain in backside since the Red Sea, remains.


1 “For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty; that you may fear the Lord your God for ever.” Joshua 4:23-24

2 Cf. Joshua 5:4

3 Jeremiah 31:32

4 Recall Genesis 17:9-14.

5 There is a notable resonance with the adult male circumcision ritual, Ukwaluka, by which young Xhosa men in South Africa pass from boyhood and manhood. Among others, Nelson Mandela describes this own experience of this as a young man, Long Walk to Freedom (Little, Brown, and Company, 1994) 22-25.

6 Deuteronomy 16:2. Also, Exodus 12:14-20, Leviticus 23:5-8, Ezekiel 45:21. It is also noteworthy that the Lord commands that the Israelites not celebrate the Passover in towns (e.g., Jericho) that the Lord will give them, but in the place (i.e., Gilgal) that the Lord chooses. (Deuteronomy 16:5-6). Such a choosing was also the case for the Israelites at in the wilderness at Sinai. (Numbers 9.1-14)

7 Deuteronomy 7:1, Joshua 3:10.

8 “Jamais on ne fait le mal si pleinement et si gaiement que quand on le fait par consceince.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 14.895.


Commentary on Psalm 32

Beth L. Tanner

If the Sundays in Lent has named themes as in Advent, this fourth Sunday would be a festival to celebrate forgiveness.

The psalm, the epistle, and the Gospel readings all directly speak of forgiveness and reconciliation. The same could also be implied for the Old Testament text, since it tells of the people finally settling into the land promised so long ago by God. This first Passover in the land represents God’s promise to the people, a promise delayed by the stiff-necked behavior in the wilderness. The Gospel lesson provides the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son and the Epistle calls on us to be reconciled with God along with the familiar liturgical phrase “Anyone in Christ is a new creation.” The psalm is the accompanying celebration, the music of this festival.

Forgiveness may be the greatest power in our lives. Without it, all of the relationships on which we depend would be lost. Its repetitive narrative rolls through the stories of the Old Testament. God lovingly gives what the people need; the people turn away; God forgives and the cycle begins all over again. We humans are remarkable consistent and thankfully so is God. While we all know the importance of this forgiveness, we rarely take the time to celebrate it. This is the Sunday to do so.

The psalm begins with an important Hebrew word, asher (see for example Psalm 1:1, 2:12, 34:8). It is often translated as “happy” (NRSV) or “blessed” (NIV). However, these English words, however, do not fully capture its full meaning. In Hebrew it is not a feeling or a condition, but a way of life (Hebrew “to go straight”). There is intention and determination in this word. It is the path of life chosen and lived. In this psalm, this one is not perfect but thankful for God’s acts of “lifting transgression” and “covering sin” and “not counting iniquity.” The last line of verse 2 dovetails with the 2 Corinthians text, this one now has “no deceit in their breath” or in Pauline words “is a new creation.”

The next stanza (vv. 3-4) tells of the burden and shame of sin. It is that heavy feeling as if God’s hand is “heavy upon me.” It is the prodigal on the long walk home to admit his folly and beg for mercy. It is the feeling in the pit of our stomach when we know our words or actions hurt another and that our sin also hurt God. Yet at the same time, that gnawing is the pull of a desire for a restored relationship. Here the pain is so overwhelming that it is both mental and physical. Our bodies know the pain of our sin. We feel it in our hearts and in our bones.

It takes three lines to confess and one line for God to forgive (v. 5). The distress was self-made and this one stands to confess, knowing he/she has broken the relationship with God. In this moment, we are more vulnerable than at any other time. We have turned away and have returned, like the son, and our relationship and future lies in the hands of another. The only repair is grace offered by another. We can do nothing else but stand before God and hope that God’s mercy is wider than God’s anger.

The next stanza (vv. 6-7) celebrates that restoration. The feeling of relief is as strong as the weight of dread. The language used is typical for the psalms, but here it is given a new definition. These terms are usually used for God hiding the one from the enemies. Here God is a protection from my own actions, or inaction as the case may be. The mighty waters are of my own doing (v. 6). God “hides me” and “protects me” (v. 7), and “delivers me” from myself and my idiotic behavior.

The next stanza tells us that forgiven sinners are not to be lectured to, but the one providing the lecture! Those forgiven ones are to teach others of a better way. They lead the band in declaring the importance of God’s path and the ways of forgiveness. It reminds us that full restoration means just that. If we are a new creation and God has buried our sins, then there should be community wide cheering and celebration. Instead often one’s worst moments of sin and failure follow them like a homing missile. Gossip undermines restoration for the person and the community. It is important to believe in God’s words of forgiveness for us and for others. Yet these words seem too good to be true. We often act like the brother in the prodigal parable. Yes he was harmed, of that there is no doubt. But God offers all the same restoration and we choose to rejoice or to sulk and brood or join into a celebration of forgiveness and grace. We can be generous or resentful. We can believe God has created us new, or we can wear our old sins like a heavy winter coat in the sunshine. Forgiveness is counter-cultural! Forgiveness is radical! Forgiveness changes the world! Forgiveness changes us!

Today, we tend to look to the choir anthems and the sermons as the center of worship. But today we are reminded, it is the Assurance of Pardon — that tiny moment every week when we give voice to God’s greatest gift. We have heard the words thousands of times. Today, really hear them and then celebrate the reality that it is these words that make life possible.

