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Thursday, March 11, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32:1-11, II Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

It’s hard to miss the theme of forgiveness in the lectionary readings for this Sunday.

We have just a few verses from Joshua in the long saga of captivity in Egypt, escape, wandering in the wilderness, and entry into the Promised Land. The focus of these verses is on the transition from wilderness to a settled and secure existence—a forgiveness of sorts. In Joshua 5:9, the Lord says, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” The transition is accompanied by ritual—circumcision (in the story just before this) and the Passover meal. Both were a reminder/renewal of the covenant relationship with a loving God—the agreement that they would be his people in a mutual relationship of love. Circumcision marked them as belonging to God. The Passover reminded them of God’s love and protection and renewed their fellowship with God as they partook of the sustenance God provided. Is there also here a reminder that being part of the covenant involves responsibilities? They are no longer going to be provided the manna that came fresh each day. It is no longer needed. They now have fields to till and crops to tend. God will still provide but they must go back to doing their part, taking care of the earth and doing the things that feed their spirits.

Psalm 32 portrays movement from the pit of despair to the joy of forgiveness. It is a vivid portrayal of the destructive impact of carrying about a burden of guilt. Dwelling on guilt can eat us up. “My body wasted away through my groaning all day long,” the Psalmist says in verse 3. This is contrasted with happiness of “those whose transgression is forgiven” (verse 1), those who are surrounded “with glad cries of deliverance” (verse 7).

Forgiveness is at the very heart of Christianity, of the teaching of Jesus, of the God to whom Jesus points us. Many have tried to make it a religion of judgment and have come across as judgmental, trying to condemn everyone and everything around them. Instead, the epistle tells us, we are to be forgivers, ministers of reconciliation. The old has gone. Through Christ, we have been forgiven. (II Corinthians 5:17) Because of that, the reading begins (verse 16), we are to see and relate to those around us from a new point of view. We have been given “the ministry of reconciliation” (verse 18), entrusted with “the message of reconciliation” (verse19). Again, it is not just about receiving manna (reconciliation); it is about living it in our relationships.

Commentators on the Gospel lesson have long reminded us that the focus upon the “prodigal” son is perhaps misplaced. Alternative titles have been suggested: The Tale of Two Sons (significance of the second often overlooked or misinterpreted) or the Parable of the Waiting Father.

Most of us have known moments or months or years of confusion in our lives, not quite knowing where we are or where we’re going, wondering if there is a way to make sense of things. Some of us have gotten lost in ruts and routines, carried along by forces with seem to be beyond our control. Some may even have gotten lost in success and affluence, grasping at goods and position and recognition but still wondering whether that’s all there is.

Eugene Peterson gives the parable this name: “The Lost Brothers.” He contends that the second brother is just as lost as the one we call “prodigal.” You will recall that he is the “good” son, the one who stays home and works the farm with his father. He is appalled when he comes up from the field and sees a party going on in celebration of his brother’s return.

The parable is told in response Pharisees and scribes who are “grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” They, Jesus says, are like the elder brother, blind to the grace they have received from the father, looking down their noses when Jesus seems to be wasting his love on those who are of no account. The parable is an invitation to the older son to celebrate his participation in the same grace the “prodigal” has received.

In admiring this parable we often get so caught up in our focus upon the wonderful welcome of the “prodigal” that we may miss the ways in which we are like the older son. We’d just as soon not notice. He’s not nearly such an attractive and engaging character. Near the end of his chapter (in a book called “Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers”), Peterson says, “For as long as we hold on to any pretense of having it all together we are prevented from deepening and maturing in the Christian faith.”

Neither son really had it together although one appeared to. I suspect few of us do either, no matter how well-organized and successful we may seem. The wonder of the parable, and all of this Sunday’s lessons, is that a loving father is waiting for us, has always been there for us, wants us to party with him in celebration.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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