The Fourth Sunday in Lent: A Sermon

Readings

What a table today’s readings set! Let’s notice, briefly, a couple of the entrees before moving to Jesus’ parable.

Toward the end of Revelation John hears this from the throne: “See, I am making all things new” (21:5). All things new: not a bad heading for our readings from Joshua and 2nd Corinthians. Joshua: the transition from the wilderness to the promised land, with the celebration of Passover making a fitting bookend with the first Passover on the night of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. 2nd Corinthians: “everything has become new!”

‘New’ has mostly positive connotations in our culture. Ironically, the opposite is true for ‘change’. “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb?” “CHANGE???” We like ‘new’, we dislike ‘change’, and that makes most areas of our life more complicated than necessary. Minimally, it might help to recognize that the change to which God invites us in Lent is in service of achieving the new.

Repentance. Our psalm highlights its importance. When we set the psalm next to Jesus’ parable two things become, I think, evident. First, first while repentance is necessary, the decisive element is God’s/the Father’s character. All the repentance we could muster wouldn’t do any good unless our Father were disposed to run to it. That repentance is necessary, consider what would have happened had the younger son gone to the distant country, made a killing, and swaggered back: “Dad, this place is really a dump; let me help you out.” That would have required a different response from the father.

Second, our prejudices can make it really hard for us to recognize who needs to repent. That, ironically, is baked into the traditional title for the parable, “The Prodigal Son,” for even a cursory reading reveals that it’s the older son who needs to repent. But no: put them in a line-up and we predictably point to the younger son as the one needing repentance. And this despite Luke’s stage-setting: “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling.” Anyhow, if we’re looking for an opportunity midst the solemnity of Lent to take ourselves less seriously, here’s an opportunity.

Jesus’ parable. This morning I’m hearing the parable in the company of Ken Bailey and George Caird. Ken Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes helps me hear the parable more clearly. “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” In that culture, hard to think of more insulting words, for property is divided after the owner’s death, so that the son’s request says, essentially, you’re of more value to me dead than alive. And later in the parable: “his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran…” Middle Eastern fathers don’t run. In a pinch one might walk sedately, but, more appropriately, remain unmoved as the lower-status party approaches. How this father humbles himself, and doesn’t seem to mind a bit!

The father in the parable is one of Jesus’ clearest pictures of our heavenly Father. And it’s worth noticing that Jesus here is simply echoing his Scripture’s (our Old Testament’s) pictures. Some of us have been reading Isaiah in these weeks; here are two quick excerpts from the divine speeches:

You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
you have wearied me with your iniquities. (Isa. 43:24)

Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
even when you turn gray I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save. (Isa. 46:3-4)

As today’s psalm ends:

Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord;
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

And what is it to be “righteous” or “true of heart” if not to be increasingly recognizing and reflecting God’s character? I’ve snuck a couple ideas into that question: here they are; see what you think of them. First, “increasingly recognizing and reflecting:” “righteous” and “true of heart” don’t do well standing still. They involve growth, newness, even the c-word (‘change’). Second, “righteous” and “true of heart” are relational, depending on our relationship with the Lord. Without that relationship, strange things can happen. Which brings us to the older brother.

We naturally feel some sympathy for the older brother. After the division of the property in a sense it’s his fattened calf that’s being served. And yet, oddly enough, the figure the older brother most closely resembles is the accuser, the satan. That demands, I think, a bit of a digression.

We first meet the Adversary (‘satan’ is simply a transcription of that Hebrew word) at the beginning of Job. It’s a good guess that he’s patterned after the agent provocateur in the Persian court whose role was to sniff out disloyalty before it became dangerous. He plays a similar role in one of Zechariah’s visions: “Then he showed me the high priest Joshua [dressed, we learn, in filthy cloths] standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him” (3:1). He’s all about justice. Here’s George Caird in his New Testament Theology:

Yet even at this early stage of his history we can see where his one-sided emphasis on justice is to lead him. In both stories he is found arguing against God, whose holiness he is so anxious to defend. It cannot be said of him that he does not will the death of sinners, or that he is hoping that they would turn from their wickedness and live. He is a rigorous legalist, a prosecuting attorney, who must have a conviction, and who is satisfied only with a capital sentence. If the evidence does not give him a good case, he is prepared to manufacture new evidence by provoking Job into mortal sin.

And like the Adversary the older brother wants justice, and this single-minded focus turns him against the father.

What if Caird’s description governed our use of words like ‘diabolical’ or ‘satanic’—the single-minded pursuit of justice without compassion?

We imagine the Adversary encouraging people to do bad things, and that’s true enough. The Bible’s portrayals might encourage us to imagine him spending as much time saying things like “If you did that you can’t be worth much!” or “That person/that group doesn’t deserve compassion,” that is, channeling the older brother.

I wonder if the Bible doesn’t talk about the Adversary also to help us bring God’s character into focus. Justice is important to God, but not at the expense of compassion. The psalmist is counting on that! Gustavo Gutiérrez gets it right: “The world of retribution—and not of temporal retribution only—is not where God dwells; at most God visits it.” And one important reason that the Bible repeatedly says “Fear not” and “Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord” is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not this Adversary.

We Christians use the word ‘God’ a lot. But what images accompany that word? Today’s parable invites us to let Jesus’ image of God sink deep into our imaginations.

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