March 31, 2019, Fourth Sunday of Lent (if not doing R.C.I.A. scrutinies)
During their later captivity in Babylon, Israel's sages composed the book of Joshua, recalling an earlier captivity and its happy ending. The really ancient Hebrews, between their slavery in Egypt and their possession of the promised land, were fed on manna. Now that is replaced by a more permanent source.
Saint Paul believed that conversion to Christ made people completely different, a "new creation," as he puts it here. One change is that we are reconciled with God because of what Christ does for us. He who knew no sin took on all the consequences of every sin.
In this lengthy but familiar parable, don't lose sight of the context: Jesus was in the habit of dining with sinners, and the righteous were in the habit of criticizing him for it.
The Historical and Literary Background: In The Collegeville Bible Commentary, Old Testament (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), Vincentian Father John Grindel says the book of Joshua belongs to a set of books of the Hebrew Bible written during the Babylonian Exile. In 587 B.C.E., the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and took many of the people of Jerusalem and surrounding Judea off to slavery. The captives began a period of despair and deep questioning. Had God gone back on the ancient promise to watch over them and keep them as the chosen people? Was there any reason to hope for a better future? Would God come through again? In this context, inspired writers explained that Israel had lost everything because of her sinfulness. The Lord had called them to be faithful to the Covenant, but they had not. The exile they were enduring was divine judgment. But at the same time, the writers call Israel to repent, to turn back to the Lord and to trust that God will keep the ancient promises. "The people are to believe that as God responded positively to repentant people in the past, so will God now hear their cries and forgive them once again. All the ancient promises are still in force, though temporarily suspended because of the sinfulness of the people." (page 230).
That context makes sense of today's first reading, from one of the books written during the Exile. In the Joshua story, the context is the end of another, earlier captivity. The Hebrews had, forty years earlier, been liberated by God from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. In what could have been a quick trip across a desert to the land of their ancestors, a country called Canaan, they rebelled against God, and against the leadership of Moses, again and again. So they suffered hardship, a prolongation of the journey (forty years!), and frequent hunger. God sustained them with a minimal food known as manna. But finally they're in a place where they can eat the produce of the promised land of Canaan.
Our Liturgical Context: So you're proclaiming the story of a sinful people who are relieved, at last, to feel divine forgiveness, and who celebrate that gift with a meal. This is appropriate in two ways:
Then speak of the Passover (by now an annual feast, but only now celebrated "at home") with joy in your voice. Imagine a married couple who lived their first years in a dreary apartment, then got to move to a home of their own; how would they describe their first Christmas in that new home, or the first time they celebrated their anniversary there?
Verse 12b essentially repeats the information in 11 and 12a. Maybe the final editor made an inelegant compromise among sources. Or maybe it's important enough to bear repeating. Assume the latter, and make sure you pronounce "manna" clearly.
The Historical, Theological Background: Since Saint Paul often uses the events of current history to reveal his theology, one background statement is enough. In Paul's busy apostolic career, emergencies had kept him from making a promised visit to Corinth. Some believers there, with a prior disposition to be fractious and critical, took that occasion to question Paul's credentials. Paul spends a lot of this letter responding, and calling into question their very way of judging others. What makes their judgments so wrong is that, now that we are "in Christ," many old standards are abolished.
Consider the prior verses 14-16 of chapter 5:
For the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer.
All (who believe in Christ) have died, Paul means, to sin, to their former ways of life, and to their former ways of judging others. That Jesus was raised from death changes everything: first of all it changed Paul's way of regarding Christ (formerly "according to the flesh"). And it changes the way believers should regard one another.
That is the context of our liturgical passage, explaining why "anyone who is in Christ is a new creation."
Out with the old order goes the old way of classifying, dividing, and passing judgment on persons and tribes. Instead God wants a ministry of reconciliation. We believers are first reconciled to God, who forgives us, then immediately to each other. Paul casts his own ministry in this light, and the call of all believers: we are to be ambassadors of Christ, announcing the reconciliation offered to all humanity.
How does God bring this about? Paul says in verse 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning humans' transgressions against them. Then verse 21, rendered
"For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him."means that God reckoned that Christ should bear the guilt of our sins (though he was really sinless). This re-balances the scales, so that we enjoy the righteousness of God (though we are really sinful).
Didn't I tell you that our traditional ways of thinking about things were overturned?
Your Proclamation: It will be most difficult to do justice to all these subtleties. Blessed is the assembly where the preacher takes on the exposition of all this. As lector, perhaps you should try only to score the easy points here, inspirational phrases but, for all practical purposes, out of their context.
So in the first sentence, simply emphasize the phrase "new creation" and exaggerate the contrast between new and old.
Then you can emphasize three phrases that give us new marching orders: that God has "given us the ministry of reconciliation," that God "has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us," and, most vividly, "This makes us ambassadors for Christ!"
Verse 5:21, "God made him who did not know sin ...", bears careful proclamation. The only way you'll capture the nuance described above is to hit hard the word "be" in the phrase "to be sin." Say it aloud to yourself, or to a coach in your home, until it sounds like what it means.
For artistic purposes, it's OK to read Joshua 5, and its literary context, literally. Remember that Moses had led the Hebrews out of Egypt, but forfeited his chance to lead them over the Jordan River into the promised land. Joshua has that task. The LORD tells Joshua to expect a reprise of the dividing of the Red Sea, and so it happens. The Jordan stops flowing and the pilgrims cross on dry ground. Then the LORD ordered Joshua to direct a man from each of the twelve tribes to take a stone from the river bed and bring it to their next camp. Joshua erects all the stones in that place, as a memorial to the miraculous crossing. The place gets the name "Gilgal," which means "ring" (of stones), per The New Jerusalem Bible. And this is where Israelites kept the Passover, as described in today's first reading.
This lovely image of stones erected beside water is from an an online issue of Adventist Review, where you can see a satisfyingly large copy of the graphic.
This page updated January 23, 2019