March 6-The Fourth Sunday in Lent
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||Psalm 32||2 Corinthians 5:16-21||Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32|
by Lydia Schon
Last week, a congregant shared with me during coffee hour that every year, during the season of Lent, she becomes more distracted and struggles with more internal challenges. She asked me if this was a common experience. My response was that I did not know if it was a common experience but if her question behind her question was that if Lent was meant to be hard then my answer would be, “yes, Lent is meant to be hard.” She laughed in relief.
There are 40 days in Lent and that number derives from notable stories in the Bible that deal with a time in the wilderness. Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days before the official start of his ministry, Noah and his ark survived the flood that lasted for 40 days and 40 nights and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.
After their 40 years in the desert, the Israelites finally cross the Jordan River and come into the land promised to their ancestors, and this it where the Joshua passage of today takes place. It is significant that the passage states the Israelites no longer live from the manna given from God and instead live off the land. This symbolizes that they have finally come to the place where they can settle and flourish. This is their new home. Gilgal in Hebrew means “to roll away” and it is clear from the text that this refers to the Israelites’ experience of slavery under the Egyptians. They are starting a new life and they are starting it in Gilgal.
This passage in Joshua is strategically placed during Lent to reveal that there indeed does lie a light at the end of the tunnel and that God does indeed keep God’s promises. It conveys celebration for a new season and promises fulfilled.
But there is another perspective that must be considered in reading this passage, particularly if one applies a postcolonial and feminist hermeneutic—we often forget that this “promised land” was already occupied by another people. When the Israelites occupy the land and take the produce of the land, they are occupying the land and taking the produce of pre-existing residents. In later chapters, we see the Israelites slaughtering the indigenous residents because they believe the land belongs to them. In every narrative, even the ones in the Bible, it is important to ask whose story is untold, and it is in those untold stories that we can glimpse a broader picture of our God is like as our God, so clearly shown in the life of Jesus, is a God of the outcast and marginalized.
Psalm 32 extols the joys of repentance. Notice the many times the psalmist refers to our misdeeds by using various synonyms: sin, transgressions, guilt. What is interesting though is that those who are evil (v. 11) are distinguished from those with sin, transgressions and guilt. This reveals that the psalmist believes that the righteous are not necessarily those who are perfect but those who make mistakes and repent for them.
This psalm declares there is joy and freedom that comes with repentance. It relieves burdens, brings clarity to our future direction and provides safety. On the other hand, keeping our sin to ourselves prevents understanding and we feel paralyzed.
There are many passages in the Bible that speak of repentance as mandatory and should be done with sackcloth, ashes and solemn dispositions. This psalm, on the contrary, describes repentance as a most joyful act and an act that God will always look favorably upon. During this season of Lent, let us be free and eager to repent instead of reluctant to do so. For through repentance, our burdens are released and we are liberated.
Becoming a Christ-follower during the time of the early Church meant that one had to completely discard one’s one ways of living and viewing the world and replace it with a new way of living and viewing the world. One’s status in the social hierarchy, the possessions one owned, one’s family affiliation — these markers that had once meant everything now meant nothing. And in its place, the new Christian community and Christ are to be everything for them. Christ reconciles us to God, Christ provides a new community and Christ gives us a new life. It may seem like a big sacrifice to give up one’s former life but Paul is trying to convince the Christ-followers that in fact, they gain everything. And herein lies the irony of the gospel: we must give up everything to gain everything.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Fyodor Dostoevsky is a prolific Russian writer. And one of his most famous literary master pieces is a novel entitled the Brothers Karamozov. The story focuses on four sons and their relationship with one another and their father. The four sons are completely different from one another, as one likes to party, get drunk and sleep with women, another one is a serious atheist intellect, another one, a spiritual novice within a monastic community and finally, one is an illegitimate son who has epilepsy. These characters could not be more different from one another but what is interesting is that these four characters are actually all based on Dostoevsky himself. Each character represents a different part of him. There is a part of him who is very much drawn to carnal living, a part of him who is a serious intellect and a skeptic but at the same time, there is a part of him who is deeply spiritual. Finally, he also did struggle with epilepsy, which made him feel estranged from the rest of society.
In the same way, the characters in the prodigal son story can represent different parts of us. This is partly the reason for its popularity; it captures themes and depicts characters that are universally applicable to people of all times and places. But often when we hear or talk about the prodigal son story, we usually focus on one character that we especially identify with. For some, it may be the prodigal son. For others, it may be the resentful older brother.
Rarely do we ever identify with father however. The father character is reserved for God and God alone. Through the character of the father, the story reveals the heart of God, which is so generous and full of this crazy kind of love for us that we are thankful to know that our God is like that. And of course, it also makes sense that the father would represent God, when we take into consideration that the story is placed within a string of parables that all center around a theme of rejoicing over the one lost coin or son or sheep that has been found. God is the one who celebrates when we return to God. We humans, represent the coin, son or sheep.
But I actually think it does a disservice to us when we externalize the character of the father and internalize the characters of the prodigal son and the resentful older brother. Because when we just identify with those two characters, it does not tell the whole story of who we are. The truth is, just as much as there is a prodigal son and resentful older brother within us, there is an infinite source of love, mercy and wisdom inside all of us as well. That is the true story of who we are and it is a more complete picture of who we are. As process theology teaches, the divine does not just live outside of us. The divine also lives among us, between us and within us. This divine source within is what enables us to extend love, forgiveness and compassion to one another and to ourselves. This fractured and broken world is in desperate need of us to always remember that.