Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
Narrative Lectionary: Lost Sheep, Coin, Son, Luke 15:1-32 (Psalm 119:167-176)
For the third Sunday of Lent, the Hebrew Scriptures focus on the covenant that God made with the people on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20:1-17. Known as the Ten Commandments, God reminds the people that they were once oppressed in Egypt, and God brought them out of slavery. Therefore, to remember who their God is, they should worship no other gods or idols. They should not take God’s name in vain, and they should remember and honor the Sabbath, a gift from God. For a people who were forced to work, God reminds them that there is one day they should not work, a rest day, and no one among them, even their animals, should be forced to work all the time. The remaining six commandments are how they ought to treat one another as God’s people: honoring their parents, no stealing, murdering, or committing adultery, no lying, and refrain from desiring what others have. This is the covenant: God will be their God, and to be God’s people, they need to remember who they are, how to live with one another, and who they worship.
Psalm 19 is a song of praise from God’s creation. Everything God created tells of God’s glory: the heavens, the sun rising like a bridegroom running out to meet the bride. God created the perfect law, which revives the soul and rejoices the heart and endures forever. God’s instructions are more valuable than any precious metal and sweeter than honey. The psalmist closes this song of praise with a plea to be cleansed of any unknown wrongdoing and to be protected from sin so that sin does not have power over them. The psalm concludes with a prayer that their words and meditations would be pleasing and acceptable to God.
Paul argues that the cross reveals the power of God in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. The cross was the instrument of torture and death in the Roman Empire, but for those who believed in Jesus, it was also the symbol of eternal life, that the cross—that death itself—was not the end. The wisdom of God is not the world’s wisdom. Paul declares that the “Jews demand signs”—in other words, their Jewish neighbors, in Paul’s view, wanted proof that Jesus had resurrected, and “Greeks desire wisdom”—the Greek philosophers wanted to understand from a human point of view. Paul proclaims Christ crucified—which worldly wisdom cannot understand, but both Jewish and Greek believers could attain by faith in Christ. This might seem foolish to the world, but wiser than human wisdom to God.
John’s account of the Gospel differs greatly from the Synoptic gospels in that Jesus travels to Jerusalem early on in his ministry for the first time at Passover, enters the temple, and drives out the moneychangers with a whip of cords. In John 2:13-22, it appears that when Jesus calls the temple, “my Father’s house,” the other religious leaders present want a sign from Jesus. He tells them to destroy the temple and in three days he will raise it—a reference to his own death and resurrection, but those present refuse to believe the temple can be destroyed. This is the temple that Herod had begun restoring, but was destroyed by the Roman Empire in the year 70 C.E. It is important for us to remember that while John’s account purports to tell what happened in Jesus’ day, John was most likely written around 90 C.E., well after the events of the destruction of the temple. John’s account is trying to show how wrong the people were about Jesus, to prove his account of Jesus is the right one. It’s interesting to note how many times in John’s account the Jewish people demand signs, when it seems that the gospel account itself is all about proving who Jesus was, as if over-responding to that demand for a sign. It’s important to look at these passages with a critical eye, in light of how John’s account has been used to fuel antisemitism, and at the same time, recall the reforms Jesus brought to practice and religious life (and in all four accounts of the Gospels, Jesus did enter the temple and drive out the moneychangers).
The Narrative Lectionary focuses on three parables that Jesus told in Luke 15 that are all similar. The context given is that some religious leaders grumbled about the company Jesus kept, tax collectors and sinners, and Jesus even ate with them. I highly recommend Amy-Jill Levine’s commentary Short Stories of Jesus for interpreting these parables. The first parable Jesus tells is of the lost sheep. It’s foolish to think that a shepherd would go after one lost sheep over the 99. No good shepherd would. But Jesus tells the story that a good shepherd would go after the lost sheep, and then have a party with friends and neighbors (and that party probably cost more than the one lost sheep). In a similar manner, a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Now, the coins were worth one day’s wage, so it makes sense for her to search for the lost one—but again, she calls over her friends and neighbors to celebrate in a way that would probably cost about as much as the coin that was lost. Both parables conclude with a similar theme: there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than others who are righteous and have no need to repent.
