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)




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.

Proper 20A: Manna and Cod Liver Oil

457px-Gathering_of_the_MannaOLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 16: 2-15

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

The passage begins with a typical scenario. Things are not going well. Discomfort and now even fear has set in. The Israelites are convinced that Moses has led them not to the Promised Land but to despair. “Surely we are all going to die out here in this desolate wilderness!…And it’s all Moses’ fault!” Boy, how quickly things turn. Last week, they were celebrating that they had traversed the Red Sea and lived to tell the tale. They could taste freedom. But now they’re out in the desert and things are not what they envisioned they would be. It’s hot; it’s dangerous; and there is nothing to eat. They were convinced that they were going to starve to death. And so they blame their leader. If only…it is a familiar tone. In fact, it’s a pattern in the Bible and in life. (Chaos–Grumbling–Deliverance…) How quickly we forget! What happened to the initial excitement of actually being released from slavery? What happened to the exhilaration of being set free? (What happened to that excitement after the Resurrection when that tiny band of Jesus’ followers began to increase its numbers by multipliers that we can only imagine?)

But God steps in, promising that bread will rain from heaven. The Lord will provide. But there are specific instructions. This is not something that you go out and collect and hoard for the future. God will provide what the people need that day and for that day only. And on the day before the Sabbath, God will provide for two days. So implicit in this tale are several points. First, you should only take what you need. And it is a base assumption that you shall remember the Sabbath. The manna is a gift; it is also a test. God offers freedom. God provides. Do we really trust that? Do we trust it enough to know that it’s going to happen again and again in our lives?

There’s another point too. As the dew lifted and the manna from heaven was revealed, the people didn’t even know what it was. “What is it?,” they asked. It wasn’t what they had envisioned; it wasn’t what they planned. (Many scholars explain manna as a surplus secretion from insects. It’s sort of like honey, but loaded with carbohydrates and nutrients. Nutritionists would call it a “super food”.) But it wasn’t what the Israelites put on their menu when they were dreaming up dinner!) Perhaps that’s part of the story! I mean, what would you have thought if there underneath the dew was a seven-course meal—maybe starting with a choice between a soup or a salad and then ending with a vast array of extravagant desserts? Yeah, I think that’s sort of over the top too. Manna is as much about gratitude for what is as it is about just opening our eyes to see what God brings into our lives.

In fact, manna was downright surprising on every level—unexpected, undeserved, uncharacteristic. I guess that sounds a whole lot like grace! But this manna was so small, so minute, so fleeting. It was definitely an exercise in trust. It was an exercise in self-control. And it means that we have to believe that God will always provide what we need—at the very least until tomorrow!

 Francis once visited a hermitage at Monte Casale, where the guardian reported that some thieves had just made off with a stash of bread. Francis said, “I must apprehend them!” So he took off down the road, caught up to them, and revealed he was carrying bread and a bottle of wine. “You must be hungry and thirsty, so here: eat, and drink, and come back to Monte Casale where there’s more.” The thieves, once they recovered from their shock, came with him, and became friars, friends of Francis and of Christ. (From “Small and White, Clean and Bright”, by Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, available at http://day1.org/3155-small_and_white_clean_and_bright, accessed 13 September, 2011.)


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Why do you think this story is so significant?
  3. How good are we at being grateful for what is?
  4. So what lesson does this story provide for us today?


 NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 1: 21-30

To read the Lectionary Epistle, click here

Paul is writing this letter from prison and does not know whether he will ever be released or see the congregation to which he writes again. But he is not feeling a sense of despair but rather a real freedom. He knows that they are praying for him and regardless of what happens, this will all turn to abundance. In the letter, Paul turns toward the congregation and encourages them to live their faith. He tells them to “live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

The Greek word that is translated “live your life” here is politeusthe, with the same root as polis, Greek for “city”, so the implication is the directive to “live as a free citizen.” Obviously, Paul’s meaning is the call to live in freedom within the order of God, rather than the order of Rome. And then he exhorts them to witness to that freedom by, first of all, showing a spirit of unity. He calls them to be strong, implying that the imprisonment that has been thrust upon him might be the same thing that happens to them in the future.

It is interesting to think of this possible suffering as a “privilege” when one talks about his or her faith. That notion is completely counter to what our culture thinks. But Paul is talking about a way of life that is completely counter itself. And in that way of life, it is indeed a privilege to call oneself a child and follower of God. The privilege is that we are given a faith so deep and so broad that it fills our lives in spite of any suffering that this world in which we live might thrust upon us. It is, according to Paul, a privilege to live a life that challenges and questions the pervading order of our world.

This passage obviously depicts Paul’s great and intense faith. But it is not a blind faith. There is nothing here claiming a God that will “fix things”. There is nothing here about God rewarding faithfulness with ease and prosperity. Instead, Paul has faith in the greatness of God, faith that God is beyond all we see and all we know, faith in a God that rather than blindly fixing or repairing our world leads us to a freedom from it, to a life that sees beyond to a life promised by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul recognizes that suffering will happen. It is a normal and even expected part of life. But we’re about something bigger. We have the privilege of believing in something more. And that, Paul would say, is worth sharing the Good News.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is difficult about this passage for you?
  3. How do we look upon suffering in this world in light of our faith?
  4. What does it mean to you to say that we are “privileged” to belief in Christ? How does that call you to live your life?


GOSPEL: Matthew 20: 1-16

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

When I was little and started whining about something, it usually included the words, “That’s not fair!” No, it probably wasn’t. But often my mom would respond with the words (which, I will tell you, I hated at the time!), “Well, Shelli, life is not fair!” What kind of answer was that? I wanted pastoral compassion and I got shocking realism. Maybe that’s what Jesus is going for here.

