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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fourth Sunday in Lent - Year C
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:11-32

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Fourth Sunday In Lent - Year C
  
  
JOSHUA 5:9-12              Throughout their forty year journey through the
wilderness from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan, the Israelites had
been provided for by God's gift of manna.  Now that they had entered the
land, they recalled their escape from Egypt as usual by celebrating the
festival of the  Passover.  This time, however, they used the produce of
Canaan to make their unleavened bread.  On that day, the gift of manna
ended. 

       
PSALM 32                   The relation of sickness to sin was common to all
people in ancient times.  This psalm reflects that attitude. While we no
longer accept such limited view of sickness, we may still reflect the
penitence with which every sinner approaches God and trusts in God's
forgiveness.


2 CORINTHIANS 5:16-21      This most significant of all of Paul's
interpretations of the meaning of Christ's life, death and resurrection
contains three key words: reconciliation, the world (literally in Greek
cosmos), and ambassadors.  In this instance, reconciliation meant a renewed
relationship with God established through Christ's life, death and
resurrection.  The world referred to the whole of creation, not just our
planet Earth.  An ambassador represented and interpreted his/her country in
a foreign land.
       
Paul believed that because we have been given a new relationship with God
through Christ, we are now God's representatives in the world which God has
destined for re-creation. 


LUKE 15:11-32         The parable of the lost son welcomed home by his
forgiving father tells the whole gospel of God's reconciling love in Jesus
Christ in short story form. 

************

JOSHUA 5:9-12   Whether a natural product or not, manna was deemed to be a
gift from Yahweh to the Israelites in the wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16). 
It is now believed to have been the carbohydrate excretions of an insect
which fed on the sap of the tamarisk bush.  Rich in sugars and pectin, even
a large amount would have been insufficient to supply the need for food.
Thus, it must be assumed that it is symbolic rather than materialistic, in
somewhat the same way as we now regard the bread of the Eucharist. (Cf.
John 6:31-35)  In this story it symbolized that throughout their forty year
journey through the wilderness from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan,
the Israelites had been provided for by God. 

Now that they had entered the promised land, they recalled their escape
from Egypt as usual by celebrating the annual festival of the Passover.
This time, however, they used the produce of Canaan to make their
unleavened bread.  On that day, the gift of manna ended. 

Of course, this may have been due to the changing flora and fauna of the
Israelites new homeland.  According to Christian monks who lived in the
Sinai in early Christian times, it was available for about three to six
weeks in June and July.  The quantity depended on the rainfall of the
previous winter.  It appeared on the tamarisk in small deposits about the
size of pea.  A good worker could collect about a half a kilogram a day,
not much to survive on.  Faith interprets actuality according to its own
spiritual insights.

From a religious point of view, the point of the story is that when we
reach the end of one set of resources, God makes others available.  Devoted
Christians have been able to survive under extreme circumstances with such
faith.  Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychotherapist who survived three
years in a Nazi concentration camp, discovered that the one essential to
survival was a sense of meaning.  Faith that God is with us in life, in
death and in life beyond death is an existentialist creed to which
countless believers can witness.  It gives sustaining meaning to the most
disastrous events. 

This may be especially true for parents whose children are born with
unexpected disabilities or incurable genetic diseases.  The same may be
true for those in middle age whose parents suffer from various forms of
late life dementia.  If there is such a thing as surd evil - something so
evil as to have no explanation or meaning whatsoever - only faith that God
is with us and loves us regardless of all possible circumstances can help
us to survive.  That is the only way we can make sense of the crucifixion
of Jesus Christ. 


PSALM 32   The relation of sickness to sin was common to all people in
ancient times.  This penitential psalm reflects that attitude.  While we no
longer accept such limited view of sickness, we may still reflect the
penitence with which every sinner may approach God and trust in God's
forgiveness. 
       
In its original form, the psalm had the didactic character of wisdom
literature which points to a late date.  Yet there is a refreshingly frank
honesty about it that speaks to any age.  There is no hiding one's sin from
God and no self-deceit about one's wrongdoing.  In this day and age, a good
deal of human illness can still be traced to deliberate sin.  Sexually
transmitted diseases, illnesses caused by excessive alcohol consumption,
compulsions for certain foods, or hyperactivity that results in mental or
physical breakdown could be included in that category. 

The psalmist's illness is not clearly described, although there does appear
to have been both a wasting of the body, weakness and considerable pain
(vss.3-4).  Nonetheless, as vss. 1-2 suggest, he still has memories of
healthier times which he interpreted as a genuine blessing.  How many times
have we heard people say that they are grateful to be blessed with good
health? Does anyone ever express gratitude for ill health?

Whatever his illness, the psalmist recognizes his affliction as an
opportunity to draw nearer to Yahweh through prayers of confession and
expressions of trust (vss. 5-7).  There is even a touch of ironic humour in
vs. 9 where the stubbornness of a sick man is likened to an unruly horse or
mule which must be controlled with a bit and bridle.  The psalmist must
have been speaking from experience.

Like all wisdom literature, the contrast between the wicked and the
righteous is clearly stated in the closing couplet.  While we may question
the cause and effect relationship between righteousness and health, the
psalmist never doubts that his trust in Yahweh's steadfast love will be
rewarded with rejoicing.  That is an ageless emphasis we too should not
forget.


