The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year C), 31 March 2019

March 31, 2019 | by Nathan Mattox

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Joshua 5: 9-12 Psalm 32 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21 Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Joshua 5: 9-12
The text from Joshua describes the arrival of the Israelites into the promised land. The arrival is described in terms of provision. It is the end of the manna “era” for the wandering Israelites. God declares to Joshua that “I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from you.” One last Passover meal, and the next day the Israelites eat of the produce of the land, and the manna ceases. Newness and arrival are themes of this day in the lectionary. The epistle speaks of the “new creation” made in each person. The Gospel text speaks of a young son re-substantiated in the arms of his father. One of Process Theology’s main tenants is that God is the ground of novelty. God is the harmonizer of novelty who brings about the best possible future for all of creation. God lured the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt toward a land flowing with milk and honey.

Here, that promise is delivered. Due to the miraculous crossing of the Jordan, the would-be enemies of the interloping Israelites shrunk away as their “hearts melted in fear.” After Joshua circumcises the wandering Israelites who had not yet been, and seals the covenant with the God of Israel, the people finally eat from the yielding produce again—a sign of a return to the agrarian lifestyle instead of the traveling and gathering lifestyle. The symbol of the 40-year journey might be compared to a period of gestation, and this text describes the birth.

Psalm 32
Here again, newness, forgiveness, and blessing are the themes of the Psalm and the texts in general. From the opening line, “Blessed are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered,” the psalm could have been sung by the prodigal son (the story Jesus tells in the Gospel selection). The psalm describes the physically debilitating experience of living with guilt and the catharsis of confession. “When I did not declare my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (32:3). “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; then you forgave the guilt of my sin” (32:5). The embodiment of guilt and shame and the catharsis of forgiveness gives way in the latter part of the psalm to an enjoinment to heed the wisdom of God. Unlike the stubborn horse and mule, God’s wisdom is freely given in persuasive power. God lures us all toward newness, forgiveness, blessing, and thus “many are the pangs of the wicked; but steadfast love surrounds him who tusts in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (32:10-11). This uprightness is a trajectory that takes shape in grace and forgiveness. In admitting that we fall short, our eyes are more keenly fixed on the novel possibilities of creative-responsive love.

2 Corinthians 5: 16-21
“Regarding no one with the human point of view” (5:16) is a tall order, but it is the ideal that Paul gives the Corinthians. From a process perspective, we are only capable of the subjective viewpoint, but as we become aligned with creative-responsive love, we are drawn into a broader frame of reference. Paul’s hope is that we begin to consider the sacred reality of all people and things in their own relatedness to creative-responsive love. The newness of each moment is more keenly experienced by the individual awakening to the interrelated “new creation” that is being wrought by the Divine.

Paul speaks in verses 19-21 about the relational dynamic of God. Since Christ personifies the reconciliation of the world with God, we who bear his name are about the ministry of reconciliation. It is through our efforts toward reconciliation that we are “ambassadors of Christ.” Cobb and Griffin write,

“In the case of Jesus we have to do not only with an event of great intrinsic power but also with one that has produced the church which accepts as its task the amplification of the field of force. Millions of persons have made decisions to be constituted by the event of Jesus in such a way that its potential of reconstituting others is increased. Thus the church is the community that is consciously dedicated to maintaining, extending, and strengthening the field of force generated by Jesus. To enter such a community is to be ingrafted into that field of force and thus to experience the real presence of Jesus constituting one’s own existence.”  (Process Theology, An Introductory Exposition, p. 107-108)

Paul explains this circuitous, relational dynamic by saying, “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”  (5: 20-21).

