Saturday, February 27, 2016

Parable of a Prodigal Father

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, the gospel lesson appointed for the 4th Sunday in Lent, the parable of the Prodigal Son, is undoubtedly one of the most well-known of all Jesus' parables.  Like Rembrandt in the painting above, artists, poets, writers, and preachers the world over have pondered this simple tale and sought to bring it to life in a fresh way.  The thing that strikes me is how prodigal the father is.  The first meaning of prodigal in my Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is "recklessly extravagant", and it seems to me this is an apt description of the father's welcome home party for the younger son.  Is there no limit to his joy? we might ask.  Oh, how even that question betrays our own attitude as more akin to the elder brother's than to the Father's.

(The following questions are an attempt to unearth some of the issues for Law/Gospel preachers.  If you wonder what Law/Gospel preaching is about, check out my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The way the Word functions here is really dependent on which character in the story we identify with.  (This is often the case, actually.)  If we assume the identity of the younger brother, if we have known "the far country" and have been in places of want and distress where we "come to ourselves", then this story is very much Gospel.  The joy of the Father simply overwhelms us. We had thought that we had to be worthy of the Father's love, even to be called one of his servants, much less a son, but the Father will have none of it.  He ignores our speeches of false humility, and simply embraces us and celebrates our return to life with unmitigated joy.  If, on the other hand, we find ourselves identifying with the elder brother - and often this is exactly where we church folk need to find ourselves - this story functions as Law.  We are shown our hardheartedness, our self-righteousness, our blind fury at the prodigal forgiveness of the Father.  We refuse to see the lost soul come home as brother, and in so doing we forfeit our relationship with the Father.

2.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience buried in this story of love and grace, is the call to treat others as brothers and sisters.  We, who have been welcomed home despite our unworthiness, as well as we whom the Father has said are heir to all things, are called to view others as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  This story is one without an ending, inviting us to be reconciled with those whom we have decided are unworthy of the grace of God.

3.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The end of the story provides us with some ready-made couplets:  lost/found; dead/alive; estranged/embraced.

4. Exegetical work:  There is no better article on the distinction between the obedient and sinners than the one found in the first volume of Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  This extended article is written around the term for "sinner" in vs. 15;1 where Luke writes that "all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him."  Here are just a few highlights:  "The [sinners in the OT] are a definite religious type. Throughout the Psalter they are the opposite of the pious, righteous, and godly, in short of those who with the author of Psalm 1 have made it the goal and contest of their lives to serve God in His Law day and night with all their heart and soul and mind." "[They] boast of [a part] in God's covenant with Israel,... but [do]not follow the Law, persistently break commandments, show no signs of repentance, boast of wickedness and ungodly folly, trust in their own wealth and power and not God, and perhaps even go so far as to ignore God completely." (p. 320)  In NT usage, sinners were "those who lived a flagrantly immoral life" or "those who followed a dishonorable vocation or one which inclined them strongly to dishonesty." (327)
"[Jesus] never contested nor avoided the distinction of the people into sinners and righteous... Jesus admitted that the righteous genuinely obeyed God and did what He commanded... Jesus thus accepted as such those who were regarded as sinners by the community... It was just because they were sinners that He drew them to himself." (329)  Jesus calls "the pious and righteous, as well, to repentance, not for their sin, but for their righteousness, which prevents them from seeing clearly either the greatness of God or their own situation." (332)

5. How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Marcus Felde does a nice analysis of this text archived under 2013 Year C Gospel for the 4th Sunday in Lent.  He shows how our desire for the God of fairness instead of the God of mercy finally aligns us with the elder son who is angry and who refuses to go in to the party.  The question, of course, is, is that really where we want to remain?  See study for the complete analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Judgment and Forbearance

Luke 13:1-9, the gospel text appointed for the 3rd Sunday in Lent is an answer to our questions about "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."  The prophet Isaiah, in the Old Testament reading for the day, says it best, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." (Isa 55:8)  We naturally believe that those who suffer greatly somehow deserve their suffering.  Fortunately, according to Jesus' words here and elsewhere, there's a lot more to it than that.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are meant to open up the text to some of the issues important to Law/Gospel preachers. For an introductory guide to this way of preaching see my book Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Both Law and Gospel are evident in this text.  The Law is evident in the call to repentance:  "Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."  This word makes it clear to us that our sins are known, and repentance - metanoia (turning around) - is required. The Gospel is present in several ways as well:  1) by making clear that our sins and our suffering are not connected; and 2) by the parable about the fig tree which shows a certain forbearance in heart of the gardener:  "Sir, let it alone for one more year..."  This parable hints that the judgment we expect from God is not always forthcoming, only because God is merciful and longs for us to return to God. As St. Paul says, "Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Rom 2:4b)

