Life-giving Love: Loving First, Loving Well - Redux

Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni (1773)

Life-giving Love
Loving First, Loving Well - Redux
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
[Ex 32:7–11, 13–14.  Ps 51:3–4, 12–13, 17, 19.  1 Tm 1:12–17.  Lk 15:1–32.]   

The Gospel today is a long one, but it is necessary to hear it in its entirety if we are to hear the message well.

And one of the first things we have to keep in mind is that all three stories: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son, are preceded by this very important line, said by the Pharisees and scribes who were complaining:

"This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." 

In the original Greek of Luke’s Gospel, the word used for “welcome” is a very positive word: prosdechomai (pros DECH om aye), and it means welcome in this sense: to wait for anxiously, to cherish. 

This man welcomes sinners - he actually cherishes them - and he even eats with them! 

Jesus cherishes and waits anxiously for the sinners who come to Him – both then and now! (Imagine that!)  These sinners, these unclean ones, were becoming a part of Jesus’ following. How that must have put off the Pharisees and scribes!

The three “Parables of Lost and Found” that Jesus tells are His response to the grumbling Pharisees. And to understand just how these sounded to the Jews of Jesus' day, we have to understand a bit about the cultural context.

The shepherd that we hear about is so concerned about one lost sheep that he leaves ninety-nine sheep in the desert – unprotected!  The woman who loses one coin – then finds it and throws a party that probably costs ten times the worth of the coin!

Jesus actually puts these as hypothetical questions. He isn't really looking for a response: "What man among you?.... or What woman?....  These questions are metaphorical, to help us consider the abundant love of God.

What we do need to note is the joy of the shepherd and the woman. "Rejoice with me,"  they say. 
And then there is the prodigal son – Jesus changes his tone here to tell us a story. We all know this as a story of wandering away and being welcomed back.

But this story is really much, much more to the people who heard it from Jesus– it was even perhaps outrageous to the people who heard it from Jesus!

It is about possessions and power; anger, shame, and repentance; death, and new life. This is about radical behavior.

Listen carefully to what the son asks of the father:
     “give me the share of your estate that should come to me.”

When are estates divided up? At the death of the father!

The son isn’t saying, “Hey, Dad: I’m headed out for an adventure.”

He is saying, in essence, “Father, I am disowning you, you are as good as dead to me. Give me what is mine under the Law, and I’m out of here.”

Those are tough words! In the culture of the time, no child would dare to say such things to his father. They are words that could literally cost him his neck! He could have been taken to the gate and stoned for such disrespect. That is by Mosaic Law: we read it in Deuteronomy.
But there is no punishment. Instead, there is probably just the father’s heartbreak – and he goes ahead and distributes the wealth.  He must distribute it according to the Law, so the matter becomes public knowledge. The whole village knows that the son has challenged the father; they know about this fracture in the family’s life.

Imagine what that father must have overheard – the buzz of the neighbors, the whispered conversations at the gate. 

And yet, it is not the father who is the dead man, but rather the prodigal son. He goes off on the wide road to dissipation – to the excesses of a different life that are literally going to scatter him.

And we see where the son ends up – in a distant country, and in dire need. He is so badly in need that he ends up hired out to feed pigs!

Here is the Prodigal: he has squandered all his assets, he no longer has any heritage on the land, he is in a foreign land, among the unclean; and while he feeds the swine, he isn’t even permitted to eat what he feeds them!

And yet, he “comes to himself” –he recovers his senses. He begins a process of healing, because he can never be happy unless he comes to really understand who he is and just where he stands.

He decides to go back to his father –he knows that he doesn’t deserve to be called his father’s son; that in these outrageous circumstances there is no way he could even hope to reclaim his sonship.

But he still wants something: to be treated as one of his father’s slaves – that, at least, will give him some kind of security.

He also knows that going back will be a painfully public act. The community will see him and mock him, and maybe even beat him up or kill him!

And the father – his love for his son has never ended, despite being so thoroughly dishonored by his son. He waits, he hopes with anxious anticipation. He cherishes his son, even through all this!

And when the son comes into view, the father runs to him!

This broken-hearted father is filled with joy, he welcomes the son.

And what is scandalous about that?

He does this without any kind of an intermediary: back then, a “reconciler” would have acted as an agent so that the injured party doesn’t lose face.

And if the father had seen the son from a distance, you can bet that others in the village had seen him, too.

But before there can be any kind of confrontation, the father races past the villagers and offers his son protection, compassion, understanding, and affection beyond what the son might ever have imagined.
And the father's love takes all of the son’s bartering power away from the son by loving him well.
The father interrupts his son before the son can even ask, to be a slave.  The father reclaims him as his son - he transforms the son! That is a self-empting love at work here!

Open arms! Robe on his shoulders, ring on his finger, sandals on his feet! Slaughter the fattened calf – have a feast!

And the father says: “This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again.”  He has come to new life as a son!

A feast commences. Certainly it is not a feast to honor the son’s return. It is a feast of the father’s joy!
"Let us celebrate," says the father.

But then there is the older brother out in the field, who learns about all this from a servant. And anger flares. Probably this anger has been simmering since the day that the prodigal son rebelled.

Now his anger boils over: the older son refuses to enter the house, and the father is thrown into another situation of public humiliation.

Now it is the older son who is publically disrespectful of the father. And in his anger, this older brother has disowned his brother: it is no longer his brother, it is “this son of yours…”

Can you imagine what the older brother might have said about his father next? Maybe he turned to the people and said something like,
     “This man, my father, welcomes sinners, and even eats with them!”

And the father’s answer? Put away your anger: "You are with me always. Everything that I have is yours!"

