Sermon Seeds: Come to Life
Sunday, March 27, 2022
Fourth Sunday in Lent | Year C
(Liturgical Color: Violet)
2 Corinthians 5:16–21
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32
Come to Life
Mender of Broken Walls (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
From the opening words of Jesus, we understand that there are at least three perspectives at work in this story. We don’t have to imagine what the father and his two sons are experiencing, the text manages to incorporate all three points of view in the story. This story isn’t meant to be skimmed; it’s meant to be heard. When you skim through the passage, you struggle to connect which “he” Jesus is talking about because the point of view changes. Everyone is seen and heard in this story.
Yet, Jesus also conveys that the parent is the one who is the dominant character. Even when he is absent from the action, his influence permeates our consciousness. The parent’s action takes the form of response; he acts minimally, and his actions serve primarily to propel his sons toward their actions. He empowers them and responds to them but issues no directives. It’s a nice story about family dynamics: disloyalty and defiance, forgiveness, and compassion, jealousy and disappointment.
But, why does Jesus tell it?
Remember, first of all, that Jesus shares this as a parable.It’s a tale crafted to impact a lesson upon the listen. Jesus often responded to the questions he received by telling a story. It might encourage us to question those who respond to theological questions with a bit of text out of context instead of a story. These stories that Jesus told, as much of the biblical narrative tells, offer the human condition in fleshy tones. They are decidedly not exemplary; there are no allusions of perfection painted in these renditions of human interaction. All three characters in this story are sympathetic in some way even if some responses are more or less faithful than others. That’s real life and our faith is meant to be lived in flesh not in theoretical constructs.
Of course, the Pharisees had come to view life in those terms. In their self-righteousness, they disassociated themselves from others who did not live up to the impossible standards they set, first for themselves, and then, for others. I imagine the first Pharisees would have seen nothing inherently wrong with associating with tax collectors and sinners. But, as they adopted a life of self-righteousness (as opposed to righteousness in God), they would have isolated themselves from any temptation that would challenge their ability to remain true to their rules. Isolation led, as it often does, to disdain and away from compassion (which means to suffer with). Thus, that explains their grumbling at Jesus, who has no difficulty or concern about being in relationship with “sinners.”
That lifestyle they adopted–to be more pious and righteous–had the opposite effect of their intentions. In their attempt to draw nearer to God, they moved further from their neighbor and kin in the realm of God…and ultimately from the Holy One as well. Self-righteousness naturally and definitely disconnects us from God our Righteousness. It’s not surprising, in light of that, they found themselves grumbling and missing the Living God in their midst.
How often do we engage in faith-based practices that no longer serve us? What happens when we continue that action that initially brought us closer to God…but now no longer serves us or our relationship?
My pastor, Rev. Paul Hobson Sadler, Sr., would often say that he did not want anyone to do anything in ministry that they did not want to do. At the same time, he never seemed to hesitate to ask anyone to participate in a greater way. I realized that his approach was similar to the one I learned in my early career in business. He never asked anyone to do something they had not demonstrated some affinity or gift.
Obligation and duty get venerated in our society, but they work against bearing fruit. Reluctant action can achieve some measure of success but it does not bring life.
So, why does Jesus tell the Pharisees this story: to invite them to come to life:
The theme is familiar: Jesus’ interactions with tax collectors and others who bear the social stigma of “sinners,” persons living outside the structure of faithful Torah observance, provoke the righteous to protest. In reply, he seeks to explain and defend his practice, but also to persuade righteous critics to embrace it….John T. Carroll
The third parable defending Jesus’ acceptance of tax collectors and sinners repeats the pattern of the first two: what has been lost is recovered, and its restoration then prompts communal celebration. However, this most expansive of Jesus’ parables adds complicating plot elements—issues relating to inheritance, rivalry between brothers, and voiced protest against the restoration of the lost one—that permit Jesus’ critics to find themselves within the story and thereby be persuaded to embrace his practice of hospitality, enacting the welcoming grace of God’s dominion.
The Pharisees have lost their way, and this parable told in a series of lost things (coin, sheep, and son) is more than a metaphor for evangelism. It encapsulates a wider story of redemption, community, and love. The father in this story doesn’t just have one lost son; he has two. The younger one is the only one who comes to himself. The elder was just as lost but in a different way.