2 CORINTHIANS 5:16-21   This is perhaps the most significant of all of
Paul's interpretations of the meaning of Christ's life, death and
resurrection contains three key words: reconciliation, the world (literally
in Greek *cosmos*), and ambassadors. 
       
Reconciliation was undoubtedly one of Paul's favourite words.  In one form
or another, it occurs five times over in this single paragraph.  Obviously
it expressed so completely his own spiritual experience.  In this instance,
it meant a renewed relationship with God established through Christ's life,
death and resurrection.  As one who had tried so zealously as a Pharisee
and failed to achieve a fully satisfying relationship with God, he was
overwhelmed by the realization that he now had "friendship with God"
through Christ Jesus.  This was like being "a new creature" or, in the
terms of John's Gospel, "born again."  By the gracious gift of God in
Christ, he - and we - now possess the right relationship God desires to
have with us.
       
The Greek word *kosmos* occurs 46 times in the Pauline corpus.  For Paul it
may well have meant no more than the inhabited world around him, but it
could also have represented the universe or the whole of creation.  Even
more likely is the possibility that Paul saw the *kosmos* as that which was
in total enmity with God, the locus of human rebellion and alienation from
God, and the place where humanity is under the domination of evil.  It was
to remove this alienation and hostility and to break the power of evil
enslaving humanity that Christ had died. 
       
An ambassador represented and interpreted his/her country in a foreign
land.  It was an ancient and honourable profession even in Paul's time, as
it still is.  Every country has its ambassadors in other nations' capital
cities.  Paul believed that because we have been given a new relationship
with God through Christ, we are now God's representatives in the world
which God has destined for re-creation.  The representative view of the
atonement has been given strong theological support in the work of such
theologians as Douglas John Hall in the third volume of his trilogy,
*Confessing The Faith: A Christian Theology In The North American Context.*
Hall's view of social justice and Christian stewardship follows directly
from this position.  As God's representatives in the world endowed with the
Spirit of the Creator that was in Christ who overcame the dominance of
human selfishness, we are to manage the world's resources for the benefit
of all humanity.  In the divine economy, everyone is a shareholder with the
Creator.


LUKE 15:11-32   The parable of the long lost son welcomed home by his
forgiving father tells the whole gospel of God's reconciling love in Jesus
Christ in short story form.  We tend to give the story the popular title of
"The Prodigal Son."  But the story is really about the father, not one or
other of his two sons.

An unusual interpretation to this story has been given in a book by
Professor Bruce Chilton, *Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography.*  Chilton
posits the thesis that this is an autobiographical parable.  He infers from
scant evidence that Jesus was never accepted in Nazareth because of his
uncertain parentage.  He had a falling out with his family after Joseph's
death and left home to follow John the Baptist as one of his disciples.
Only after John had been imprisoned and executed several years later did he
return home to Nazareth where he was warmly received by Mary, but not by
James.  Being Joseph's eldest son by a previous marriage, as Chilton
claims, James was both older than Jesus by several years and head of the
family.  Chilton recognizes that there is little actual evidence for such a
story.  Even if highly speculative, it does add an additional dimension of
realism to the parable.
       
It may tempting to interpret the parable allegorically, as if each element
represented a different aspect of our human experience of sin,
reconciliation and resistant pride.  As such, it would represent the dual
mission of the apostolic church to Jews and Gentiles.  In that light, the
young brother may represent the Gentiles accepted by the early church, but
not by traditional Jews.  The elder brother could be regarded as
representative of Israel's resistance to Jesus, the Messiah.  However, this
advances our understanding no further than Chilton's speculations. 

Jesus' parables were intended to convey only one core message.  In this
case, the lost son is reconciled and restored by the father's gracious,
forgiving love.  It is the story of God's covenant love that desires to
reconcile the world to our relationship with God.  But the story is
unfinished.  The elder brother is left to make up his own mind whether or
not to join in the celebrations.  A unique Bible study question might be
for the participants to consider what they might do if they had been the
elder brother. 

The late Al Forrest, former editor of The United Church Observer, visited
with a Lebanese Christian scholar who interpreted the story as his people
read it.  What the father did in dividing the family's resources, then
later celebrating the younger son's return, was an outrageously wasteful
and careless deed.  The elder brother who would normally inherit the estate
had every right to be angered and to take steps to protect the family's
livelihood by regarding the old man as senile.  The real profligate was the
father, not the younger son.  It would be absolutely unprecedented and
unconscionable to forgive and renew a broken relationship in this way. 

Yet this is how grace functions in God's realm.  Would that Arabs and
Israelis might recognize that this is the way their common deity views the
geopolitical dilemma in which history has imprisoned them!

There is an old Scottish tale of a son who fought with his father about
church-going and left home in stubborn, self-willed anger.  For many months
he wandered hither and yon living like the typical prodigal.  At last in
one city he happened on an outdoor preacher telling the story of this
parable.  The lad listened intently and when the preacher narrated how the
father had received his runaway son, he cried out, "Yon's a fine auld man.
I'd tak' a lang die's tramp to see the lum reek in my father's cotte."
(Translate: That's a fine old man.  I'd take a long day's walk to see the
chimney smoke in my father's cottage.")  And he set off for home.
 
                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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