Lent 4C: Return

Rembrandt-The_return_of_the_prodigal_sonOLD TESTAMENT: Joshua 5: 9-12

Read the Old Testament passage

This passage continues with our theme of “hope”, even in the midst of seemed hopelessness, a good reminder for our Lenten journey. The Book of Joshua continues with the story of the promise of land which was set in motion during the time of Abraham, as told in The Book of Genesis. This first part of Joshua is set during the entry of the Israelites into the land of Canaan after their time in the wilderness.

In the wilderness the only sustenance that was available was the manna that God provided. Now that they had entered the land of “plenty”, so to speak, there was plenty of grain and resources to make their own bread. This was indeed a time of great thanksgiving. It was a celebration of not only their freedom but also the way that God had provided (and continued to provide) for them. The promise that had been made to them was beginning to come to fruition.

The manna was now ceasing because there was instead a permanent provision of grain. No longer did they require a “stop-gap” to get them through. God had liberated them and restored them to life. The past has indeed been “rolled away”, as it says at the beginning of the passage and a new day has dawned.

Manna is sort of an interesting concept and there seems to be many often conflicting ideas of what manna actually is. Whatever it is, many of us tend to sort of romanticize it. After all, how great is that for God to just automatically provide whatever we need whenever we need it? What an extraordinary thing! (Although, I, for one, am one of those people that easily tires of the same menu over and over!) But perhaps it is even more extraordinary when God’s Creation and God’s people work together to provide for each other and to fulfill God’s promises in the ordinary course of life. And the Passover meal that began in the midst of disgrace now becomes a remembrance for the people. Here at Gilgal, the Passover feast becomes a ritual.

What a great Lenten passage for us! It is a reminder that God is indeed true to the promises that God has made, if we will only allow God into our lives and follow to that place to which God is leading us. When we are hurting and enslaved, God is there, providing us manna to fill in the empty spaces in our lives until we come to our deliverance. But God does not leave us there. Instead, God gives us the tools that we need to sustain ourselves and to do for others what has been done for us. Manna is not a permanent fix; it is grace leading us through the darkness. And, like the Israelites, our past is rolled away, no longer an obstacle to where God is leading us. God sustains us that we might go out into the world to that place where we are meant to be, to that new beginning that God has created just for us. And the meal that began in the midst of disgrace now becomes a remembrance for the people, a reminder of what God has done and what God is doing.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What is your image of “manna”?
  • How do you identify with the manna itself and with the ceasing of the manna?
  • How does this passage speak to you on your Lenten journey?

 

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21

Read the Epistle passage

This passage, too, deals with that New Creation that God is in the midst of creating and to which God is inviting us. The beginning of Paul’s writing acknowledges Christ as both human and divine and reminds us that we know Christ (and, I think, MUST know Christ) in both ways. I once called it the “sacred and”, the bringing together of the human and the divine, the veritable pouring out of God’s Spirit onto us and into the world. It is this knowing, this being “in Christ”, this bringing together of humanity into the divine, that brings about this new creation. It is in Christ that we become the righteousness of God; it is in Christ that we, too, become part of that “sacred and”.

Now, admittedly, this is a high order. What exactly does that mean? It means that, once again, we are called not to jump away from this world but to look at things differently, to bring this perspective of this “new creation” into not only our lives but the lives of others as well. We have been reconciled with God through Christ, according to Paul. The Divine presence of God has come to dwell with humanity for all. Like the first passage that we read, there is no more need for manna; we have been given that which will sustain us.

And now as those reconciled with God, we are called to be “ministers of reconciliation” for the world. Paul talks about it as ambassadors. The world is called to be once again reconciled with God. Note that Paul’s claim is that “there IS a new creation.” This is not something in the future; this is not something that will happen once something else happens. This is now. We ARE the new creation, reconciled to God through Christ and now called to reconcile the world—all the world, each and every person–to God.

In the commentary, Feasting on the Word, Ralph C. Wood says this:

 

[In this text], Paul declares that he will no longer look upon any other person from a human standpoint, just as he has learned to behold Christ himself as the incarnate God, not simply as a Nazarene rabbi. For once we have discerned Jesus to be the Savior of the world, we cannot limit our estimate of other human beings—the born or unborn, exploiters or murderers, terrorists or militarists, frauds or failures—as dwelling beyond his reach. We cannot see any person as anything other than a creature for whom Christ has died and risen, and thus as one meant also to become “a new creation”…To give up hope for any other person, no matter how wretched their condition may be, is also to give up hope for ourselves….

