Bible Study: 4 Lent (C)

March 10, 2013

Daniel Stroud, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:31-32)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Joshua 5:9-12

When we think “Joshua,” there’s a good chance we think “conquest” or at least something in that vein. The book is about Israel coming into Canaan and taking the land as their own after the wandering exodus from Egypt. In this rather short pericope, we hit an important turning point in the story. Just before verse 5, Joshua circumcises all of the men. It is upon the fulfilling of this command that God tells Joshua that the disgrace of Egypt has been rolled away.

This step taken toward God’s promise was followed immediately by the passover, which they celebrated on the plains of Jericho. After breaking their fast, they ate unleavened cakes and parched grain, a usual meal for breaking the fast. After a probably short but indeterminate time, the manna ceased as they were able to eat the crops of the land, having arrived in Canaan, their promised land.

This is a major turning point for Israel and is, in some ways, the beginning of the end of their exodus. They have not yet arrived fully into the land God has promised them, but they have begun to eat the fruits of the land, and no longer rely on the manna from heaven for sustenance.

While the themes of conquest and destruction may be uncomfortable for readers in the modern era, the already/not-yet dichotomy of the Israelites’ position is particularly prescient for this particular liturgical season. We know that Christ has redeemed the world, and we know that we have not only been promised eternal life, but that it is done. However, we also know that Christ has not come back to redeem the whole world and draw it unto God, and we know that we still exist in our broken, sinful and very human bodies. This already/not yet as we experience it is primarily eschatological rather than immediate and temporal as it was for the Israelites, but it is no less real.

Where else in the Bible do we see this already/not-yet tension? What other points may be pointing back to this moment?

What aspects of this already/not yet are winding their way through our personal theologies and, for that matter, the personal expression of our faith?

Where is it that we may be being led, but have not yet arrived?

Psalm 32

Psalm 32 seems to be divided into several portions that interact with one another. The first portion consists of verses 1 and 2, where two beatitudes are found. Verses 3-7 emphasize the need for penance and the brokenness that comes from sin and wrongdoing. The remaining portion of the psalm, verses 8-11, praise the Lord and include assurances and instructions from the Lord. This psalm manages to cover a fair amount of territory in the span of 11 verses.

The emphasis during Lent, however, is likely to fall on the middle chunk, where sins are acknowledged and bewailed. It’s important to keep this in context with the rest of the psalm; the four verses that lament sin are bookended and outnumbered by the verses that describe as happy those who are forgiven, and those that remind us to be glad in the Lord, as those who are surrounded by steadfast love. It is also important to note that even in the lament, the cry for penance in verse 7, the psalmist is surrounded by glad cries of deliverance. Even in the midst of sorrow and despair, there is hope to be found in God.

What signs of hope can be found in our introspective repentance this Lent? What shoots of green do we see peaking from the ashes?

What torments fall away as we recognize the steadfast love that surrounds us?

How can we be happy in the forgiveness of our transgressions?

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is a beautiful letter full of wonderful language, but it is not always the easiest to follow from chapter to chapter.

Chapter 5 is largely about the promise of our future made possible by our reconciliation to God. This reading is really the central part of an arc that covers what God has done and how it affects us. What Paul is describing here about God’s love and generosity toward us is remarkable. When someone has been wronged, it was required that the person who had transgressed be the person to make amends. The one who had fallen short and wronged a person had to apologize and offer compensation. In the world of politics, the one who caused injury would be required to send an ambassador to make amends to the aggrieved.

However, as God so frequently does, and as Paul so regularly describes, here God upends the expected order of things. It should be on us to make amends to God. It should be our sacrifice that makes it right. It should be that we must pay to make the amends for our sin and shortcomings. Instead, what we see is that God sent an ambassador to us. When the agreement under which we lived required we initiate the approach and reconciliation, God sent an ambassador, and not only an ambassador, but a son, to offer that reconciliation to humanity, to draw us back in to a proper and justified relationship.

What then do we make of the reconciliation offered in Christ? How does that cause us to amend our lives?

Paul tells us that just as Christ was an ambassador for God, now we are ambassadors for Christ. Given that weighty charge, what are we doing in the world to offer that reconciliation to God through Christ?

How are we changed by not only the forgiveness of our debts, but by the initiative of forgiveness coming from the one to whom we are indebted?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The notable issue about this lectionary reading at first glance is the massive gap in the pericope. It appears that Jesus is telling one parable, when really we are getting only the third in a series of parables being told. It seems that what we have been given is a sort of “greatest hit” of the three parables, with the other two winding up on the cutting-room floor. While the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are both fruitful and may bear mentioning, there is more than enough to address in the parable of the Prodigal Son alone.

It is funny, though, how the breaks put in by biblical editors influence us. Why do we know this as the tale of the Prodigal Son? Why do we not know it as the tale of the generous father? What about the tale of the trustworthy son? Jesus certainly never told us it was called the Prodigal Son. Perhaps it is time we begin to approach this from a different angle in order to keep things fresh.

One of the lines that seems to be frequently overlooked is in verse 31: “All that is mine is yours.” If we become more aware of what we have been given already, of all that is offered to us constantly, would that change how we do mission, evangelism or welcome?

Does it take seeing that the grace God extends to those who find their way home to remind us of what we have?

Most importantly, what else can we learn from this parable when we step back and remove the “prodigal” label?

How are we the father who so overwhelmingly generously welcomes back? How are we the son who doesn’t realize what he has? How are we the slaves, serving the one who returns, and celebrating the reunification of the household?

Where is God in this story apart from the timeworn, albeit wonderful welcoming home of the wandering child?

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