There are members of Christian faith communities who check all the boxes. They attend worship regularly, they serve in some capacity, and they contribute financially. But they’ve lost the life. Worship becomes empty patterns and route movements without revelation or response.. Service lacks joy and meaning, depletes energy, and resembles an arduous chore. Giving equates power and influence rather than generosity and gratitude. They identify more, in practice, with the path of the Pharisee than with the searching tax collector. Jesus pursues them both but the Pharisee (elder son) doesn’t realize they’ve strayed because they meet the performative criteria they’ve established for themselves.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of the Pharisee. These three lost stories all refer to something or someone dislocated. In other words, they were lost in the sense of drifting from a proper position or alignment rather than being sought from an initial external position. The only reason the younger son was lost was because he left his home, not because he never had one. This story isn’t telling the tax collectors and sinners that they are welcomed among Jesus–they already know that. They have recognized his invitation and hospitality. This story invites the Pharisee to come back to life with God, to eschew the rigid forms that have strangled joy, love, and grace out of their life with God.
Jesus isn’t relaying this story to the tax collector, even though they can readily eavesdrop on the conversation. Like the prophets of old, his words are spoken to those in power. In this case, the religious leaders who have gone astray:
These three parables echo prophecies from Jeremiah and Ezekiel—prophecies that describe the people of Israel. “My people have become lost sheep [probata apolōlata],” complains Jeremiah; “their shepherds drove them out. They went astray [apeplanēsan] upon the mountains; they kept going from mountain to hill; they have forgotten their sheepfold. . . . They have sinned [hēmarton] against the Lord” (Jer. 50:6-7). Elsewhere, he affirms, “I myself will welcome [eisdexomai] the remnant of my people” (Jer. 23:3). Ezekiel confirms this promise: “I myself will shepherd my sheep [probata]. . . . I will seek the lost [to apolōlos zētēsō], and I will turn back the strayed [planōmenon]” (Ezek. 34:15-16). Luke seems to suggest that when Jesus welcomes sinners, these prophecies are being fulfilled. The Lord is seeking and finding his lost sheep.Jocelyn McWhirter
Yes, there is good news for those who have never felt connected to God, but there is also good news for those who have lost their way…not by failing to live up to impossible standards or by making unfortunate decisions. God’s love is not withheld when we turn from God or when we hope that God turns from others. God’s favor extends to the just and the unjust. Righteousness comes as a gift accompanied by grace, mercy, and compassion.
Jesus comes for the lost, including the Pharisee, the obliged, the duty-driven, and the self-righteous…to invite them (us) to come to life.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“I dwell mostly upon the religious aspects, because I believe it is the religious people who are to be relied upon in this Anti-Slavery movement. Do not misunderstand my railing—do not class me with those who despise religion—do not identify me with the infidel. I love the religion of Christianity—which cometh from above—which is a pure, peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of good fruits, and without hypocrisy. I love that religion which sends its votaries to bind up the wounds of those who have fallen among thieves.
By all the love I bear such a Christianity as this, I hate that of the Priest and the Levite, that with long-faced Phariseeism goes up to Jerusalem to worship and leaves the bruised and wounded to die. I despise that religion which can carry Bibles to the heathen on the other side of the globe and withhold them from the heathen on this side—which can talk about human rights yonder and traffic in human flesh here…. I love that which makes its votaries do to others as they would that others should do to them. I hope to see a revival of it—thank God it is revived. I see revivals of it in the absence of the other sort of revivals. I believe it to be confessed now, that there has not been a sensible man converted after the old sort of way, in the last five years.”
― Frederick Douglass
For further reflection:
“Legalism has killed more faith than doubt ever has.” ― Andrena Sawyer
“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” ― Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit
“The Holy Spirit did not go into such detail about the Pharisees in the New Testament just so we could understand a group unique to the first century. Pharisaism is a poisonous weed that grows in every garden of orthodox religion. Pharisaism is every bit the threat to the orthodox today that it was then.” ― J.D. Greear
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Invite the congregation to consider what makes them come to life in ministry and recommit to amplifying that.
Carroll, John T.. Luke (2012): A Commentary (The New Testament Library). Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2012.
McWhirter, Jocelyn. Rejected Prophets: Jesus and His Witnesses in Luke-Acts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
2 Corinthians 5:16–21
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32
9 The LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. 11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6 Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
7 You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
10 Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
11 Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
2 Corinthians 5:16–21
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”