4th Sunday in Lent

March 18, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Joshua 5:9-12
Reading 2: 
Psalm 32
Reading 3: 
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Reading 4: 
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
By Ignacio Castuera

Last Sunday’s theme is intensified in this week’s lessons. The open ended character of the Gospel’s lessons last week is replaced with the clear reference to the forgiving and loving nature of God.

In the lesson from Joshua we have the reference to the first Passover without manna which follows the statement from God that the “disgrace of Egypt” has been rolled away by God. Now the Israelites are free from bondage and from dependence and this is the beginning of a new era where God accompanies the people and works alongside them with the production of crops in the new land. A new life begins, the past is indeed rolled away, Passover is observed with the fruit of the labor of the people and the blessing of God upon that labor.

The Psalm opens with the “beatitude” of forgiveness, but that forgiveness is predicated upon the acknowledgement of the transgressions, individual and collective, of the Psalmist. This experience of forgiveness after the acknowledgement of wrong is shared joyfully by the Psalmist, a fact that pastors can build upon as they preach and as they modify the liturgy to reflect this joy. I have believed that the Kyrie Eleison has been traditionally sung wrong. The mood of the song should be one of absolute happiness since the first step of forgiveness is the acknowledgment of sin. The Mariachi Mass from Latin America has a Senor Ten Piedad tune that reflects  musically this theological discovery. Composers of other modern masses also have come to the same conclusion and their Kyries reflect that notion. Be glad and rejoice, O righteous (meaning forgiven!!) and shout for joy, all you upright in heart. (forgiven again!!)

While the Psalmist focuses on the requirement of the human acknowledgment of transgressions Paul builds on the action of God to which the text in Joshua refers.

All this (reconciliation and new creation) is from God. Pastors share with Paul the joyful task of telling church members, and others in our communities, the good news of God’s reconciling action. We now can be first reconciled to God through Chirst’s faithfulness to God and in Christ faithfulness remain ourselves faithful to God.

The Gospel lesson picks up the narrative form of Joshua to dramatize the concepts reflected in the Psalmist prayer and in Paul’s argumetn. Literally thousands of commentaries on the parable are available so I want to concentrate on a few of the features I find wanting in most of what I have read in preparation for sermons on this narrative; the running father, the older brother’s reaction, the dialogue between father and son and the conclusion of the parable.

I have never read any good explanation for the father’s race to meet his returning son. Most commentators share syrupy statements that are not connected to a real threat and danger to the son. Only those from the Middle East or those who are aware of “family and village honor rituals” understand the reason for the father’s dash to meet his son. Iconography is even less helpful as we usually have a very old looking father embracing a rather forlorn looking son. We are seldom challenged to think about the need for the running.

The text becomes richer when we understand that the son is under the threat of death at the hands of any member of the village who might recognize him as someone who has dishonored his family and his village. The father knows this and that is why he must run to protect his son. The father’s embrace and his quick order for the robe and the ring to be brought to the son will signal to the community that this young man has been fully restored to the familial bonds of his household. All members of the village will respect the gesture of the father and will also integrate the forgiven son to the village.

The first response of the older son is short changed in most interpretations also. What should one do upon hearing music and dancing? Join the party!! Instead the poor son asks why there is a party going on at all!! This is a very common response from conservative people of faith, they insist on assignment of guilt, penance and then, maybe forgiveness. This is so often the case when dealing with “sexual” sins but it applies to many other kinds of transgressions; you play, you pay seems to be the mantra of retribution which this great parable opposes. (Note that the older brother refers to spending the money on prostitutes which neither he nor the readers can know for sure.

What starts as a lack of healthy human curiosity in relationship to a party becomes a refusal to join the party of reconciliation. So the father whose first reconciling action was to run now must express reconciliation through cajoling and convincing.

The son, who was not daring enough to join the party now rebukes his father for not letting him have a party of his own, or so he states. The truth built into the drama of the parable is that the real problem with the older brother is his lack of curiosity, his fear of adventure and his aversion to parties. His rebuke to the father is absolutely false, he has never asked for even a young goat for a little party! If he only needed a young goat for a party with his friends he obviously did not have many friends!!! One is reminded of Nietzche’s statement that Christianity might be more appealing if Christians didn’t go around with such dour countenances.

Then the son flashes a verbal knife, when this son of yours, he whines, separating himself not only from his brother, but also from their common father. But the father who ran lovingly to protect the more adventurous son now speedily retorts Son…this your brother, loving words that restore and reconcile.

Consistently the same evangelist that gave us a story about a fig tree that is given one more year to produce also gives us a story that does not totally shut the older brother out at the end. Whenever we identify with the good characters in the parables we have failed to understand the parable. We tend to be much more like the older brother, but now let us also join the party.

Ignacio Castuera, a United Methodist minister, is currently serving Trinity United Methodist Church in Pomona, California, and also serves as the national chaplain for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Rev. Castuera has served churches in Mexico, Hawaii, and California. In 1980, he became the first Latino District Superintendent of the Los Angeles District of the California Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.