The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time C: March 18, 2007

Joshua 5:9A, 10-12
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Dear Jesus,

Someone asked me once if, in all the scriptures, I had a favorite text. Without a moments hesitation, I cited the parable of the Prodigal Son. When asked why, I said it depended on the mood I was in, but mostly it is because of the comfort I draw from the realization that God is profligate when it comes to forgiving and lavish in loving. I know I am a sinner in need of that forgiveness and who longs for that love.

When you told the parable, you targeted a specific audience. You were being criticized for the company you kept – tax collectors and sinners. You associated with those whom society despised and rejected. Tax collectors were Jews who collaborated with the foreign rule, collecting the Roman imposed tax and then added to the bill the portion the collectors would keep for their own support. What did you talk about with them? If they wanted to be in your company, I doubt if you spent much time condemning their practices. Did they feel trapped in their occupation and think there was no way out for them? Had they steeled themselves against the judgments of their kith and kin? Were they drawn to you because they felt understood and accepted by you? Were they comforted because you told them God loves them?

And the sinners. This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. That was the charge leveled against you that would lead to your rejection and your execution. To be publicly condemned must be the most bitter pill people have to swallow. I suspect that today when many in the assembly hear that term sinners, in their mind’s eye, sinners are sanitized and seen not as doers of moral evil but the misunderstood poor. But that is not what the text says. You gathered with sinners, people whose lifestyles made them unacceptable in polite society. If they wanted to be with you, again I suspect the substance of the exchanges between you was not judgmental and condemning on your part. Only those who acknowledge sin in their lives and their helplessness in sin find comfort in numbering themselves in that group gathered around you. They yearned to know that they are loved by God even as they long for deliverance from the morass that enslaves them. These are the ones for whom you came. The tax collectors. The sinners. The lost. The abandoned. Dare I say me?

Would it be hubris for me to ask something that just occurred to me? Are you the Prodigal Son? Does this parable describe your own coming into the world? You emptied yourself of all that was divine and took on our flesh – unredeemed and prone to weakness. The Word eternally spoken by the Father became flesh and dwelt among us mere mortals. If you welcomed sinners and ate with them, weren’t you judged to be one of them?

Are you the son who took the inheritance and squandered it? You poured yourself out in loving service first to members of the household and then to the gentiles, first to the accepted and then to the rejected, Gentiles, tax collectors, and sinners. The very ones for whom you came typified by the Pharisees and the scribes, the ones who thought heaven could be merited by strict observance of the law, rejected you, condemned you, turned you out to be crucified. And in your abandonment, having taken on the world’s sin, you cried out Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. The Father ran to you and embraced you, caught you up and took you to your place at God’s right hand and then let the banquet begin.

What about the Older Brother in your parable? You don’t tell us whether he went in to join the banquet or chose to stay outside in the dark of night. Does he represent the audience for whom the parable is intended, the scribes and Pharisees, the judgmental and self-righteous? Does he stand for those who resent God’s attitude toward sinners, those who want others ostracized, condemned, excommunicated and excluded from the assembly? Does he represent those who in effect stand apart from those for whom you came?

This Lent, I think I am hearing the parable of the Prodigal Son for the first time. I am comforted to hear how lavish God is in pouring out love and forgiveness even in excess of expressed repentance. I am a sinner who is loved by God because I have been baptized into you and you have taken on my sin. And I am challenged by the parable to live the attitudes you extol. Or, rather, not I alone, but we, the Church, the people of God must live those attitudes and values. Only to the extent that sinners are welcome does the Church reflect God’s attitude toward sinners. Only to the extent that there is a place at the table for the one who is rejected, abandoned, recognized to be a sinner, does the Church witness to her understanding of the parable and the desire to put it into practice. Then, there is hope as the Older Brother rejoices and welcomes the Prodigal home.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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