Homily: Mar 06 2016; Lent 4, Yr C, St. Al’s@5
Readings: 2 Cor 5:16-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Lament of the Responsible Child
I want you to imagine the crowd that gathers around Jesus in the gospel reading we just heard. Luke tells us that there were two distinct groups of people that came to listen to Jesus that morning. There were tax collectors and sinners, the marginalized of society, gathered all around Jesus, trying to get as close to him as they could. And off to one side a bit, trying to avoid contact with this first group, there were Pharisees and scribes. Now, the outcasts, the diseased, the petty thieves: they came to Jesus that morning to hear the word of God, to be healed, to experience Jesus’ love and compassion for them, to be part of the community. The religious leaders, the lawyers, and the teachers, they too wanted to hear what Jesus had to say. But they were also there to evaluate Jesus critically, to catch him in something he might say, to see if he would break any of the laws.
Now I’d like you to join the crowd. Go ahead, sit or stand anywhere you want, wherever you’re comfortable. You may want to squeeze in between the thieves and mafia types up front. Or maybe you’re more at home with the teachers and lawyers, standing off to the side a bit.
Wherever you’ve situated yourself in the gathering, you can’t help but hear the sounds all around you. Those at the margins of society are excited to meet Jesus. You can hear the joyful sounds of laughter, the voice of Jesus welcoming them. In the back however a different sound is heard. It’s the sound of grumbling. The scribes and Pharisees don’t like the crowd of sinners swarming all around them. They’re afraid of being touched. They’re outraged when a prostitute rushes to the front to give Jesus a hug. They grumble about Jesus eating and drinking with such people, people whom the religious laws have deemed to be impure, sinners who deserve to be separated from the community.
Jesus hears the grumbling too, and so he reaches out to those who grumble by telling them a parable. It’s the story of a man who has two sons. One day, the younger son asks for the share of his father’s property that will one day be his. It’s a bit like wishing his father was dead. To our surprise, the father agrees. The son takes his inheritance, travels to a distant land and squanders all his money in wild living. Why does he do it? Is he foolish? Selfish? A bad apple? The story doesn’t say. It doesn’t seem to matter. What does matter is that things take a turn for the worse. A famine strikes and the younger son bottoms out. Broken, alienated, humiliated, he finally comes to his senses and turns back towards his Father. And while he is still far off, the father sees him and is filled with compassion. He runs to him, throws his arms around him and kisses him.
And that happens even before the younger son has a chance to ask for forgiveness. When the son does confess his sin, the father interrupts him before he can finish and calls for a celebration to begin. There’s no moralizing speech by the father asking the son to promise to never do this again, nor is the son asked to make up for his failings in any way. There isn’t any reminder that his share of the inheritance is gone. In fact there’s no sign of any awareness at all on the part of the father that his son has done anything wrong. The father is simply overjoyed to have him back.
You start to hear some murmurs of appreciation in the crowd around you, and a bit of shuffling. Some people think the story is finished.
But Jesus goes on with the parable. You see, the father also has an older son, a son who has stayed at home. The older son has worked hard, and has always done what the father asked him to do. By our normal standards, the older son is the model son. But when he hears about the return of his brother, and the party that’s being thrown for him, he doesn’t just grumble, he gets angry. “That’s not fair” he cries angrily. And he’s right. By any human standard, it’s not fair.
Sometimes we call this story the parable of the Prodigal Son. Sometimes it’s called the parable of the Two Sons. But I heard a new title for this story this week that I thought was also appropriate: The Lament of the Responsible Child
There is a very natural human tendency to think that we should get what we deserve. Those that work hard and do good things deserve to prosper. Those that break the rules deserve to be punished. Even small children seem to have an instinctive sense of natural justice that cries out “that’s not fair” whenever their brother or sister gets more than they deserve.
It’s only natural for us to think that the way we act should influence the way we’re treated by others and by God. In today’s story it’s the older son who deserves to be rewarded by the father, not the younger one.
But Jesus says that God is not like that. God’s love is not constrained by human standards of fairness. It is gracious, that is, it’s a freely given gift that’s extended to each one of us, no strings attached. What we do in life matters, but not because it can change God’s love for us. God’s love is always there, reaching for us, searching us out. And that’s got to change how we view others. Paul tells us in the reading from 2 Corinthians that we need to move beyond the normal human way of seeing things. Because of the love of God which Jesus has made known to us, from now on we’re to regard no one from a merely human point of view.
That’s a tough thing to do, because the idea that we should get what we deserve is so deeply engrained in each of us. Let me tell you a story about a minister in Wisconsin who received a phone call one day from the local prison. There was a young convict there who wanted to be baptized. The minister went to the prison and he met the young man. The young man’s name was Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer who had confessed to brutally murdering 17 young men and boys in 1991. His depraved actions made headlines around the world and caused the world recoil in disgust.
Dahmer turned to God and to the minister seeking redemption and forgiveness. A few weeks later, the minister baptized Jeffrey Dahmer and welcomed him to the family of God. Every Wednesday the two would meet and pray, sharing their faith. Six months later, Dahmer himself was brutally murdered in prison.
But that’s not the end of the story. In the years that followed, many people shunned the minister who baptized the serial killer. They grumbled that others were more deserving of the minister’s time and pastoral care. They were angry with him. They wanted no part of a heaven that included Jeffrey Dahmer.
Just as the reconciling of the younger son to the father provoked anger in the older son, the reconciling of Jeffrey Dahmer to the family of God provoked widespread anger in the church.
But in our first reading today we heard Paul remind us that God has reconciled all people to himself in Christ and that he in turn has given us the ministry of reconciliation. The ministry and message of reconciliation has been entrusted to us.
The good news of the parable of the two sons is that God is loving and joyful in welcoming the younger son and in pleading with the older son. The son who turns to God is immediately embraced. The challenge for you and me is to be loving and joyful in the way we proclaim this message of reconciliation that God has entrusted to us, and in the way we reconcile ourselves with those around us.
The parable of the two sons teaches us the three R’s, if you like, of our Christian faith: repentance, the turning to God, the discovery of who God is; reconciliation, the embrace of the God who runs out to welcome us; and rejoicing, the celebration of praise and thanksgiving that marks us as an Easter people. Repentance, reconciliation and rejoicing.
The sinners in the crowd embraced Jesus’ message of repentance, reconciliation and rejoicing. The scribes and Pharisees grumbled and were outraged by the prospect that a Jeffrey Dahmer could join them in the family of God.
Where in the crowd were you sitting? Wherever it was, come and join in the celebration.