The story, of course, has elements of exaggeration, but maybe the shock value is intended to get us to look at life differently. This is really a very ordinary setting. A landowner goes out early to hire workers and contracts with them for work that day in his vineyard. You know, we can easily put this story in our own context. Let’s say a person goes out early to hire workers and contracts with them for work that day replanting our dying grass in our yard. About mid-morning, the person sees others standing near the property. Well, it’s logical that the more laborers you have working, the faster the work gets done, right? So he puts them to work. More workers are added to the ranks around lunchtime and again in the middle of the afternoon.

When evening comes, the work is done and the yard is planted. The owner calls all of the workers together and begins handing out paychecks. He starts with those that had been hired last. They receive a nice wage, a full day’s wage, in fact. The workers who had been there earlier become excited. Wow! I bet I’m going to receive a bonus for being here earlier. This is going to be great!

But the owner paid everyone the same. After all, that’s the wage to which they had agreed. The owner can be as generous as he or she wants to be to whomever he or she wants to be. And even those that came to the setting last received the same generous spirit as those that came first. Now the owner could have alleviated a lot of the problems and consternation between the workers if he had just paid them beginning with he first hired. Then they would have gone off happy with their day’s wages and never have known that the latecomers got the same thing. But then they would have missed the lesson. The point is not that the owner treats some better than others. The point is that he treats them all the same.

We often have struggled with this story. Barbara Brown Taylor says that this parable is “a little bit like cod liver oil: you know it must be good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow.” After all, for us, it’s a question of fairness. But remember, “life is not fair.”   In fact, God never promised fairness. God promised unconditional and infinite mercy, and compassion, and justice. God’s grace is there for those who have been righteous all their lives. And God’s grace is equally showered upon those who have messed up their lives. And, if you really think about your own life, would you really want God to be fair? Thank God, God is not fair.

But this parable is a question of fairness. And the answer is that life is not fair. You see, when you think about it, fairness is pretty subjective. I mean, very few people will shout “unfair” when they are on the winning side. What is “fair” to us may not be “fair” to others? We need to reframe our reading of this passage and at the same time reframe our reading of life with a different set of values, the values that God’s Kingdom holds. People are treated according to their needs, not according to what they deserve. And for that, I am very thankful!

Life is not fair. We know that all too well. But Jesus told this parable to shake us out of our complacent view of a neatly ordered life based on what we think we deserve. This parable jolts us into remembering what is important. This question of fairness is answered by God’s promise of justice and mercy for everyone. And once we realize that, no matter what our own circumstances, we cannot help but be motivated to change the world or, at the very least, to begin to look at it differently.

The parable challenges Jesus’ disciples in their spiritual arrogance. It challenges Matthew’s Jewish Christians who oppose the entry of Gentiles into the blessings of the kingdom. It challenges us today in our churches as we begrudge the joy of the gospel to those whom we deem less industrious, less committed, less worthy of it than we are.

The character(s) with whom we identify when we read a story tells us a great deal about ourselves and our self-conceptions. I suspect most of us identify with the workers who started out early in the morning and, on grounds of economic fairness, feel uncomfortable with this parable. What if the truth was that we ought to identify with those who started last? Only when we shed our spiritual arrogance can we experience the good news of this quirky parable, rather than being offended by its economics.

This came home to me when I was asked to perform a funeral recently. It was the funeral of Bill, the father of a church member. I knew his daughter and her husband and family but had only met Bill a couple of times at social gatherings at their home. He had been a vital man with a good sense of humor. He had been a successful salesman and made an excellent living, enjoying his retirement and frequent golf games until he had been stricken with Alzheimer’s two years before. Since I had not known Bill well, I asked if I could meet with the family and find out what their loved one had been like firsthand.

So I sat around a kitchen table one Saturday afternoon with Bill’s three children and their spouses, his niece, and nephew. I began by asking, “If you could express in one sentence what you learned from Bill, what would it be?” Nobody had to think about the question very long. “Give without counting the cost and without expecting a return,” one of them said quickly. And that sentiment was echoed all around the table.

Then they started giving examples. “He put me through school,” said his niece. “I didn’t even ask; he just knew my folks couldn’t do it.” “He bailed me out of jail,” said his son. “He never gave up hope in me,” said his nephew. “He gave me the gift of somebody believing in me.” Example after example of a man who knew how to give without counting the cost, without expecting a return. “He always made sure his children’s needs were met,” his daughter said, “but sometimes, I admit we felt jealous when he would give time and money to people who weren’t in our immediate family. Now I realize that his example of giving was his greatest gift to us.”Do you think that someday all of us who find this parable objectionable will say the same thing about Jesus? (From “Sheer Grace: Reflections on Matthew 19:27-20:16”, by Alyce McKenzie, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Sheer-Grace-Alyce-McKenzie-09-12-2011, accessed 14 September, 2011.)

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is difficult about this passage for you?
  3. What, for you, is the difference between justice and fairness?
  4. Why do we have such a hard time distinguishing between these two meanings?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God…We must not…assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)


Our inner happiness depends not on what we experience but on the degree of our gratitude to God, whatever the experience. (Albert Schweitzer)


If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)




O give thanks to the Beloved, and open your hearts to Love. Awaken! Listn in silence for the Voice of the Counselor. Sing praises with glad voice, and give witness to the truth with your lives! Glory in the radiance of the Beloved; let the hearts of those who call upon You rejoice! Seek the One who is Life, your strength, walk harmoniously in Love’s Presence! Remember that you are not alone, for through Love doubt and fear are released; O people of the earth, ever bear in mind the unity of diversity in the Divine Plan! Amen.


 (From “Psalm 105”, in Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, by Nan C. Merrill, p. 217.)