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We identify with the people Jesus is speaking to. We assume, as they do, that some people are worse sinners - more in debt to God, as it were - than others, and therefore more deserving of condemnation.  We, of course, also handily assume that we are not amongst those "worse" ones, but our sins are only "average."  As someone once said, "We want only 'what is coming to us', but not what we 'deserve'!

3.  What, if any call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to follow Jesus in a life of love and justice is not explicitly present here.  Having said that, it might follow quite naturally that if God is forbearing with us, we too need to show forbearance with others.  Just as the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 illustrates, so we who have received abundant forgiveness from God, need to practice forgiveness with others.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?   I can imagine several:  perishing/being saved; bearing no fruit/bearing fruit; unforgiven/forgiven.

5.  Exegetical work:  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Kittel is a treasure trove of insight when it comes to terms which we encounter regularly in our work.  The extensive article on judgment in Kittel gives us some wonderful insights into this text.  Note the following:  "The merits with which a man might seek to protect himself in the judgment are of no avail.  Nor are the vicarious merits of others... It is constantly insisted that God is the Lord and that man is responsible, so that no human defences will be of any value in the judgment.  The standard by which God judges is known; it is the Law, i.e. the law of love.  With the details Jesus is not concerned." (TDNT, III, 936)  What this extensive article makes clear is that the wearisome task of discerning which sins are "worse" than others, and which sins merit God's wrath, and which do not, is an unnecessary and unfruitful task in which God is not interested.  Finally, "the only ground of deliverance in the judgment is God's remission, not [human] achievement."  (Ibid.)

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  David Buttrick always cautions the preacher to be very aware of how many "moves" are made in the sermon design.  A listener can only follow a few large moves - 3 or 4 at the most.  Are we being careful to rein in our tendency to want to exhaust the subject, thereby only exhausting our listeners?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Our Lord's lament

The gospel lesson for the Second Sunday in Lent is Luke 13:31-35.  This brief picture of Christ is one that foreshadows his words from the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (23:34)  These are not words of condemnation, but compassion and lament. Our Lord grieves over those who will not be gathered under God's wings.  This is a picture of the Lord's compassion for those who will not or perhaps cannot hear God's invitation to come home.

(The following questions try to get at some of the key issues for Law/Gospel preachers.  For a complete review of this type of preaching, you may purchase a copy of my guide to Law/Gospel preaching by clicking on the image on this page.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  What the Word - in this case, Jesus - is doing in this text is lamenting the disobedience of God's people.  This is both a Law and a Gospel function.  This text is functioning as Law in that it shows us our need for Jesus:  we are capable of, and indeed likely to rebel at the notion that we need to be gathered under the wings of our Heavenly Father.  But this text also functions as Gospel in the sense that it shows us our Lord's heart - full of compassion, full of mercy, wishing none to be lost.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the residents of Jerusalem. We are those who will cry out, "Crucify him!  Crucify him."  We are those religious folks who are threatened by this One who will not be constrained by our traditions and notions of God.  We are those who will return home beating our breasts after we have seen the death of God's Son.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text is a call to faith, not a call to obedience. The call to obedience is the call to live in a certain way in response to God's mercy.  Here we are simply called to fall on our knees in repentance over our rebellion at God's everlasting love.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several come to mind:  rebellious/obedient; demanding Jesus' death/thanking God for Jesus' sacrifice; forsaken/accepted by God.