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
What Charles Dickens described as “the greatest short story ever told” is one of my favorite texts for preaching, and the story of the father with two sons makes an excellent “back pocket sermon.” I have preached on this text every year for the past 12 years at our annual conference Confirmation retreat. From a Wesleyan perspective, the story makes an excellent template to put the doctrine of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace into narrative format, which is why I always use the text for an “experiential journey through scripture” at that camp-based retreat. The experience, including a stop by a “pig-pen,” then a welcome home, and finally an invitation to a banquet table where communion is celebrated as a big party (complete with confetti canons and noisemakers encouraged during the Sanctus), has proven to be a very memorable experience for Oklahoma United Methodist youth. My current youth minister even remembers her experience at confirmation camp before she even knew me!

From the process preaching perspective, the story is also a rich template to expound on our concept of God. Prevenient grace is experienced by the younger brother when he “comes to himself” and realizes that “even his father’s hired hands eat better than he does.” John Wesley said prevenient grace is “all the drawings unto the Father, that if we yield to them, increase more and more” (The Scripture Way of Salvation). Indeed, from our process perspective, we might accentuate that grace is experienced as a “drawing unto” rather than a “pushing behind.” God’s grace is creative-responsive love, and sometimes that “responsiveness” is quite simply “coming to oneself.” Even if the response is motivated by self-preservation, grace is at work before we may even comprehend what we are experiencing.

The story says the younger son “squandered his property” in dissolute living. Andrew Marr, a Benedictine monk who wrote on this parable, clued me into the fact that “The Greek phrase that in English is translated as: the younger son ‘squandered his property’ is actually much stronger and richer in the original. Literally, the phrase means: he ‘scattered his substance.’ That is, the younger son completely lost himself in his dissolute living” [Andrew Marr, from a blog post no longer available; but a similar entry is found in “The Prodigal Father and His Sons” in his current blog, Imaginary Visions of True Peace: The Stories and Spiritual Teachings of a Benedictine Monk]. In an effort to do things “his way” and “be out on his own,” the younger son instead “scatters his substance.” He forgets his identity to the extent that when he is in the pig pen and he envisions going back to his father, he sees himself signing on as one of his father’s servants.

He only sees this potential because he is still motivated by his own needs and wants. What compels him to go back to his father is his own hunger when he looks at the pig slop. He still sees “with a human point of view” as Paul puts it in 2 Cor. 5:16, But even though his longing for home is tainted with self preservation, we would proclaim that it still contains God’s grace.

Admitting the sin does not earn us the forgiveness. Notice what happens first: the father runs out and embraces the son, then the son confesses. Confession is not a motivation for God’s forgiveness, it is a response to it. This time, the son’s speech is not just inspired by his own needs, it’s not just another plan as to how he can once again manipulate his father. This time, the son’s confession is a response to his father’s love. This is the experience of justifying grace.

S. Eliot put it like this: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (“Little Gidding,” V, The Four Quartets). The prodigal son, who had been out in the far country “scattering his substance” is now in his father’s arms re-substantiated. Upon arriving at that same farm where he had shook the dust off his feet and abandoned his family, he comes there again and feels the unyielding love of his father, and he sees home again for the first time.

In my opinion, the last third of the story is the best. The God of process theology can be envisioned as the loving father, leaving the banquet for his long lost son, and spending that time outside in the field, cajoling his older son to come in and join the banquet. This beckoning is sanctifying grace, seeking to perfect our love for one another. The God of reconciliation seeks a concresence of the great mandate—“love one another, as I have loved you.”

In summary, what is usually called the “prodigal son story” has a much fuller articulation of grace when read as “the father with two sons,” and especially with the complimentary epistle text from today’s lectionary. New creations abound.

Rev. M. Nathan Mattox graduated with an MDiv from Claremont School of Theology in 2005, and has since served United Methodist congregations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, most recently University United Methodist Church in Tulsa since 2011. A fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, National Council of Churches Ecological Justice Young Adult fellowship, Collegeville Writer’s Workshop, and the Hendix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement, he also started the University Church Network, a collaborative resource for churches on or adjacent to university campuses. Nathan has been blending a family since July of 2017 with his wife Myranda, and enjoys the company of four children, a dog and a cat.