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Lent 4C    March 31, 2019

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

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Laetere, Rejoice Sunday, from the opening words of the mass from Isaiah “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her….” (Isaiah 66:10)  In the British Isles, this day is known as as Mothering Sunday, when people would return to their mother church, the church where they were baptized and servants would be allowed to visit their mothers.

This joyful note is found in our opening reading from Joshua. After their long journey through the wilderness, the people of God celebrate their first Passover in their new home. The manna disappears and they eat the produce of the land. They have moved from slavery into freedom.

In our epistle, Paul echoes this sense of joy and freedom. “So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

In our gospel, we come to one of the best known of Jesus’ parables. Biblical scholar Fred Craddock calls this the “Parable of the Loving Father.” Before our Lord tells this story, the text tells us that “ all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.” We know that tax collectors were hated because they had taken jobs with the Roman occupation government and made good salaries collecting taxes from their neighbors to benefit the Roman occupiers. On the topic of sinners, Fred Craddock writes, “Sinners were persons so designated because their offenses had gotten them thrown out of the synagogues.” (Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year C, p. 259. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees and the scribes are upset that Jesus allows these people, who are generally considered offensive and beyond the pale, to actually draw near and listen to him. And now Jesus tells this parable.

“A man had two sons.” The focus is on the man. He  loves his two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance. A younger son was entitled to one-third of the estate, but he usually inherited this at the time of his father’s death. The father breaks with tradition and divides the property. Scholars tell us that the neighbors were probably scandalized.

The son goes to a “distant land” and spends every penny in “dissolute living.” Scholars tell us that this doesn’t necessarily mean that he spent it on prostitutes as his older brother will later accuse him of doing. It means he wasted the money on useless things. He has taken his family’s legacy and blown it. He has taken something very precious and ground it into the dirt.

Now a famine comes and he gets a job as a hired man feeding pigs. This means that he is breaking the religious law and is considered ritually unclean. Religious people should avoid him. He is eating the pods of the carob, something reserved for animals and the very poor.

Each of us in our own discipline of self-examination can identify with the feeling of shame, uselessness, and hopeless that arises when we make a series of unwise decisions and end up feeling alone, alienated from the people we love, and alienated from God.

We have a moment of sanity. The text says that the son “came to himself…” When we get off the path, we have to recover our true self. We have to go home. And we go over the list—I did this and this and this, and I am unworthy and I am sorry. And we want to get back on track.

If this father had been the traditional patriarch who says, “Jump” and you say “How high?” he wouldn’t have been out there at the end of the driveway waiting for his son. But he isn’t the traditional patriarch. Before his son says a word, he hugs and kisses him. Then he puts a robe on his son, probably his own robe, puts a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. Scholars tell us that no slaves wore sandals. Those sandals are signs that he is freed and restored to his true self. And then the feast begins.

But this father has another son. The elder son refuses to go to the feast. He is operating from a theology of scarcity. There’s only so much love to go around. My younger brother gets everything. I get nothing. His father loves him just as much as he loves his foolish younger son. The father comes out from the feast. The elder son lets him have it. The father stands there patiently, lovingly, And then he tells him, “Son, everything I have is yours, always has been, always will be,  but your brother was dead and now he’s alive. We have to celebrate.”

We have all made bad decisions. We have all done things we wish we had not done. We have all sinned.

For many centuries, we humans viewed God as someone who hurled thunderbolts, spewed forth fire and brimstone, and, all in all, was extremely scary. The word was that God did these things especially when we humans went astray. I suppose this was supposed to help us stay on the path. In my humble opinion, this misunderstanding about God is not very helpful to us, especially when we are acutely aware of our sinfulness. It makes us scared to go home.

Thanks be to God, Jesus came among us. Here he is, telling this parable because the Pharisees and scribes, the elder brothers so to speak, are grumbling that he hangs out with those detested tax collectors and sinners. Heaven forfend, he even called a tax collector to be one of his apostles!

For some of us humans, certainly for me, and I trust for you, the huge depth and breadth of God’s love is a source of great hope. The sheer fact of God’s love and grace makes everything new!  And here in the midst of Lent, we rejoice.

Amen.

 

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