Reckless Mercy

I never tire of pondering Luke 15:1–32. The story keeps feeding and challenging my spirit, both at the same time.

The opening verses of this chapter in Luke’s Gospel are telling: tax collectors and sinners “come near to listen to him.” Pharisees and scribes are griping and grumbling that “he eats with sinners.” So in response to this griping, Jesus tells parables. First, a couple of short ones, about a lost sheep and a lost coin, then the “pièce de résistance,” the biggest part of the fifteenth chapter.

This parable is so well-known that we risk being numb to its shock-effects still today. Re-contextualizing and deep pondering is needed to restore those shock-effects. The story is situated in a society where everyone had a fixed place in the social and cultural class structures. Inheritance was extremely important. It was governed by a legal code and maintained by strict rules. The father’s role was to protect both the family honour and the inheritance. The inheritance could be divided prior to the father’s death, but in that case it was the sons’ duty to set aside adequate funds to take care of the father in his old age.

The story opens with the outrageous conduct of the younger son, demanding his share ahead of schedule. Once he gets it, he takes off for the “good life.” We learn of his progressive degradation and the famine. To avoid starvation, he takes a job caring for pigs, an occupation considered an apostasy in the Jewish religion. Eating pork was forbidden, let alone looking after pigs about to be slaughtered. You can’t stoop much lower on the social ladder.

The poverty of the son is described as a desperate lack of food. Now nourishment in this society was the mother’s responsibility. But …. no mother in the story. Maybe that was his problem – no mom. He is hungry and recalls how well-fed the servants are in his father’s house. And so comes the thought, “I’ll go back, and I won’t even ask to be a son anymore. If I can be one of the hired hands, I’ll have something to eat.”

So he trudges back in his rags, smelling to high heaven of pigs. He has jeopardized the family’s economic standing and put his father at risk by squandering that part of the inheritance intended for his father’s caring in old age. So besides gross ingratitude, the younger son added the sin of injustice. It cannot get much worse.

What about Dad in the meantime? One eye on the road at all time, he spots the son from afar.

Overwhelmed with joy, he dashes out, and acts in ways most unbecoming a father in this patriarchal culture – he runs, he hugs and he kisses! This is a father who is outrageously excessive/prodigal in the disregard of his own honour, the inheritance, and the patriarchal standards, and acts more like a smothering mother.

When the son confesses his sin, the father doesn’t even listen. No time for confessions, no need for penance. Instead he calls for the best robe – probably one of his own. He orders the servants – quick, put sandals on his feet, a symbol of full restoration of honour in the family. Not the slightest questioning of sincerity. The father calls for the fatted calf, and the music and dancing begin.

Jesus could have easily ended there. But the elder son now appears. He has faithfully served his father on the land and worked diligently for his share of the inheritance. His brother’s disappearance put the elder son’s own share in jeopardy because now he has to provide for his father’s old age entirely out of his own resources. So he has good reason to be resentful towards his younger brother whom he disowns. Instead of brother, the elder son spitefully refers to the vagabond as “that son of yours.”

Moreover, by refusing to join the party, the elder son violates the fourth commandment – honour your father and mother. When his father graciously invites him to come, the elder son berates the old man, “you have rewarded this son of yours who has not only wasted his share of the family fortune, but by living with prostitutes has risked the family blood line.” Using offensive language, the elder son dishonours both his father and brother, thus breaking the legal code as much as the younger son did.

Instead of chiding the elder son for his disrespect, the father affirms, “You are with me always. Everything I have is yours.” The elder son too is a recipient of the father’s foolish and generous forgiveness. Just as the younger son is received back, so the elder son, who broke the fourth commandment, is restored to favour. The father thus disregards the offences of both sons. Disinterested in the immorality of the younger son and in the self-righteousness of the elder, the father puts aside his personal honour and the legal code.

From this parable it would seem that the “kingdom of God” is not primarily concerned with human-made standards and norms, according to which the father acts like a very bad father. However, he turns out to be a very good mother — just let the boy come home! Clearly this father unites in himself the qualities of both father and mother.

