Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 10, 2013
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 Paul S. Nancarrow

Joshua 5:9-12

This incident is the penultimate in a series of incidents marking the transition of the Israelites from the Wilderness Wandering to the settlement of Canaan. The people have crossed the Jordan River, while God stopped the flowing water for them; they have set up a commemorative cairn marker with twelve stones taken from the Jordan riverbed; they have circumcised all the males among them, the originally circumcised generation having died in the wandering; and now they keep the Passover for the first time in their new land, eating unleavened cakes and parched grain, food prepared in haste, food from the land itself. (The final incident in the transition series, just for the record, is Joshua's encounter with the commander of the divine armies, who assures him of divine protection before they do battle with Jericho, which is the first incident in the Conquest series.)

The most significant transitional element in this passage is the cessation of the manna. For forty years God has been supplying the nutritional needs of the people; the faithful have been totally dependent on God for their food, their water, and even the preservation of their clothing from wearing out. This has given them a unique experience of intimacy with God, a closeness not only spiritual but eminently material, a clear and indelible awareness that they are God's people and not their own. Deuteronomy, in fact, is full of warnings against the people beginning to believe in their own self-sufficiency once they enter the land to possess it. The giving of the manna has taught them trust in God; but it has also on some level prevented them from taking responsibility for themselves.

Now, as they enter the land and the manna stops, the people will have to take a more active role in their co-creation with God of the way of justice and peace and covenant life to which God has called them. The "disgrace of Egypt," the shame and injustice of being an enslaved people with no core identity of their own, is now "rolled away," not just in their liberation, as that had taken place in the Exodus event forty years earlier, but specifically in their re-constitution as God's people taking responsibility for themselves and their life in this time and place. The cessation of the manna and the keeping of Passover by eating the produce of the land signal a new stage of the people's co-creative mission to bring God's Torah way of living into existence in their land of promise. A preacher might ask a congregation to consider in what ways God is calling them to take responsibility for their faith and work, not simply depending on God, but relying on God's faithful presence to energize their co-creative mission of justice and peace.

Psalm 32

The psalm seems chosen mostly to reflect the gospel reading for this day. The psalmist's plaint that "While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long," followed by the restorative "Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,' and you forgave the guilt of my sin," prepares the way for the Prodigal Son's "coming to himself" and planning to confess to his father in the parable in the Luke passage. The admonition to "not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding," but instead to accept "instruction" and forgiveness, is also akin to the invitation to regard life and persons from a broader point of view that is set forth in the epistle reading that follows.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

The NRSV renders the opening verse of this passage as "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view" -- which is an appropriate late-20th century idiom, but which is not exactly what Paul says. The original Greek here speaks about seeing no one kata sarka, "according to the flesh," and it turns on Paul's specialized use of the word sarx, "flesh," as a theological term. In Paul's characteristic use, "flesh" does not simply equate to "body," and Paul's typical contrast between "flesh" and "spirit" is not a mere dichotomy between corporeality and non-corporeality, materiality and non-materiality. For Paul, "flesh" is the word most often used to denote a complex of appetites, motivations, desires, habits, self-images, projections onto others, fears, and manipulations that are essentially self-centered, focused on preserving a person's self-image (what Jung called the "persona") and gratifying immediately self-referential aims.

Because it is essentially self-centered, the "flesh" resists God, preferring its own aims and not opening to divine aims and ideals. For Paul, it is the "spirit" that can entertain divine aims, and so become the transformative center of a new persona, a truer Self (again, using Jungian terms). Thus the real tension in Paul between "flesh" and "spirit" is not about corporeality but about openness to God. In Paul's terminology, then, to see someone "according to the flesh" is to see that one strictly in terms of the effect on one's own self-gratification. Does this one threaten me? Does this one please me? Can I manipulate this one into meeting some need of mine? Can I reduce this one to a counter in the calculus of my own aggrandizement?

