Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2013
Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.’ Luke 15:31-32
One of the sayings I remember from childhood is “a gracious plenty.” This locution was applied liberally to any situation where hospitality and food came together. A gracious plenty signifies abundance, the presence of more than enough on one’s plate or in one’s stomach. Such words are particularly appropriate for the great “feast days” of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, church potlucks, the Fourth of July, and family reunions. Fried chicken, country ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, green beans, corn on the cob, fried apple pies, jam cake with caramel icing–the list of bountiful culinary blessings could go on and on, but bear with me and avoid heading for the refrigerator.
The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) reading from Joshua and the passage from Luke’s gospel both remind me of how God provides us with a gracious plenty. In Joshua 5:9-12 the Israelites are at long last in the promised land, dining on unleavened cakes and parched grain–“localvores” before eating local was cool. The miraculous wilderness manna diet ceased when the local foods hit tent and table, a provision of God to meet the needs of the present day and time.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus presents a familiar parable about plenty and about grace, one to which most people find themselves drawn. It goes by many names depending on where one locates oneself within the story: the prodigal son, the patient and loving father, the faithful son overlooked, or, my own personal favorite, the Parable of the Gracious Plenty. If one simply reads the parable as a stand-alone chunk of scripture, it is easy to ignore the full import of Jesus’ tale with a twist. The RCL does the favor of at least setting the stage by including the first three verses of Luke 15 where we find people gossiping and growling about Jesus welcoming sinners and, perish the thought, sharing table fellowship with them.
We miss the first two courses of this verbal feast of grace, the shorter but powerful tales of the lost sheep and the lost coin. From these two stories we get the idea that the Creator of the universe cares about every last little bit of things–and so should we. Jesus drives his point home with a bit of “family” drama about a father and two sons. The oldest son plays by the book. One gets the sense that in doing so he is stingy with what he has, following the letter of the law, the edge of expectation, and not one crumb more. The younger son, by contrast, lives large in the moment on Daddy’s money and ends up with nothing to show for it.
With its tendency toward legalism, human nature would say, “Serves him right. He got his just desserts.” But not God! Not the parent whose love knows no ends! When the son comes home with his tail tucked, his head bowed, and his spirit broken, he is sure there is no place at the table for him. He hopes for a servant’s position in the household. Yet the father not only welcomes him but also spares no detail in celebrating his return. There is a feast of celebration and a gracious plenty to go around.
How is it that we who are the recipients of God’s amazing grace and never-ceasing mercy can be so stingy in sharing that abundance and celebrating the goodness of God with others? How is it that we even dare to measure our own worthiness against others? And why in the world, when we remove ourselves as far from God as we possibly can, do we assume there is no return? What are we so afraid of? That we won’t really get our fair share of salvation? That there’s not enough grace to go around? That God’s heart isn’t big enough to bear our pain, stupidity, and wantonness?
Jesus never says whether the older son experiences a change of heart and joins in the plenty party, and he also never elaborates on how the younger son responds to this welcome. Maybe that’s because we are invited to come to the table, all of us, regardless of whether we have played by the rules or run wild and played hard and fast. God is host of the eternal feast that starts right now and has no end, and there’s a gracious plenty to go around. Come, eat, drink, and live!
If you are preaching on either the Joshua or Luke lessons, consider inviting people into the sermon by sharing their memories of important feasts and celebrations. Encourage them to share with one another the specific sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that make keep these memories treasured in their hearts. How have they been blessed by the notion of “a gracious plenty”? Invite them to envision ways the congregation can reach out to the neighborhood and the world to share and celebrate God’s abundance. You are likely to end up with some good thoughts and ideas, so you might want to give each person a slip of paper beforehand on which they can write their ideas. Who knows? You might just end up with a new outreach or ministry. At the very least, the people will help one another celebrate and remember God’s goodness, mercy, and gracious plenty.
W. T. Purkiser was a 20th century American preacher, scholar, and author in the Church of the Nazarene tradition. He said “Not what we say about our blessings, but how we use them, is the true measure of our thanksgiving.”
Invite youth to think about this quote in light of the parable from Luke’s gospel today. How might they rewrite the parable setting it in their time and context? Caution them against leaning too heavily on an allegorical approach but rather to think outside the box about the characters, their goals, motivations, and perspectives. If you come up with some good ideas, consider creating a short video that could be edited and viewed by the congregation, perhaps even posted on the congregation’s website or YouTube channel.
Instead of focusing on the gospel and the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” today, why not let the Children’s time preach to the entire congregation on the epistle lesson from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. The basic concept is that in Christ everything is being made new. We are works in progress, people in process. Most children will be familiar with the idea of recycling. If you can, find an item that has been recycled and repurposed from something else. For example, used juice boxes can become wallets, totes, and purses. Old tires become new doormats. Empty bottles become chandeliers. An Internet search will yield some amazing and surprising results. If you can’t come up with the real items, print off some pictures or use a PowerPoint if the technology is available in your context. Remind children that in God’s eyes we are never “trash bound for the landfill” but rather people constantly being renewed, repurposed, and made right–living into our potential as beloved children of God.
Note: With older children or a younger youth group you might consider showing clips from the amazing documentary Waste Land, the story of a Brazilian-born Brooklyn artist who used trash from the world’s largest landfill to create works of art. In a youth group setting where you have more time, you might collect trash to make a work of art or mosaic.
Photos: © Joshua Resnick – Fotolia.com, © Stephanie Frey – Fotolia.com, © zatletic – Fotolia.com, © soupstock – Fotolia.com, and thriftyfun.com. Thanks!