The contrast between Old Ways and New Ways: Promised Land, Reconciliation to God, and a Prodigal Hitting Bottom.
Transition from the old to the new is the focus of the readings for this Sunday. In the reading from the Prophets (the historical books = the Former Prophets) the transition is from the generation of the wilderness age of testing to the age of self-support in a promised land. When the Israelites have miraculously crossed the Jordan River under Joshua’s leadership (completed in Joshua 4), they are initiated into the possession of the land they have been so long preparing for. The initiation consisted first (immediately preceding our reading) of circumcising all the males who had been born in the wilderness, to qualify them for manhood and the status of warriors in the new land (Joshua 5:2-7). This circumcision is referred to in our reading as “rolling away … the disgrace of Egypt,” and because the verb for “roll away” is a play on the name Gilgal, literally a “circle,” the first camp site is given that name (verse 9).
The second act of initiation was to perform the Passover ritual and eat that sacred meal during the night. Thus, this night of the Passover is the actual transition between old wilderness world and new settled world. The action immediately following the Passover is given a somewhat emphatic dating: “On the day after the passover, on that very day…” (verse 11, NRSV) the Israelites ate unleavened bread. The awkward wording of this time reference is due to the normal Israelite practice of counting the days from sundown to sundown. Thus what starts on the afternoon of the 14th day is continued into the night of the 15th day, and the night activity takes place on “the next day.” During that night, the Israelites ate bread made from the grain of the new land — unleavened bread, since they had no previous dough with which to leaven the new batch. (It takes a minimum of seven days for moistened flour to ferment, turn into leaven, in natural circumstances.)
At the moment that the Israelites ate the new grain from the land, the manna that had sustained them through the famine conditions of the wilderness ceased (verse 12). Their eating habits now reflected the conditions of their new land, and they ate unleavened bread for the seven days of the battle of Jericho, which follows in chapter 6.
The transition from the wilderness to the promised land brings the Israelites into the fulfillment of the promises made to the ancestors.
The Psalm reading has a number of ambiguities of text and language that produce variations in translation. Its major point, however, especially in reference to Lent, is relatively clear. It has to do with the language and experience of sin and forgiveness, and especially of the power and blessing released by confession of sin directly to God.
What is pretty much standard language for sin in the psalms is presented in the two opening verses: (1) “transgressions,” which need to be forgiven; (2) “sin,” which needs to be covered; (3) “iniquity,” which needs to be not imputed or “reckoned” to one; and (4) “deceit,” which must be avoided in one’s spirit (or one’s mouth, in the Greek translation). The first three terms are repeated in the speaker’s report of confession to the Lord in verse 5.
The primary force of the psalm, however, has to be the apparent personal experience reported. “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (verse 3, NRSV). Transgression, sin, and iniquity (sometimes translated “guilt”) are destructive of vitality, spirit, and health. This speaker finally resolves to confess all to the Lord — acknowledging sin, not hiding iniquity, and confessing transgressions. The result: “you forgave the guilt of my sin” (verse 5 NRSV; New Jerusalem Bible, “took away my guilt, forgave my sin”).
The rest of the psalm is lessons learned from this experience, though perhaps in verses 8-9 it is God speaking rather than the forgiven sinner, warning the unrepentant not to be stubborn as mules who have to be bound and bridled to keep them where they belong.
II Corinthians 5:16-21
The change from a sinful condition to reconciliation with God is very much the topic of the Epistle reading. The passage is loaded with powerful phrases, but we will concentrate on the statements about sin and reconciliation.
First, Paul distinguishes between knowing someone “from a human point of view” (literally “according to the flesh”) and knowing someone as “in Christ.” “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (verse 17, NRSV). In this new state, people have been reconciled to God because God is no longer “counting their trespasses against them” (verse 19). This is possible because “for our sake [God] made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin.” That is, humans were released from the power of sin because of Christ’s overcoming sin. Sin is understood to be a transcendent power that grips and controls the wills and abilities of humans, so that they cannot save themselves.
But “in Christ” this bondage is broken and humans can become new creations, no longer having to live “according to the human point of view,” that is, “according to the flesh.” Even this new creation is not forced upon people, however, and the apostle must urge his hearers to seize this opportunity, to “be reconciled to God,” as Christ has made that possible (verse 20).
JLuke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Gospel reading is the parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable is the third and major item in the collection of “parables of the lost” in Luke 15. The collection is introduced by the first verses of our reading, the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes that, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (verse 2, NRSV). That is, Jesus associates with the “lost ones.”
We have a superbly told story. Its emphases, as indicated by how much time it spends on each phase of the story, are on the miserable condition the prodigal gets himself into, the surprising joy of the father on the son’s return, and the complaint of the older son who stayed home and supported the family and its tradition. The story tells itself – up to the point that we want to apply it to something else. Only a couple of points will be highlighted here.
This story is about the Lost. The whole chapter is clearly elevating Jesus’ coming to and seeking out the lost — those lost in the society, lost probably from their own self-esteem, and lost because no one knows where they are. These are the tax collectors and sinners (which includes many disadvantaged but not necessarily immoral people), from all of whom the Pharisees require segregation at meals (verses 1-2). All three parables — the other two are the lost sheep hunted for by the shepherd while the other ninety-nine sheep wait at home, and the woman who searched furiously for one lost coin while the other nine lay safely in her cash box — give undue (?) attention to the lost ones. They concentrate too much on the ONE that is lost, to the neglect, we must feel, of what they still have! In the prodigal son story, this is the apparent injustice to the older son.
But wait! The stories are not actually about the Lost; they are about the Found. And especially are they about the Joy because of the Found. The shepherd and the woman call in friends; they have a banquet of joy over the recovery of what was lost — as does of course the father of the prodigal.
And especially is the prodigal one that is found. At the worst of his depths, the prodigal son “came to himself” (which is literally what the Greek says). This was the beginning, the finding of — himself, the start of the path to the father’s joy. Finding himself meant a thorough reassessment of his life-style, and a consequent giving up of self-indulgence and pride of status. It meant a commitment to a new and humbler definition of his life. This is the kind of awakening Jesus followers may find for themselves in this devotional season.
And what should be said of the elder brother, who stayed at home and carried the burden of the estate to which the prodigal returned? Is the elder brother the particular challenge to those who are still relatively privileged? To those who have not been nearly starved and have not ended up eating with the pigs? Surely the point of the parable, as a Lenten reading, is that we are called to rejoice in the good fortune of the needy who have recovered — rejoice even as if it were our own occasion for celebration. So the father of the story hopes his elder son will take the occasion of the prodigal’s return.