How that must have rung inside the minds and hearts of the people gathered around Jesus for this story! How the Pharisees probably craned their necks and said:
     “What? No Law? No punishment?”
No: mercy instead – radical, life-giving, and all-embracing love!

Imagine a father whose love is greater than death. Imagine a love that actually brings back to life!  Imagine a love that loves first, loves always,  loves best!

And yet, there is the thought that the parable hasn’t resolved. It has just stopped.

We don’t know what the older son did. Did he swallow his anger? Did he allow himself to accept his father’s love? Did he go in to the feast?

Or maybe he is still outside, where the darkness now gathers? Is he still out of touch and still very much a slave of his own pride, his own anger, his own sense of injustice?

Has it dawned on him that his father’s love transcends all brokenness, all emptiness, all anger?

If there is one thing that we might well think about and pray about, it is this: If you were the older brother, would you go in?

These three parables: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son have one thing in common. It is in one phrase for the shepherd, the woman, and the father:

Rejoice with me! I have found what is lost! What was dead has come to life again!

And what does Jesus say at the end of each but just this:

“there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."

This Jesus – God’s Son – he welcomes sinners, and even eats with them!

So, will we go in to the feast with God our Father? Everything he has, he has offered to us!

Loving First, Loving Well

Loving First, Loving Well
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time,
Year C

[Dt 30:10-14. Ps 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37. Col 1:15-20. Lk 10:25-37.]

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question that the scholar of the Law asks Jesus is one that the scholar thought would “test” Jesus.

Jesus asks him back, “What is written in the Law?” Remember, Jesus tells us that he has not come to abolish the Law. And so he looks to the Law. The scholar gives the correct answer according to the law of Moses: love God; love your neighbor.

But that love for God is a whole and first and immediate kind of love: whole heart, whole being, whole strength, whole mind.

It is a love that puts God first.

And in that kind of love for God, anyone can love anyone else better because he loves God first!

But then, the scholar drops what he thinks is the big bomb of the test. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” What he means by that is, “Just who are God’s people?”

And Jesus turns the tables. Jesus answers a basic and elemental question for us about relationships. About who we are and how we are to be and act in the world.

And Jesus tells the man the story – the Parable – of the Good Samaritan.

Parables are stories that allow us to put things “side by side” so to speak. They help us to see a truth by way of example in the story.

So, we have a man going down the 23-mile long steep and dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. That’s no easy trip, and the road was notoriously dangerous. Robbers used to hide and attack unsuspecting travelers.

We know nothing at all about the man who gets beat up and left for dead.

He has no specific identity. He stripped and beaten, and “half dead.” He is no particular man – and so he can be any man.

The priest and the Levite who pass the victim and do nothing probably had their reasons to avoid him. Let’s not judge them – except to see that neither one of them was a "neighbor" to the beaten man. Maybe they are so concerned with their own observance of the laws of cleanliness that they simply pass the beaten man by.  Maybe they think he is already dead! 

But look who stops and helps: a Samaritan!

To most Jews, the Samaritans were outcasts, half-breeds, and heretics. And the ill feelings were mutual.
The Samaritan was probably the last person a Jew would we would expect to stop.

But he does stop. And he binds up the victim’s wounds and takes him to an inn, stays with him overnight, and even pays for the victim’s care and offers to go further into debt for him!

It is important that we go back to the Scholar’s question: “Who is my neighbor?”

Now the answer becomes clearer. Don’t look to see if the victim is a friend or an enemy, someone close  or a total unknown. See only that it is someone who is really one of us – a sister or brother in the image of God - who needs help.

And if we love God first and best, we know His love; His compassion, and we can extend that.

I have a friend who has it in her heart to go to minister to the poor in Uganda.

She made plans, got herself connected with an ecumenical medical mission, and took off from Philadelphia for Uganda a few weeks ago on what was her second trip to Africa.

She sent us a photo of her assisting at surgery in Uganda – standing in a makeshift operating room.

This week, a Philadelphia Police Detective heard the call for help in the wake of the Duck boat accident. He ran to the pier, tossed his gun and wallet aside, and jumped in to save four of the survivors. He said, “I was just doing the same thing that anybody would have done.”

My friend is home from Africa now, and back in the routine of being a wife and mom. The police detective was back on duty the day after the accident.

And back at the parable: After all of his good work, the Samaritan is still a Samaritan; still the same outcast to the Jews, the same object of scorn.

Everything, it seems, has returned to “normal” as the world looks at it.

Yet, somewhere in Judea, a man lived once, because the most unlikely person saw him as a neighbor.

Somewhere in Africa, one woman now lives because a nameless women from America loved her enough to visit her village and assist at her surgery.

And right across the river, four people live because a cop loved enough to put his life at risk for the good of others.

And somewhere, in God’s big storehouse, where all the good deeds of the world are stored, the store has gotten a bit more full.

The world is just a little bit better.

These people have shown us how to love well. Because they have loved God first!

There is an old saying that we all have to watch out for: It is inspired by the way of the world. It says:

“No good deed goes unpunished.”

Mother Teresa has answered that. Here is something from lines that are written on the wall of her home for children in Calcutta:

     People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
          Love them anyway.
     If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
          Be kind anyway.
     The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
          Do good anyway.
     Give the world the best you have, and it will never be enough.
          Give your best anyway.
     In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
     It was never between you and them anyway.

If we can do this, I think we will begin to see and to experience the love that God has for us. We might even see that God Himself in Jesus has become a good Samaritan: the stranger who took on human flesh and walked among us, and healed us, and gave us the promise of eternal life without asking first if we were friend or foe.

God bends down to us all with love.

The great lesson of today’s parable is that we can share God’s viewpoint in a love that looks beyond who people are, to see what they can become.

Moses tells us: this is not mysterious, not far away. It is “…already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”