Saints are those who live in the new dispensation, the new epoch, the new creation, since the old eon has ended. In the strict sense, therefore, Christians do not look for the end times, despite the immense popularity of [best-selling fiction that depicts a view contrary to this one]. We are already living in the final age, the one inaugurated by Christ’s life and teaching, his death and resurrection. The kingdom of God is already in our midst, eagerly yearning for its completion. It is thus not quite right to speak of postearthly existence as “life after death.” As N.T. Wright observes in his sprightly book called Simply Christian, Christians are those who are already living “after death,” since Christ has raised us from the grave. We ought more properly to speak of the world to come as “life after life after death”. ( Ralph C. Wood, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.)

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does that “new Creation” mean to you?
  • What does that mean to you to speak of yourself as a “minister of reconciliation” or as an “ambassador of Christ”?
  • How does this speak to you during your Lenten journey?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

Read the Gospel passage

This familiar parable is set in the context of two other “lost and found” stories—one about a coin and the other about a lost sheep. (Interestingly enough, the parable is also found in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.) In the beginning of this chapter, the stories are set as a response by Jesus to accusations from some “well-meaning” people that Jesus associates with sinners (of all things!). So Jesus tells these three parables in an order of seemingly escalated significance to people’s lives—first an inanimate (although important) object, then an animal, and, finally, a child, one of us who is lost and is then found. It is a depiction that God cares for all of God’s creation.

You know the story: The younger son wants to leave home and demands his inheritance from his father. So, not only is he spitting in the sanctity of the family unit itself, he is also claiming something that is not yet his, an insult to his father. But the father obliges and the younger son goes on his way. (Now keep in mind that those first century hearers would have been just as shocked at the father’s actions as the son’s. These were ancestral lands, a gift from God, a gift to the family.) Well, things go well for awhile (supposedly for as long as he has money!) and then they turn out badly for him. He ended up working for Gentiles and caring for pigs—neither of which is a good thing for a good Jewish boy to associate with the unclean. So, he knows that the only choice is to return to his home, return to his father, and accept whatever consequences came with that. It was clear that never in his wildest imagination did he envision himself worthy of forgiveness.

But when he returns, he is not only welcomed with open arms, but the father rolls out the red carpet, so to speak. Whatever has happened is past. And yet, lurking in the background is the older son—resentful, jealous, and probably feeling sorry for himself. Perhaps the older son has some image of love and grace as a reward for good behavior, rather than an unconditional and undeserved gift. But even these feelings do not stop the rejoicing, for a child once lost is now found. The father, who in terms of the ways of this world, had every right to be angry, to disown his son, to demand his money back, claims instead compassion, forgiveness, and joy that his son has found his way home.

In an article in The Christian Century, Thomas G. Long says this about this familiar story:

When we treat the prodigal son as a comeback story, we miss the point. When we say, “Head home, God’s feast is waiting!” we misunderstand. It is not our remorse that forces God to set the banquet table; it is not our deep desire to start over again that leads God to roast the fatted calf. We cannot throw our own party. By all rights, this story ought to end with the younger son sweating in the furrows, eating in the slave quarters and spending his days serving his older brother. So if we prodigals see the father running in our direction with open arms, we should know in our souls that this as an event so unexpected, so undeserved, so out of joint with all that life should bring us, that we fall down in awe before this joyful mystery.

A student of mine went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary about urban ministry, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own. At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a home-delivered pizza. As they headed for the phone, however, a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change. The father reached into the pockets of his sweat pants and pulled out two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said to the homeless man. “Take what you need.” The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went on his way.

It only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone. “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a call. Can you spare some change?” The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”

We are all homeless prodigals and beggars. So head home, but expect nothing. Be astonished beyond all measure when the dancing begins, the banquet table is set and the voice of God says, “Here. Take what you need.” ( Thomas G. Long, From “Surprise Party”, The Christian Century, March 14, 2001, p. 10, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2168, accessed 9 March, 2010.)

 

  • What meaning does this hold for you?
  • With which character in the story do you most identify?
  • Which character makes you the most uncomfortable? Why?
  • What image of God does this story present for you?
  • What image does this story call us to embody? Same question as before: What does it mean to be an ambassador of Christ?
  • What does this mean for you on your Lenten journey?

 

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

“Real…doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit)

 

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

 

Here is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of Creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 95-96)

 

Closing

 

We all know about being entitled and then growing careless.

We all know about self-indulgence, even amid work to be done.

We all know about being—for a moment—beyond Torah requirement and outside of your world of command.

We know about seasons of life not given over to us and grief at being failed selves.

We also know that you circle back among us in harshness and in mercy, in rigor and in generosity.

Now our world has gone careless and self-indulgent and beyond Torah.

So circle back, we pray—one more time, among us with your mercy, our only source of comfort, for we belong to you in your faithfulness. Amen.  (By Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008), 47.

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