5.  Exegetical work:  In Mark Allan Powell's work, What is Narrative Criticism?, he contrasts the Synoptic writers' portrayal of Jesus' enemies.  This particular passage is a good example of how that works.  In Matthew's gospel, Jesus' enemies are characterized as evil, in league with Satan; everything they say, think, and do is wrong.  In Luke, Jesus' enemies are not evil, but self-righteous, not blind but foolish. (Powell, pages 64-65)  So in Matthew 23:37-39, this lament over Jerusalem is the "final straw" in a diatribe that Jesus is making against the scribes and Pharisees.  It comes on the heels of the fearsome series of woes that Jesus levels against these "white-washed tombs," these "children of hell."  In contrast, Luke 13:31-35 comes in a conversation with some Pharisees who approach Jesus on his journey toward Jerusalem.  Just prior to this conversation he has been asked about how many will be saved and Jesus shows his concern about those who will stand at the door to the kingdom and knock and not be allowed to enter.  Compassion, not judgement, mercy, not anger, are what we see in Jesus here.  It behooves us as preachers to recognize precisely the kind of lament we have in this particular Lukan passage.

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic.

Eugene Lowry always urged preachers to move listeners from equilibrium to disequilibrium, and then back again to equilibrium.  In so doing listeners are able to experience the "plot" of a text.  How will we preachers move our listeners in this way through this text?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

In the Garden once again

Luke 4:1-3, the account of the temptation of Christ, the gospel text assigned for the First Sunday of Lent, is one that brings to mind another similar conversation - the one in Genesis 3 between Eve and the serpent.  It is noteworthy that the strategy of the tempter is similar - call into doubt the veracity of God's Word, and offer something good to eat, something that must be very appealing.  In Eve's case the tempter was successful in his seductions; in Jesus' case, not at all.  Our old enemy still lurks; we do well to call on our Lord to be with us in the struggle.

(The following questions attempt to get at some of the issues for Law/Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but to give the preacher a way to enter into a law/gospel conversation with the text.  For more on this method, see my book, available on this page.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word, is hard at work here, battling the devil.  This story functions to reveal to us the power that Jesus has over evil, and is therefore functioning as gospel.  As St. Paul says: "[Christ] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross]."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no explicit word of Law here, no word that lifts up our need for Christ.  Having said that, the very presence of the devil is a word of Law, reminding us that as temptations came to the only Begotten Son of God, so temptations are bound to come to all the children of God.  In the sense that the Law says, "You need Jesus!" this text lifts up our need to run to Jesus in our time of trial.

3. With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is one of the rare stories where we are allowed to identify with Jesus.  Usually that is to be resisted, but here, as Jesus is one tested, so we are tested.  We make a mistake, however, if we view this as a license to believe for a moment that we can be like Jesus and resist the devil in our own strength.  No, we cling to Jesus, and Jesus in us is the One who will be able to resist the tempter.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the invitation to live in response to God's work in Christ.  If there is a call to obedience here it is the call to believe in the power of God's Word to resist temptation.  We are invited as children of God to live our lives in the life-giving presence of God's Word.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The whole scene suggests some alternatives:  deceived/enlightened; hungry/filled; tempted/at peace.

6. Exegetical work:  One of the most important insights for this text is to realize that when the devil says, "If you are the Son of God..." this is a conditional phrase that implies fact.  As any student of biblical Greek knows, there are 3 conditions in Greek grammar - fact, non-fact, and uncertainty.  Conditions of fact, like in this text are saying, "If you are the Son of God, and you are..."  If this were a condition of non-fact, the text would be saying, "If you are the Son of God, and you aren't..." And if this were a condition of uncertainty, the text would be saying, "If you are the Son of God, and you might or might not be..."  One can easily see that it makes all the difference.  In the text for today, since the conditional phrase is one of fact, the devil's statement could be translated, "Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread."  It is therefore a temptation to misuse the title of Son of God.  It is not a temptation meant to cause doubt in Jesus' mind regarding his sonship.  That would only be the case if this were one of the other two conditions.  Because the English "if" does not reveal which condition the Greek language is giving us, it is very important when encountering a conditional phrase, to seek out a source that can make clear which condition exists.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster, writing his analysis archived under 2013 Year C Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent, does an excellent job of lifting up this temptation of Jesus, as the temptation to abandon the Cross.  Jaster uses a steady progression of deepening temptations to reveal how Jesus was led from mere surface temptation to the temptation to abandon his entire mission. He also shows how we too are tempted to avoid the Cross, but are called to daily dying so that we might live. As always, go to study for more details.

Blessings on your proclamation!