Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fourth Sunday in Lent Year C

Fourth Sunday in Lent C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

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

The journey with God through the wilderness began with a story of miraculous generosity (Exodus 16) and now concludes forty years later with another display of God's generosity, this time from "the land."  Joshua led God's people in an annual observance of Passover when "The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land...; they ate from the crops of the land of Canaan that year."

This psalm describes confession deferred, which feels like a weight or the body being sapped of its strength, released only by the decision to confess to the Lord.  Forgiveness is immediate and complete.  (The wise person confesses regularly to lessen the pressure of unconfessed sins.)  Do not be stubborn like a mule or a horse.  Trust in the Lord's forgiveness.  Sing!

Paul testifies to the complete reversal in his perspective caused by his new status "in Christ."  He now sees the accomplishments of Christ through the lens of "reconciliation."  Through Christ, God was reconciling the world to God and now entrusts "the message of reconciliation to us."  Be reconciled yourself, Paul writes, so you can reconcile others with God.

Jesus responds to his critics in the religious establishment, "the Pharisees and the scribes," who are disgusted that he "welcomes sinners and eats with them." He tells a "parable."  In a brilliant piece of writing, Luke tells of two brothers/sons and a father's love.  The younger brother/son asks for and receives his inheritance early, leaves home and squanders "his property in dissolute living."  He finally ends up eating with the pigs.  But, "he came to himself...." He makes the decision to return home, confess his offense against heaven and his father, admit that he has lost his status as a son and ask for a job from his father.  His father sees him in the distance, is "filled with compassion," and rushes out to greet him with a hug and a kiss.  The son makes his carefully composed confession.  The father's only response is to order a party.  The older brother/son returns to the house, hears the partying and is resentful.  He argues with their father, pointing  out that he was never irresponsible, always working "like a slave" for his father.  The father assures the older son he will receive all that is due to him, but now is the occasion to celebrate, "because this brother of yours was dead and now has come to life; he was lost and has been found."

The psalmist seems to be writing from first-hand knowledge of the results of refusing to ask for forgiveness.  Today we might call the results he describes as psychosomatic, either like a weight pushing down on us or gradual loss of energy and strength.  

The impact of Luke's parable on the human imagination  is attested to by Shakespeare's allusions to it in no less than twelve of his plays. It first grips us because of the foolishness of youth compounded by his not knowing for a while how to get out of the mess into which he has gotten himself.  The American poet, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), depicts in vivid detail his time spent with the pigs in her poem, "The Prodigal," as these few excerpts show:
     The brown enormous odor he lived by
     was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
     for him to judge.  The floor was rotten; the sky
     was plastered half-way up with glass-smooth dung//

     But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
     (he hid the pints beneath a two-by-four),
     the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red;
     the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
     And when he thought he almost might endure
     his exile yet another year or more.//

     Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
     he felt the bat's uncertain staggering flight,
     his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
     touching him.

Most of the poem she devotes to describing the squalor into which he had sunk and his resignation to his fate when, in the last line, she leaves open a different ending:

             But it took him a long time
     finally to make his mind up to go home.

The psalmist describes that as soon as he made the decision to ask for forgiveness and did it, the relief was immediate and complete; Luke's magnificent story pivots on the decision by the son/brother to return home and ask for forgiveness.  Luke writes, "... he came to himself...."

In his famous essay, "Sketch of a Phenomenological Concept of the Gift," (found in The Visible and the Revealed),  Jean-Luc Marion writes of the decision one must make to accept something before the act of giving can be completed:  "the gift fulfills itself perfectly when as the recipient I make up my mind to receive it.  The performance of the gift is linked more to my decision to accept it than to its own availability.  Moreover, it is often my decision that decides that something finds itself accepted."  "If we reflect upon the business of love, it often happens that acceptance provokes the availability of the gift...."  "...I alone and more than another, affirm the capacity to let myself be seduced and and freely consent to the possibility of a gift...." (p. 93)

The younger son/brother made the decision that put him within the proximity of the father's forgiveness.  The decision to return home and ask for forgiveness put him close enough for the father to rush out and embrace him.