March 4, 2013

Welcoming Sinners

             Each text for the Fourth Sunday in Lent declares God’s forgiveness for wayward people, indeed, God’s own people.  These texts brim with joyful affirmation that God delights in welcoming sinners who find their way home.
Moses’ successor recounts the renewal of Passover now that Israel has arrived to the plains of Jericho.  “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” (Joshua 5:9).  It is a fresh start, and the people will make a new life in the land of Canaan.

            Psalm 32 bathes the reader in the blessing of confession and the subsequent experience of knowing one’s “sin is covered: (v.1). The assurance of lavish welcome invites the sinner to draw near to God and enjoy the release of guilt.
            Second Corinthians 5:19 declares: “ . . . in Christ God was reconciling the world . . . not counting their trespasses against them . . .” Considered by many the apex of Paul’s doctrine of salvation, this text speaks of God’s own movement toward the estranged.  Not content to wait for inner conviction to prompt repentance, God offers to the world a “general pardon,” in the words of Jürgen Moltmann.  God would rather take human sin into the divine life through Christ than allow it to remain a chasm of enmity.
            The Gospel reading from Luke offers the best-known biblical story of forgiveness (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32).  Celebrated in literature, art, stage, and music, the saga of the prodigal stirs our imaginations as we think of God’s extravagant welcome.  Many artists and writers have been transformed as they have contemplated the welcome that is at the heart of Gospel faith.  Of his first encounter with Rembrandt’s masterpiece, Henri Nouwen writes in The Return of the Prodigal Son:
             all my attention was drawn to the hands of the old father pressing his
returning boy to his chest.  I saw forgiveness, reconciliation, healing; I also saw safety, rest, being at home.  I was so deeply touched by this image of the life-giving embrace of father and son because everything in me yearned to be received in the way the prodigal son was received.  That encounter turned out to be the beginning of my own return.

                        More than any other liturgical season, Lent calls us to identify our transgressions and return to God.  Sometimes waiting for us, sometimes running toward us, God welcomes us and rejoices that the dead have come to life and the lost are found.  I long for such embrace; don’t you?
                        Molly T. Marshall
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