This brother of yours.

10 March 2013
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Lent 4C (RCL)

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

The fourth Sunday in Lent is often known as “refreshment Sunday,” a little vacation from Lent. In congregations that have eucharistic vestments in all the colors of the rainbow, rose is often worn on this Sunday, lending it the name “Rose Sunday.” The collect speaks of Jesus being the bread come down from heaven, by which we have life, by which we are refreshed. In some years, a passage from John 6 is assigned as the Gospel.

This year, we hear the reading of the prodigal son. I am convinced the story is as much about the older brother as about the younger. The first verses of the chapter remind us that the three parables (the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son) are responding to the comment about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. The story ends unresolved. Will the older brother go in to the party and eat with his brother, or not?

The story would have had a profound meaning in Luke’s day. The question is whether Jews and Gentiles can worship together. The characterization of the younger brother having squandered his inheritance on prostitution and partying is a standard trope for Jewish critique of Gentile religion. In the Old Testament, Israel’s failure to live faithfully only to YHWH is characterized as “harlotry.” Worship the local fertility gods on the hilltops amounts to prostitution (and involved prostitution). Paul, in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, suggests that all that long laundry list of sins the Gentiles are guilty of are really symptoms of a deeper sin: worshiping the creature rather than the creator. Luke’s hearers would have recognized the younger son as Gentile converts to this new “Judaism.” The story tips its hand when the older brother comes in from the field and hears the songs and dances in the house. The Greek words are “symphonia” and “choron” — symphonies and choruses. These were the style of music that accompanied Greek comedies and tragedies; the music of Greek religion. The younger brother has imported elements of Greek religion into the worship of Luke’s community. Will Jewish Christians, the older brother, be able to enter?

We can hear the pathos of the dispute in the conversation between the older brother and the father. The older brother practically spits the words, “this son of yours,” when speaking about the crimes of his brother. The father responds by saying, “this brother of yours was dead and is now alive.” We need to hear that whenever we speak of “those people,” whether ethnically, nationally, or even little cliques within the congregation.

The reading from Joshua is short, but profound. After the people have entered the promised land, the manna ceases, and they eat from the fruit of the land. In the wilderness, the manna came to all without regard for any human distinction (property ownership — no one owned property — wealth, status, anything). Now that the manna has ceased, those distinctions are again in play. Will everyone eat? It is now encumbent on the community to make sure. The passover is to include the households who cannot afford a lamb. The parties sacrifice makes possible are to include the Levite and the sojourner, the resident alien, who have no land.

In the passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul says we no longer regard even Christ from a human point of view (that is, as Jew or Greek, slave or free, male of female, etc.), but we regard all as a new creation. And God has entrusted the ministry of reconciliation to us. God, in Christ was/is reconciling the world to Godself. In the Church, at eucharist, as the Incarnation in the world, God is reconciling the world. Will we enter and party with “those people,” whoever they are? God beckons.

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