Hear, O my people,
while I admonish you;
O Israel, if you would but listen to me.
All of the people who had begun the journey from Egypt had died. Only people who had been born in the wilderness will enter the promised land. Since none of the males born during the exodus had been circumcised, the Lord directed Joshua that it was now time to do so.
Metaphorizing this, I ponder what practices that an older generation considered necessary have their children forgotten or not gotten around to or object to. What practices should be restored?
As the Israelites had eaten the passover meal in Egypt the night before they left, this new generation also kept the passover. They can because they now are in a place that has food other than manna. Again metaphorizing, I wonder how we mark transitions and how we determine that it is time to do so.
These are not perfect people. Despite being told specifically not to take some things devoted to the Lord, some of the men did--with serious consequences.
The Pharisees and scribes--read religious leaders or religious insiders--were disgruntled that Jesus was willingly spending time with people that they did not consider worthy.
He asked "What shepherd wouldn't leave behind 99 safe sheep to go after the one who was lost?" Apparently a rhetorical question because he added, "And having found that lost sheep, the shepherd invited all his friends for a celebration."
Or not a rhetorical question now that I think about it because his critics that day are displeased by his allowing sinners so near. Or, maybe they are waiting to hear that those sinners have repented before they can be joyful about having them around.
Would the religious insiders have agreed that there would be more joy in heaven about sinners being there than them? Or, could they have seen that their own attitude of exclusion and superiority qualified them for the category of sinner? Is Jesus holding out to them the opportunity to repent of their sins--sins that they can't repent of until they recognize and admit that they have?
Jesus follows the lost sheep parable with one about a lost coin. Again something valuable is lost. Again the owner searches dilligently. Again the owner rejoices when the lost is retrieved.
Again, the owner invites others to celebrate that the lost has been found.
Jesus that such joy will be in heaven when one sinner repents.
I keep getting stuck on the repent part. What did the sheep or the coin do to get saved? Maybe the sheep was bleating and the coin was shiny? Would that constitute repentance? I'm settling for the assumption that these parables are not about somebody else repenting but they are about the pharisees and the scribes, about what their attitude is and what it ought to be.
The respectable people sure didn't like it that Jesus was willing to associate with people who weren't so respectable. And they said so out loud. And Jesus answered them out loud.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (or, as some put it, the Parable of the Two Sons, or, as others put it, the Parable of the Waiting Father) is part of his response.
Something like what was upsetting the religious leaders keeps on happening. People who don't behave the way we want our children to grow up should be welcomed into our fellowship? Join our local church? Speak at the Annual Conference? Who makes the rules? Who gets to decide who is following them? Have they read the Bible? Don't they care?
These are questions that the respectable church members can ask. Jesus is talking to the respectable people of his time. But, before we address their attitude, let's look at an example of someone who inarguably does not behave the way he should have.
In the parable, the younger son does behave in an unquestionably poor way. He demands his inheritance before his father dies. He squanders it in dissolute living. Then the economy turns against him. Just as he runs out of money, so does the whole country. He finds an unpleasant job that doesn't even pay well.
So hungry that he's eating pig food, he starts comparing his situation with the one his father provides for his employees.
Whether he would have repented even if his circumstances had been different, we don't know.
What we are told is that even though he no longer feels that he deserves to have the status of a son, he wants to return to his father--because his father treats non-sons well.
I can read this parable as an illustration of repentance and forgiveness in a family. The younger son has sinned and recognized his sin. Or, at least, he has recognized that he needs his family. Admitted to himself not yet to those he has sinned against. But, before he can do that, his father comes to him, comes not reluctantly or grudgingly but running.
His father embraces him. Then, the son speaks his words of repentance.
Or, paying attention to the introductory words of this chapter about the grumbling Pharisees and scribes, I can read this parable metaphorically. Who is welcome at the table? What prevents someone from being worthy of sharing a meal with us? Who gets to decide? Which comes first--repentance or grace?
Further, what is this grace for, anyway--and, who's it for? Remember that Abraham was blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:1-3. Remember Jonah's assignment. (Thanks to Allen & Williamson, once again). Also, remember that foreigners had been included in the Exodus (Numbers 9:14; Judges 1:16)
If Jesus had stopped at verse 24, we still would have a powerful example of unmerited grace--a father forgiving his son and celebrating his return. When we sin, we can find hope that we will be forgiven. When someone sins against us, we can find an example of how to show forgiveness.
But, Jesus did not stop with the celebration.
Rather, he introduced the elder brother. Like the Pharisees and scribes who had been complaining that Jesus was associating with sinners, the elder brother had always been obedient. And, like them, he wasn't happy at all about the inclusion of someone who had not exhibited much obedience.
He's particularly upset by the extravagant celebration. "I've done everything you could have expected, and now, you are giving a dinner for him!"
The father reminded the elder son that he still was going to get everything that he had been expecting to get. Celebrating the return of the younger brother did not change the status of the elder brother. "But," the father insists, "You need to be happy about his return. He was lost to us and now has been found."
The psalm begins with a command to sing joyously to God then lists some reasons why we should.
Verses 10-16 are in the voice of God, saying what I, God, did, and what you, the not-always-grateful people did next. God had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and provided them with the necessary food to keep them going on their journey. And God provided them with something else necessary for their journey--instruction in a way of life.
What response what we expect from people who had received such gifts? What God got was a people who refused to listen, who refused to obey. God's response to that recalcitrance was to just let them do what they wanted to do.
But God is not abandoning these abandoning people. "If only they would listen," God says.
Off on a tangent part: The psalm ends with this verse: I would feed you with the finest of the wheat and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you. I immediately was reminded of the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Take some time today to listen to them.
Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The Timeless Psalms.