Then Jesus tells a story about a man with two sons, and how one demanded to have his inheritance early—something that wouldn’t have been prudent. But the father relents, giving half the inheritance to the younger son, who then goes off and squanders it. He ends up hiring himself out to work and drooling over the scraps the pigs are eating. But then he realizes the servants in his father’s house get better than this, so he decides he will go back to his father, repent, and ask to be hired on. Instead of refusing to welcome his son, or hiring him as a servant, the father rushes out to meet him and celebrates that he has returned. The older son refuses to celebrate. The father reminds the older son that everything he has belongs to him already, but they had to rejoice for the one son who returned. Jesus seems to be telling those who think they know the way to God that perhaps what Jesus is teaching is not necessarily for them—and instead of hindering him or grumbling about it, to rejoice that others who have been left out and rejected are being included by Jesus.
Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm, but instead of each line beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, each stanza begins that way. Verses 167-176 conclude the psalm with a plea from the psalmist who has kept God’s decrees and statutes, a plea for understanding. The psalmist promises to continue praising God and singing of God’s promise, but also prays for deliverance, for they have gone astray like a lost sheep from God’s ways. This confession at the end calls for God to seek them out, for they know God’s commandments and know that God will always be their God.
From the beginning, God has desired for us to be known as the people of God, and to live into that identity by loving our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, this was what the covenant, commandments, ordinances and statutes were all about. But human beings are flawed, and we’ve gone to extremes in our understanding and interpretation of the commandments and decrees instead of understanding that our identity is how we shape our lives, as God’s people, and not the other way around. And lest we Christians accuse Pharisees of doing that in Jesus’ day, I would argue it’s the same problem with the writer of John’s account of the Gospel—caught up with proving who Jesus was that they forgot their identity as a follower of Jesus, as God’s people, is what shapes us and calls us into a life with one another and accountability. The sinners and tax collectors that others grumbled about understood themselves as beloved children of God because of Jesus’ welcome and inclusion. They knew they had failed to follow all the commandments, but strove for a better relationship with God and with one another. The commandments are there to help us better love one another, but it is the loving of one another and God that shapes who we are.
Call to Worship (from Gen. 1:27; Psalm 8:5-6; Eph. 2:10)
God created humankind in God’s image,
Male and female, all of us, created by God, and blessed in goodness.
When we look at the heavens, the work of God’s fingers,
What are human beings that God is mindful of us?
Yet God made us a little lower than the angels,
And we have been entrusted to care for all creation.
We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works,
Which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
This is good news: we are God’s beloved children,
Called into service and worship of our God.
Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Ancient of Days, we confess that we have not held Your commandments holy. We have squandered our rest, forgetting how important Your rest is for us. We have filled our lives with busyness, with meetings and tasks. We’ve filled our moments with worry over the next thing. Call us into accountability, knowing Your rest is a gift for us, and help us to accept and embrace this gift. Lead us into moments where we love You and love others best by loving ourselves, too. Help us to find our peace and rest in You, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God’s love has been made known to us in the rising and setting sun. God’s love is whispered in the breeze among the leaves, in the tingles in your toes. God loves you madly. Trust in this love and know that you are forgiven. There is no perceived fault or failure that could ever keep you from the love of God found in Christ Jesus. Go and share the love of God with one another, and watch and listen for all the ways God loves you.
Holy One, You are the same one who called us forth into being along with light and all creation. You are the same one who called a people to become Your people, giving them commandments, a way of living with one another and You. You are the same one who hears the cries of the oppressed and leads the people out of exile. You are the same Spirit that moves in and among us. You are the same love incarnate in Jesus Christ. You have been present from before time began, and You are present, with us, now. Help us to perceive You at work in the world around us and in our lives. Help us to know we are not alone. Grant us strength for the journey of life before us. In Your Holy presence and name we pray. Amen.