Readings for Fourth Sunday in Lent 18 February 2007 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Fourth Sunday in Lent Textweek

Fourth Sunday in Lent 18th March 2007

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is one of those Christian classics – the parable of the Prodigal Son. I don’t recall who it was, but a theologian was interviewed and asked what is the nub, what is the crux of the Bible, if you could sum it up? What he said was you can actually leave a lot of it, if you retain the story of the Prodigal Son, you retain it all. In the story of the Prodigal Son is everything that is contained in the whole of scriptures, and those who’ve been doing the series of Lent studies, the Lent reflections, might well recall the image of the hologram that came up in the readings this week, the hologram being an lensless photograph or picture, which if you just take a piece of it out, it still contains the whole picture. So the part contains the whole and the whole contains the part; so the Prodigal Son contains the whole, just as the whole contains that narrative within it.

The Prodigal Son story is quite easy to understand, it’s quite powerful and it can be understood and appreciated on a number of levels and from a number of different perspectives. It’s also an amazingly complex story and a subtle story as well. Verse 20: ‘While he was still far off his father saw him and was filled with compassion.’ Again, just as an aside, when we met on Wednesday night to look at the Lent reflections, it’s amazing that even though we were looking at last week’s readings, compassion came up as a theme for us to explore and to contemplate. The ‘com’ part of compassion means sharing, being with, together; so for example, companions are bread sharers; community, together as one; com, together in union, communion, and compassion is to share the passion. And as we move towards Easter, we move towards sharing in the passion of Christ. ‘While he was still far off his father saw him and was filled with compassion.’ It’s probably quite easy for us to find a substitute for the ‘he’ and the ‘father’ and so see that this text is really an allegory and it’s speaking of God’s orientation towards us.
Further on in the parable we read, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours’; again we can see that text is another illustration of God’s orientation towards us. The subtlety of the parable is that these texts which speak of the divine orientation towards us, are spoken to two different sons and as readers or hearers of the text, we have compassion with both; we can share in the story of both of the sons, we can see ourselves in the place of both. And that’s surprising on one level because the parable goes to great lengths to provide quite different, almost opposite characters of the two individual sons - it’s not as if they’re alike.

So how is this all linked to circumcision then, the circumcision we read about in the book of Joshua? Circumcision was and is, a mark of differentiation. In Joshua it’s a differentiation between Israel, the people of Israel, and Egypt, the people of Egypt. And if we look - we only have to glimpse slightly beyond the literal, we can see that this is a differentiation between God’s chosen – Israel – by ‘chosen’ meaning those who are in relationship with God, and Egypt, those who have turned to other gods. So the Joshua narrative, like the parable, has a subtlety of perspectives. The differentiation that we hear about in the book of Joshua was given to celebrate and to mark the coming into the land of promise. But once again there are two ways of reading that event. If we just skim through it we see that these people came out of Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, got to the land of promise and then it’s like, ‘Yes! Now let’s mark it’ - differentiate ourselves, get the flint knives out and off we go. If we read it carefully what we see is that on that very day, they ate the produce of the land. They had arrived; they could eat of the land that they were promised, but at the same time the manna ceased – no longer did they receive the divine food from God. It’s an interesting one – they get through the wilderness, come out and realise the promise which is a point of differentiation, there is a movement, they are changed; they rejoice because they can now eat the fruit of the land, but on that day the manna cease, no longer were they fed from heaven.

Most of us have been taught quite simplistically that God is always there: no matter what you do, where you go, what you think, how you behave, God is always there. We were taught that because it’s a truth and we were taught it as an absolute truth and we were taught it correctly because it is an absolute truth. But equally true, equally true is the relativity of our perspective to the divine being there. The two sons in the parable were both unaware of the divine presence and were both encountered by the divine presence. So too are we in our daily living, and it’s that relativity that provides us or gives us the opportunity to discover our mark of differentiation, our sense of place, our sense of being and our orientation. Paul sums it up quite beautifully in 2 Corinthians: ‘If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ At the start of the sermon I quite deliberately created a differentiation when I referred to those who have been doing the series of Lent reflections. In saying that, those who weren’t doing the series of Lent reflections would have felt, ‘Oh, I’m missing something here’; those who have been doing the Lent reflections would have thought, ‘Oh, I’m glad I went last Wednesday.’

Now we encounter that differentiation in every moment; in every moment our perspective is shifting or has got the opportunity to move and to shift - it’s our seeing of the world, it is our seeing of each other and it’s our relationship with and to the divine. Being diagnosed with a brain tumour is probably a more dramatic example: very much a circumcision moment. If you’re told you have a brain tumour - I’ve heard this on good authority – things suddenly become new, the old passes away, the world changes. And then not long after, the flint knives come out, in fact!

The parable and the readings today, as always, call us to look at our dying and our rising, to look at those moments of differentiation in our lives, to look at what it is that will mark us, and who we are to be marked by. They call us to be aware, constantly aware of our movement into Christ, for as Paul says, ‘In Christ, God was reconciling the world to God’s self, and entrusting, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. God is not the reconciler of us, of our life or of the world: that is entrusted to us. Worth recalling in Joshua verse 4, ‘All the warriors had died during the journey through the wilderness’. The clue there is that the force of reconciliation and the gift, the entrusting of it to us, is a trust that says as you go through the wilderness so you will let the warrior die - I give you, and given to you is the power, the spirit and the future of the reconciling of war. Paul clearly speaks to us in Lent. In verse 20 he calls to each of us and says, ‘Be reconciled to God….’.

Be reconciled to God.

Peter Humphris