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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Lent 4C March 6, 2016

Quotes That Make Me Think

"It is in the present day quite fashionable for everybody to lie against what he believes, and to say he is a sinner, even when he believes himself to be a very respectable, well-to-do man, and does not conceive that he ever did anything very amiss in his life."

"An Appeal to Sinners: Luke 15:2," Charles H. Spurgeon, 1856.

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

Commentary, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Arland J. Hultgren, at, Luther Seminary, 2013.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons

Forsaking your embrace, O good and gracious God, we have wandered far from you and squandered the inheritance of our baptism… Restore us now with the embrace of your compassion, and grant that we who have been found by your grace may gladly welcome to the table of your family all who long to find their way home. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year C, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

Resources for Sunday's Gospel

Is this the prodigal son? Or is it the good son? Both seem so
alone but are in such need of the other.
We begin with the reality that tax collectors and sinners are coming to listen, to hear, Jesus.  If we look at the previous chapter we see this is in direct response to the words “let the one with ears to hear listen.”  What follows is a complaint from those having a difficult time hearing, the Pharisees.  They are complaining that Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners.  It is to these accusations that Jesus offers us a parable; and without this focus we loose a good portion of the parable's meaning.  I have a friend who believes that it is their charge that he ate with sinners which ultimately brought about Jesus’ death.

There are many factors which contributed to Jesus’ death; Raymond Brown’s treatment of the texts in his book The Death of the Messiah seems an important resource on this topic.  Nevertheless, I believe most will say that this action of hospitality was one of the most serious and perhaps inflammatory actions undertaken by the Son of God; made all the more scurrilous by the growing popularity of the his prophetic teaching and works of miraculous grace.

In this season of Lent one may very well be led by meditations to ask, “Who is this Messiah who stoops to choose me?”  The answer is that it is exactly this Lord that we proclaim.  And so we turn to the parable to better understand the meaning of this profound gesture.

I would note first that this is the first of three parables on the topic of those who cannot hear what God is doing in the reign of God. The next one is the parable of the shepherd with the one lost sheep and the third is the parable of the woman with the lost coin.  While we cannot take them together; surely they are pieces of a whole.  And, they are worth a nod here.

So we have the wayward sheep first.  The shepherd leaves all his sheep to find the one.  He puts the lamb on his shoulders thereby insuring work for Tiffany stained glass manufactures for decades. Actually, most people may remember that first year bible class or the History Channel’s explanation of this very ancient connection to the shepherd Hermes.  Regardless of the historical birth of the image it is a powerful one of our theology of redemption and works deep on our mind and hearts as we think of our own lost selves and the good shepherd seeking after us. What is miraculous is that any good shepherd would actually, pragmatically, leave the rest for the one.  I think this taps deeply into the real time imagery Jesus is offering his listeners.  Were the religious leaders of the day, the people of Israel themselves, not of enough value to the shepherd? Why wouldn't the shepherd be satisfied with the sacrifices and faithful people so very focused on the Temple worship?  The parable though puts an explanation point on the words of Jesus, “I have come to gather up the lost sheep of Israel.”  Jesus is in fact illustrating his mission and our own.  We are to be like Jesus more concerned with those outside of our safe pasture.  Who are those in need?

We can easily echo Jesus’ mission to the poor, the oppressed, and the captives.  Here is an example of how God is concerned and we are to be concerned, so concerned that we reach out and find the lost sheep.  How often do we come to worship to receive?  What would it be like to turn our gaze outward and seek the lost?  How might this change our ministry concerns?  What will it take for us to truly go out and find them?

Before Jesus moves to the next parable he teaches those who are listening, “In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven at one sinner’s repentance that at ninety-nine righteous people who do not need repentance.”  The structure of the second parable of the woman and the lost coin is the same as the first parable.  It expands the theme.  The invitation to rejoice accentuates the celebration of the work of our woman and her found drachma.  It isn't really very much money, but read what she had to do to find it: she had to light a lamp, and sweep the house.  That is a lot of work for a coin that might have been sowed to your wedding garment!  It is a great search for something so little.  Is it its meaning? Is its tie to the wedding day?  Regardless, it is precious and a great celebration is had after much work is done to find just such a little thing.

It is then at this point in the narrative that we arrive at the story of the man who had two sons. We commonly call this the story of the prodigal son, but this means we are too easily focused on one and not the other. I have often wondered if the more interesting story isn't the part hardly ever spoken about: what the faithful son does and says.  After all, as a full member of the body of Christ, a faithful servant, I am much more like the insider in this story than the outsider. What would it be like to engage in preaching and teaching that focused the church’s attention on the “good son?”  Most everyone likes to be the good guy, the one with the white hat in the old westerns, the savior, and the best man.  When it comes to bible stories we like to be the bad guy, the outlaw, the outcast, and the last man.  When we, the corporate we, do this as the church I think we may miss the better half of Jesus’ point.

So, let’s lean into this parable.  We have two sons, one of them asks for a share of the property.  He is of course asking for an early share in the inheritance.  If interested you may wish to look at Leviticus 27:8-11.  He receives it and goes off to a foreign land.  He certainly squanders his share, living without control.  However, there is no suggestion of sexual excess.  He literally scattered his wealth.

