Fourth Sunday of Lent: Joy in the Desert

Third Sunday of Lent: Rejoicing to be On Our Way

Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

This Sunday is the pink Sunday of Lent, the day the priest wears joyful vestments to remind us that there is happiness even here. (I know they insist the vestments are “rose.” But rosa is just the Latin word for pink.)

Our first reading is a commentary on that joy in the desert.  Joshua and the Israelites are camped “on the plains of Jericho”: that means they just crossed the Jordan, after forty years of Exodus, and are beginning to claim the Promised Land.  They celebrate the Passover, and the next day they eat “unleavened cakes” (since Passover is observed for a week) and “parched grain.” “Parched” is a funny translation; what it means is that they roasted the fresh local grain on their campfires. 

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Now, on the one hand, it’s nice that they’re finally eating fresh grain, instead of manna.  They have come to a place where good food actually grows.  But it’s cooked on the camp fire—just as the Passover lamb must be roasted over fire, not in an oven or a pot—because they are still on the move.

I imagine our own campfire meals.  Even canned stuff tastes good over a campfire, because you’re thankful to be eating, a special thankfulness because you can’t prepare a feast. 

And that’s the pink vestments of Lent: not the settled joy of a feast day, but the joy of being on the road, on our way, moving forward toward the Resurrection.  Even a fast can be a feast.

***

Our reading from Second Corinthians talks about “reconciliation,” or maybe it should be translated, “exchange.”  “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”  We are “in Christ a new creation,” and that’s something to celebrate.  But we celebrate that new creation in and through Lent.  It’s not that everything is fine; it’s that we are in the process of transformation, on the road to the Resurrection, passing through Good Friday.

***

And so we come to the Prodigal Son.  Above all what marks Luke is his eye for these stories—also the Good Samaritan, the place of honor at the wedding feast, the rich man and Lazaurs, the persistent widow: the touching stories are mostly unique to Luke. 

So many rich details.  I love this book.  I wish I could write my own. 

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The story, of course, is not about the Prodigal Son, but about the Father and the Elder Brother.  The Lectionary sets the theme: “the Pharisees and scribes began to complain,” the Elder Brother, “saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,’” like the Father in the story.  Then it skips the two introductory parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke alone adds the widow and her coin), which tell the same story more briefly.

But though the main point is about the Father and the Elder Son, Jesus and the Pharisees, Luke gives us brilliant details about the Prodigal. 

The Prodigal is clearly at fault: “Father give me the share of your estate . . . So the father divided the property,” literally his “life.”  What a lout.  “He squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.”  But “when he had freely spent everything,” we feel almost bad for him, because “a severe famine struck,” not his fault.  Few stories in world literature make our eyes roll like this one. 

But what does he do?  “He hired himself out?”  Literally, he glued

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himself to a local, adhered, sucked up.  And it must be said, when he “comes to his senses,” he doesn’t say, “what a jerk I’ve been,” he says, “how many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough.”  It’s pure calculation and manipulation: sucking up to this guy hasn’t worked out, maybe I’ll suck up to my father.

Meanwhile, “he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody game him any.”  We groan again: he’s feeding the swine, he doesn’t need anyone to give him “the pods” (literally, “the hard stuff,” from the same word as keratin).  But he wants more gifts, like he took from his father.  And going home, he’s not looking for hard keratin “pods,” he’s looking for “food”: he knows how they eat at his father’s house. 

But his father is utterly unlike him, catching sight of him a long way off, filled with compassion, running to meet him, giving him what he doesn’t deserve.  He goes out to the Elder, too, who refuses to come in.

***

The Elder Son’s objections are totally reasonable.  The Prodigal is a real jerk, one of the greatest jerks in all literature.  And the Prodigal in this story is us.  This isn’t a story about how great we are.  Our new creation, our entrance into the Promised Land, isn’t about how we’ve really cleaned up our act and done the right thing.  It’s about the sheer goodness of the Father, in his Son Jesus Christ. 

The Elder Son, of course, is also us, rejecting the Father’s way of mercy, insistent on merit. 

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But the real celebration, the pink vestments of Lent and the fresh grain roasted on the fires of the Promised Land, is that somehow he can bring us from death to life, from being lost to being found.  We rejoice not in our goodness, but in his, and in the process of our redemption, which is still under way.

In what parts of your life should you be rejoicing more at the Father’s mercy?

eric.m.johnston

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