These are the relational categories recognized by the "flesh." This is how Paul admits to having once regarded Christ -- as a threat to his pure Pharisaical devotion, as he says in Galatians 1:13-14 and elsewhere -- and this, he says, is how his detractors are regarding the Corinthians. Over against this, Paul says that believers, those who are "in Christ," no longer regard anyone as mere pawns in their own games of gratification. They are freed from the viewpoint "according to the flesh" and instead see as if "everything has become new!" The Greek of v. 16 has a wonderful ambiguity in it: what the old RSV rendered as "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature," and the NRSV translates "if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation," is in the original simply "if anyone is in Christ -- new creation!"

Both the person and the entire felt world are transformed by being "in Christ:" the Christly viewpoint regards things -- primarily persons, but extending in some measure to all entities as well -- as co-creative actualities in the realizing of divine ideals. Not merely factors in self-gratification, the contents of faithful experience, including the roles other persons play in one's experience, are perceived as active elements in the outworking of the mystery of God's will for the restoration of the world. This "spiritual" way of seeing, in contradistinction from seeing "according to the flesh," liberates a person from being the center of their world, centers them on God and God's reconciling love, and empowers them to represent that quality of love in their own words and actions; this is what makes Paul an "ambassador for Christ."

This is why I think "human point of view" is ultimately unsatisfying as a translation: in becoming human himself, in engaging the inherent sinfulness of a self-centered psyche and wresting it away from the "flesh" and toward the willing embodiment of divine aims, Jesus raised the "human point of view" from the "flesh" to the "spirit," and became the condition of the possibility of all the rest of us changing our human points of view as well. We can be "new creation" without ceasing to be human, but by expanding our humanity, by the grace of God, to "become the righteousness of God" in Christlike enacting of divine aims. It is this divinely expanded human point of view to which Paul entreats us on behalf of Christ.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

So much has been written, said, pondered, preached, and prayed about the Parable of the Prodigal Son that it seems almost silly to try to say something new, and sillier still to take a conventional interpretation and "dress it up" in process-relational terms. So I will content myself with a single observation; and that is to direct attention to Luke's identification of the intended audience of the parable. We often read (and preach) this parable as one of Jesus' warmest, most vivid, and most compelling invitations directed to all sorts and conditions of sinners, even the most abject, to repent and return to God. And so it is.

Yet, if we take Luke's headnote seriously, that is not its primary purpose, and lost sinners are not its primary audience. There are, Luke says, some "Pharisees and scribes" at one of Jesus' customary dinner parties, who are "grumbling" because Jesus "welcomes sinners and eats with them." It is to them that Jesus tells the three parables that make up chapter 15 of Luke's gospel, and each of the three is intended to illustrate the fact that there is "more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (v. 7) and "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (v. 9). As vivid and engaging as the story of the younger son is, it really exists for the one purpose of providing the windup to the story of the big party, when the father and the entire farmstead rejoice that the vagabond son has come home. It is the older son's subsequent refusal to join the party (at first, at least; the parable never tells us what the older son does in the end) that is the part of the story particularly directed to the Pharisees and scribes.

The unresolved ending challenges the Pharisees and scribes: will they join the party, will they recognize that Jesus is acting out the divine ideal of rejoicing with the repentant and join in with him? or will they cling to their religious conventionalism and insist that "working like a slave" to keep their minutiae of Torah prescriptions for purity is the only way to approach God? Borrowing from the language of the 2 Corinthians passage, we might say that the older son in the story is regarding things "according to the flesh," calculating his father, his brother, his work, the household, the party -- even the fatted calf and the one small goat -- as counters in the equation of his own satisfaction; and what is making him so angry is that the younger son is getting more than he deserves for the wastage he's done, more than the older son himself deserves for all the work he has done. His father invites him to regard things from a higher point of view, not in terms of his own gratification, but as elements in a much wider sharing of mutual well-being and general joy. Will the older son adopt this more "spiritual" point of view and join in the enactment of right-relationship and mutual well-being and joy? Will the Pharisees and the scribes? Will we?