Then there is a famine.  Our bad son ends up tending the pigs.  This is really bad.  Luke Timothy Johnson writes:
“Not eating pork becomes a test of fidelity to Torah in the time of the Maccabees.  To tend the pigs of a Gentile is about as alienated as a Jew could imagine being.  In the Mishnah, raising pigs is forbidden to Jews.  The attitude toward Samaritans and pigs alike is captured by the saying of Eliezar, ‘He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine.’  One rabbi, at least, considered the craft of shepherding to be equivalent to the ‘craft of robbers.’” (LTJ, Luke, 237)

Well, after being filled with enough corn husks, he comes to his senses and decides to return to his father and tell him how wrong he was.  He has sinned against God and he will only ask for work, like one of the fieldworkers.  Interesting though that even though he requests menial work he addresses the head of the house as father.  All he wants is his daily bread.  All he wants from the father who is connected to heaven is a small apportionment of bread.

When the father sees him, he runs, hugs, and kisses his son.  Now we have extravagant gestures being offered.  He doesn’t even have the opportunity to pray and ask to be treated as a daily worker.  Let’s have the fatted calf and a robe for this celebratory return.

The son was lost but now found, dead but now alive.  Here the son reflects the story of Jesus as a child found in the temple, he reflects Jesus after his resurrection.  Today, like the past, those who have been lost resonate with this moment.

But while you and I may have indeed had moments of being lost, and will surely have plenty more moments of being lost in our future…we must recognize today we are listening as one who is found.  So, it is our story which comes next.  Some days we are like the tax collector and the sinner in the beginning of the story, most days we are like the Pharisees and the good son. 

It is this good son who is so angry he cannot even go into the feast he is so angry. Notice here the similarity to the other son.  He does not come in, but is out on the roadside. The father runs out to meet him as well. He comes out and he comforts him.  He feels compassion and pleads with him to enter, this is the meaning of the Greek in this instance (LTJ, Luke, 238).

Here comes the comparison.  The good son wastes not a minute in telling father of how he has been mistreated. He feels a sense of injustice and resents being treated like a slave.  He has been bound to his father with no freedom.  He has played by the rules.  And, they never even killed a goat for him.  Then he does something interesting, the good son says that the bad son has been about sexual immorality.  It seems important that the son supplies something of his brother’s story not supplied by the narrator - Jesus.  The good son is quick to show how the bad son is completely unlike him and should not be here at all.  Here is the parabolic twist for the Pharisee who is complaining that Jesus is eating with sinners.

Here again are the words of compassion equally given to both sons.  The elder son is friend and companion who have shared everything in a community of possessions.  Not unlike Luke’s Book of Acts where the community of faithful followers of Jesus share everything in common with one another.

So we hear the final teaching of Jesus in the mouth of the father: we must celebrate the lost who are found and the dead who are alive.

I quote from Luke Timothy Johnson’s conclusion here:

“If the first part of the story is pure gospel – the lost are being found, the dead rising, and sinners are repenting because of the call of the prophet – then the last part of the story is a sad commentary on the Pharissaic refusal out of envy and resentment to accept this good news extended to the outcast.  The allegorical level of meaning is irresistible:  they, like the elder son, had stayed within covenant and had not wandered off; they had never broken any of the commandments.  But (the story suggests) they regarded themselves not as sons so much as slaves.  And they resented others being allowed into the people without cost.  The son refusing to come into the house of singing and rejoicing is exactly like those who stand outside the heavenly banquet while many others enter in (13:28-30).  And if this all were not obvious from the wording of the final scene, then Luke’s compositional frame makes it unmistakable: he told these stories to righteous ones who complained about the prophet accepting sinners. (15:1-2)” (LTJ, Luke, 242)

The son requires great suffering from his lost brother than he himself is willing to provide.

Are we ready for the banquet? Are we ready to rejoice with those who are found today? Are we facing inward looking at the party or outward like Jesus and the Father and welcoming people in?  Are we more ready to make up stories about how others can’t possibly be part of us? Or, are we more ready to greet them, clothe them, and feed them?

This is a powerful message for the institutional church considering mission and ministry outside of its walls.  This is a powerful message for the institutional church seeking to understand its work of welcoming the stranger.

Some Thoughts on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

In this section of Paul's letter to the Corinthians he is reflecting upon his own ministry. It is truly one of his great passages.

God has decidedly taken action on our behalf and in so doing our vision is transformed and transfixed upon his mission.

We are truly made new.  We are recreated as the whole of creation is now being recreated by God's regenesis action.  God has, through the death and resurrection of Christ, reconciled us. He has remade us through his own efforts - not our own.  And, we (like God) have been given a ministry of reconciliation.  Indeed, Paul is saying, this is his ministry as well.  

God has chosen to not count the trespasses against us, but instead to draw us close; and bring us near.

If we are to be ambassadors of Christ we must also be about this work. We must be reconciled to the fact that God has not counted our trespasses, nor the trespasses of the world, against them.  We are to be reconciled to the notion that we are to offer this good news of salvation to the world - in word and in action.

How often do we, out of our own feelings of not being forgiven, chose to not forgive others? How often do we, out of feelings of not being loved, chose to not love others?  How often do we, out of feelings of God counting our EVERY trespass, count the trespasses of our brothers and sisters?  To me, to us, Paul speaks over the ages of grace, love, and mercy.  He reminds us of our own forgiveness and how our response to God's work on our behalf is to take up the cause of forgiveness, reconciliation, and love!  There is no greater task; and in fact it is what we have been made for.

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