Read in context, verse 10 may not be about some unnamed wicked, but the ones who refuse to believe what has just been declared. They are tormented by grace instead of giving it up to God and being surrounded by God’s hesed. They cannot trust that God means what God says for another or for themselves.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

David E. Fredrickson

In 2 Corinthians 5:13 Paul admits to madness: exestemen.

This verse has perplexed scholars for generations. What follows is one attempt to make sense of it. I do so by placing it into the troubled relationship Paul had with the church in Corinth.

So here, in a nutshell, might have been the situation. The major data point, though not the first event, was the “letter of tears” mentioned in 2 Corinthians 2:4. Letters like these in which the writer bitterly rebukes the recipients by dwelling on the injuries received from the latter were not uncommon in antiquity and are attested in the surviving epistolary handbooks. So how had the Corinthians hurt Paul? After writing 1 Corinthians and sending it in the care of Timothy to Corinth, Paul decided to visit the church again. During this visit Paul was insulted or injured by an unknown person and the church took no action against him. Paul fled Corinth but sent the “letter of tears” in the care of Titus criticizing the community for ignoring the injury. At their rendezvous in Macedonia Titus reports (2 Corinthians 7:5-16) to Paul that the church had disciplined the offending individual (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). Paul also was informed of the pain his tearful letter had caused the church (2 Corinthians 7:8-13).

What a mess! And remember this is only from Paul’s point of view. Each person would have their own tale to tell. Everybody has wronged everybody. And it gets worse. The “super-apostles” show up pleased with Paul’s severity in the letter of tears but ridicule his gentleness in the presence of the church. To Paul’s way of thinking their ministry is indistinguishable from Satan’s (2 Corinthians 2:11; 4:4; 6:14-16; 11:12-21). Yet it looks like the church has started to admire their moral absolutism (2 Corinthians 11:3-4; 11:19; 13:1-10). If ever a community and its leaders needed a new start, this was it. Paul’s conviction is that the new start does not begin with a renewed application of law (see chapter 3), no matter how good that law might be.

Out of this disaster emerges a profound meditation on grace and forgiveness in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Our entry point into Paul’s theological response to a very human and chaotic situation, one in which Paul finds himself as lost as anyone else, is to distinguish forgiveness from reconciliation. Here I follow John D. Caputo’s fascinating exploration of forgiveness (The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2006, 208-235). Reconciliation depends on reasons, excuses, or confession; these in a sense “buy” back the debt incurred through the injury. Forgiveness, however, seeks to exist apart from any economic consideration. It seeks to be pure and absolute. Its logic, against the logic of common sense, demands that only the unforgivable can be forgiven, only that which is not forgotten, blotted out, cleansed, or purified, can be given back to the wrong doer as a gift with no strings attached. If one is moved to forgive based on the repentance of the offender or some proclivity of the sinner which excuses the wrong then it ceases to be forgiveness. Likewise, forgiveness offered because it heals the one who forgives (which may indeed happen) is no longer forgiveness in the strict sense. Forgiveness requires there be no reason for it. It must be a pure gift, the arrival of the impossible (“new creation” in Paul’s terminology); it must escape calculation in what Caputo calls “the event.” He writes,

Reconciliation is not a bad economy and certainly not a bad thing, and it is much to be preferred to vindictiveness and endless cycles of retribution. But it is not the gift of the event or the event of the gift, which is not an economy but an excess … Reconciliation, which is the form forgiveness takes in its ordinary mundane existence, belongs to the economy of the world, taking place on the plane of being. Forgiveness, on the other hand, belongs not to the entitative order of checks and balances but to the order of the event, which is here the order of the gift, of the grace and gratuitousness of the event beyond being’s transactions (p. 211).

I want to emphasize the contrast Caputo draws between “economy” and “excess.” Paul, I think, sides wholeheartedly with the excess of forgiveness and not the calculation of reconciliation in 5:16-21. Why? Forgiveness is the only way to go on living with and in spite of the mess. It is the only way simultaneously to take responsibility for wrongs committed and to live as if a new start had been given.

“But Paul does use the term reconciliation,” it might be objected. In fact, English translations of the term katallasso (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19, 20) and its cognate katallage (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) are testimony to our unfortunate habit of turning excess into economy, of turning gift into barter. Lexical evidence suggests that katallasso does not so much refer to a restoration of a relationship through settling accounts but the initiation of a friendship in which all things are held in common, in other words, where the very idea of an economic exchange has evaporated. New creation! Think of it (if you can): God has entered into a friendship with the cosmos (a Greek way of saying “everybody”) in which God and cosmos have all things in common, where between the two there is no “mine” and “thine” as the ancients said about friends. Forgiveness, understood in 2 Corinthians 5:19 as God’s not counting sin against the sinner is the heart of this new creation. And Paul is unafraid to draw an impossible theological conclusion from this mad idea of God’s friendship with the world. Read 2 Corinthians 5:19 (very slowly) and wonder whether forgiveness might be bearing the sin of the other in one’s own life and in so doing never forgetting it but living on in any case in the delight of the other’s righteousness that your forgiving/not forgetting gives the other. Now apply this to God and everybody. Whoa.