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Lent 4C RCL March 10, 2013

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

In our first reading today, the people of God have just gone through a purification ceremony. They enter the promised land and celebrate their first Passover in the new land. The manna no longer falls from heaven. They now live off the produce of the land. Their wanderings have stopped. After all their wanderings and their tendencies to turn to idols and build golden calves as soon as Moses’ back is turned, they are once more in a covenant relationship with God under their new leader, Joshua. They are reconciled to God and ready for the next steps in their life together.

The theme of reconciliation continues in the epistle. Paul calls us to be reconciled to God, not only as individuals, but as the Church, as a community of faith. We and the Church are a new creation. We are being transformed so that we can be ambassadors for Christ, sharing his love and forgiveness with the world.

I want to focus on our gospel for today, the beloved parable of the prodigal son, or, as many folks like to say, the parable of the loving father. This morning, I want to try to help us to look at this parable through the eyes of Jesus’ first-century listeners.

First, the context is that the Pharisees and Scribes are accusing Jesus of being very close to sinners. He eats with them, and in that culture, eating with people meant that you were close to them, you were friends with them.

So Jesus tells the parable, and we all recognize the opening line, “There was a man who had two sons.” The younger son asks his father for his inheritance, his share of the property. This was an agrarian culture. These were farmers. Your land was everything. You tried to amass as much land as you could so that your family could live on the land and support all the coming generations. To ask your father to sell some of the land while he was still alive was almost like killing your father. It was a disgrace. It was something that a son was never supposed to ask

Now, if we look at the father, in that culture, the father was a powerful patriarch. He told everyone else what to do. If he said, “Jump,” you were to say, “How high.” Period. Any self-respecting father of that time would have had to say, “There is no way I am going to sell any of our land.” But this father sells a portion of the family land. This brings disgrace on the family, It simply isn’t done. The whole village knows that this had happened. You know how word gets around. In that culture as now here in Vermont, you depended on your neighbors for help. People were close. When folks threw a party, they invited everyone in the village.

After this disgrace, they would no longer invite this family.The son goes off to a far away land and spend his entire inheritance. A famine comes to the land. He gets a job tending pigs. Pigs are unclean.No good son would have gone near pigs. This is a disgrace. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “… he loses everything, and he loses it to Gentiles– Roman citizens, pagan pig owners, complete strangers to the God of Israel. He might as well have used his birth certificate to light an Italian cigar.”

Taylor says that losing the family inheritance to Gentiles is “so reprehensible” that there is a ceremony, the qetsatsah ceremony that is designed to punish such a person. If he ever returns to his village,“the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people. After that, he will be a cosmic orphan, who might as well go back and live with the pigs.”

The young man “comes to himself.” He is hungry. He begins to rehearse what he will say to his father. “Father. I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

Scholars tell us that most of the folks who were listening to Jesus were farmers. They knew all the rules about how to behave. I imagine that they were wondering what ailed that son that he would do such a horrible thing and disgrace his father and his whole family. And they surely wondered why the father didn’t act like a proper strong patriarch and keep the son from breaking up the family land. Nobody was doing what they were supposed to do according to the rules of those days.

So here is the son rehearsing his confession. He has gone off to seek his fortune. He has been entirely self-centered. He has sunk as low as anyone in his culture can sink. He will ask his father to employ him as a hired hand.

While the son is still far off, the father sees him, and what does he do? He runs out to the road to meet him. A patriarch was not supposed to run. He was supposed to proceed with dignity and deliberation and show himself to be worthy of respect. Several scholars tell us that, in running to meet his son, the father is now acting like a mother. Susan Bond writes, “only a woman in the ancient Near East would defy macho expectations and race down the road.” Robert Farrar Capon says that, by their aberrant behavior, the father and the prodigal son commit suicide. They die to self and are raised to new life. The only one in the story who does not die is the elder son. He has done everything perfectly and is stuck in the prison of his self-righteousness. The older son shames his father by refusing to go to the banquet. Custom says that the father should stay at the head table and not leave his guests. But he goes out to try to explain to the elder son and welcome him to the celebration.

I share these insights to allow us to see how shocked Jesus’ hearers must have been as they listened to this parable. Rules are being broken. This father loves both his sons. This father loves everyone. God loves everyone. The banquet is for everyone. But we have to be ready to be reconciled to God, We have to be willing to admit our sins and shortcomings. We have to be ready to die to self, to be transformed.

Amen.

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