Lent 3C – March 3, 2013 (March 7, 2010)

Isaiah 55:1-9 – Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Seek the Lord while he may be found. Return to the Lord… for he will abundantly pardon.
Psalm 63:1-8 – O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water… In the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 – The results of idolatry and immorality are devastating. So do not fall. No test has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God will strengthen you for your testing.
Luke 13:1-9 – Those Galileans slaughtered by Pilate, were they any worse sinners than anyone else? No. How about those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them? No. But unless you repent, you will also perish. Jesus likens his ministry to a man who allows his gardener to tend a fruitless fig tree for one year. If it doesn’t bear fruit, it will be destroyed. Prediction of the fall of Jerusalem?

Lent at-a-glance

  • February 13 – Ash Wednesday: Dust. Ashes. Mortality. Repentance. Fasting. Don’t show off your piety.

· February 17 – Lent 1C: First fruits for the Levite and alien. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness.

· February 24 – Lent 2C: Abram’s call. Faith reckoned as righteousness. Jesus laments for Jerusalem.

· March 3 – Lent 3C: Repent, for there is only so much time left for the fig tree to bear fruit.

· March 10 – Lent 4C: Lost sheep. Lost sons.

· March 17 – Lent 5C: I am about to do a new thing… Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.

  • March 24 – Palm/Passion Sunday: Jesus entry into Jerusalem as an anti-triumph.

The Prodigal God – A Lenten Series Suggestion

During Lent my posts will be focused on the story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15, which comes up on March 10, Lent 4C. For a post on the lectionary texts, click the link to my 2010 post above. A number of our congregations are using Timothy Keller’s excellent book, The Prodigal God, as a guide.

Feb 17 – Lent 1 – Chapter 1: The People Around Jesus

Feb 24 – Lent 2 – Chapter 2: The Two Lost Sons

Mar 3 – Lent 3 – Chapter 3: Redefining Sin

Mar 10 – Lent 4 – Chapter 4: Redefining Lostness

Mar 17 – Lent 5 – Chapter 5: The True Elder Brother

Mar 24 – Palm Sunday – Chapters 6 and 7: Redefining Hope, The Feast of the Father

Lent 3 – Prodigal God Chapter 3: Redefining Sin

This week I am at Hosanna Lutheran Church in Mandeville, Louisiana, just north of New Orleans, across Lake Ponchartrain. Hosanna has a strong focus on evangelism and small groups. If you assume that most people (all actually) are spiritually hungry, even if they don’t identify it as such, and you have a way to invite them into a system that will help them grow, things happen.

The lectionary texts deal with repentance this week. The Isaiah "Ho!" passage this week invites us to seek the Lord, return to the Lord, who pardons abundantly. This text fits well into our Prodigal Son series this Lent.

The Psalmist says our souls are spiritually thirsty. In the shadow of God’s wings we sing for joy. Paul reminds us in the Corinthians passage that the results of immorality and idolatry are devastating. Finally, in the gospel reading Jesus asks if his listeners think those upon whom calamity has fallen are worse sinners than others. The rhetorical implication is "of course not." And yet, he warns, if you keep on this violent and misguided path, you are headed toward destruction. These passages are leading up to the Prodigal Son text Lent 4, next week. There is a turn or burn motif going on here, but not in the sense we often hear it. The burning to which Jesus refers is the destruction of Jerusalem. There are very existential implications for sin. The question arises, what sin are we talking about here?

In chapter three of Prodigal God, Timothy Keller tackles just that question. He suggests the two sons in the story represent two ways of finding happiness and fulfillment. The first is moral conformity. The second is self-discovery.

In the way of moral conformity (older brother), the Pharisees maintained their place of blessing through rigorous obedience to the Bible. The will of God and the needs of the community supersede the way of personal fulfillment.

The way of self discovery (younger brother), encourages people to seek self-actualization free from custom or convention. Authority is a barrier to personal freedom to become.

The first group sees righteousness as conforming to the traditions and moral norms of the community. The second groups sees how those norms can at times be stifling, unrealistic and dehumanizing. Jesus’ point is not that one is right and the other is wrong. For Jesus, they are both wrong.

In Act I of the parable, it is clear that sin is living a dissolute, immoral life. This leaves the younger son alienated from the father and cut off from the family. In Act II, the older son is faithful and self-disciplined, and yet he ends up alienated by the father as well. Both pathways lead to alienation.

The older son does not go in to the party. He is alienated not because of his unrighteousness, but because of his righteousness. His pride and moral superiority are the road block between him and the father. Jesus uses sharp words to show the sin of self-righteousness:

"Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you." (Matthew 21:31)

"…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." (Matthew 23:13-15)

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Matthew 23:23-28)

Christianity in our context has leaned toward a moralistic understanding of religion. The Religious Right and the former so-called Moral Majority have both Christians and non-Christians convinced their narrative represents the essence of what Christianity is. From reading the above passages, however, one might be left to think Jesus is against the older brother and for the younger brother. He certainly has a strong invective against the older brother Pharisees, but his critique is of both ways. This is clear in his statements about being perfect as your heavenly father is perfect, and in his parting comment to the woman caught in adultery: "Go and sin no more." Jesus is not advocating a younger brother rebellion, but neither can he abide the older brother’s self-righteousness.

At the end of the day, both sons resent the father’s authority. They just respond to it in different ways. One can become alienated from the father in both ways: either by breaking the rules, or by keeping them diligently.

Keller proposes that sin is not "failing to keep God’s rules." Many of the rules that we call "God’s rules" are our rules anyway. Sin is alienation from the father, which the younger son had, and now the older son has because of his own anger at the father. Piety can lead to a very passive-aggressive, deep-seated anger toward God.

After his wild binge, the younger son once again basks in the love of the father, while the older son clearly does not. He is hurt, and is doing everything he can to resist the father, even amidst his tireless efforts to keep the rules.

Keller uses the example of Salieri, who prays to God to become a great composer. He keeps all God’s rules to the nth degree, keeping his hands off women, denying himself to please God. Then God capriciously gives an undeniable talent and genius to the self-indulgent Mozart. Finally, exasperated, Salieri says to God, "From now on we are enemies, You and I…"

For Salieri, the poor were simply an object to get what he wanted. He was sacrificing not out of love for God, but instead as a means to his own selfish ends. He just expressed his self-centeredness differently.

We have all seen this. A parishioner leads an exemplary moral life only to come down with cancer, and cry out in anger to God, "Why me?" I have served you faithfully all these years. Just like the older brother.

The gospel here is that the father loves both of his sons. They are both wrong, and yet they are both loved. The message of the gospel is that everyone is wrong, one way or the other, and yet everyone is loved with an everlasting love. True righteousness is a gift of grace, being loved by the Father. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Next week we’ll talk about anger and superiority in Keller’s chapter four, entitled, "Redefining Lostness."

Yours in Christ,

Michael Rinehart, Bishop