Jesus’ passion for inclusion, especially in Luke’s Gospel, always trumps concern for worthiness. He eats with sinners without setting any prior moral conditions. His disciples forever tried to keep supposedly unworthy people away from him. Jesus, however, didn’t want that kind of protection. I can’t help but see images of the security people trying hard to protect Pope Francis while he keeps lunging towards the crowds! Jesus’ call still resounds today: Let them come, all of them! As Ron Rolheiser gleans from this parable, God forgives the missteps of our immaturity (the younger son) as well as the bitterness and resentment within our maturity (the elder son).

The father’s ultimate concern is to unite his two sons, bringing them together in love. Both are guilty of serious offences, both are forgiven. The prodigal father in this parable, like God, communicates unconditional love to his two sons so that they in turn may show mercy to each other. God’s heart is wide, abundant, prodigal, and universally-embracing – that’s the shocking message the religious leaders of Jesus’ day could not stomach and so they crucified him. How about us – can we handle that?

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Recalling, Renewing

The Christian family is entering an important year, one of both commemoration and renewal in the quest for Christian Unity. We will be recalling that it has been 500 years ago that the western Church fractured into several parts due to the pressing need for comprehensive reform: we will remember Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simons, Huldrych Zwingli and others, the Elizabethan Settlement in Britain and a bit later the Wesley brothers. These divisions, though painful and full of conflict at the time, have nevertheless been blessed in surprising ways by God’s Spirit, evident in the particular charisms, strengths and gifts of each tradition: Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Reformed, Mennonite, United and later on the family of Pentecostal and Evangelical Churches.

While critics of Christianity like to use our divisions as a way to discredit God’s work among us, we could refute some of that criticism by being precise about the divisions. We have come a long ways since the days of the hostile exchanges in the 16th century. What began as reasons for parting company, have over time revealed themselves as unique strengths in each tradition, making us realize more and more that we truly need one another to embody the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When standing together with courage and humility, the weakness in one tradition can be compensated by the strength in another, and vice versa.

In a world that has grown weary of organized religion we are subject to rigorous scrutiny in the quality of our dealings with one another. An anniversary of this magnitude is a good occasion to stand still and assess our own spiritual season — personally, denominationally and collectively. How can we help heal the Body of Christ this year?

In our area we are truly blessed with a vibrant ecumenical spirit that generates all kinds of opportunities for common prayer and mission, common witness and study. For the ninth year in a row, women who are professionally employed in their respective churches (ordained and lay) meet to break bread together at monthly lunches. These lunches have formed a lifeline for my own spirit. Our numbers fluctuate according to busy schedules and availability, but monthly attendance averages between 8-14 women. We share the joys and sorrows of our ministry experiences, we share resources and meaningful conversation, pray together while celebrating and strengthening one another for our common mission in service of the Gospel of Jesus Christ among God’s holy people in all our churches.

Besides the lunches, our region will be blessed by several ecumenical conferences and retreats this fall. A Fall Conference on the Reformation is being organized by the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism. A unique ecumenical program is starting at Queen’s House later this month that seeks to find concrete ways of learning to engage in difficult conversations when stakes are high. Next is the Ecumenical Women’s Retreat in October and the Women’s Journey of Faith Conference in early November. Later on in January 2017 there will be the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the DeMargerie Ecumenical Lecture series. The invitations to engage this year in meaningful ways are plentiful.

If you live in an ecumenically impoverished area, this may be a good time for new initiatives. Numerous ecumenical documents produced by international, national and local dialogue groups can be found online. Seek out Christian sisters and brothers from another church and suggest that you gather for prayer and study together. It doesn’t have to be an academic class or a demanding intellectual exercise.

On a Sunday morning attend worship in another church, share in social activities among churches, learn about both commonalities and differences. Reach out and join hands in common mission in service of those in need, build friendships and pray together, share in the joy of discovering common faith in Jesus. Rather than allow differences to keep us apart, let yourself be enriched by them as opportunities for learning and growing. It is really not that hard.

Pope Francis himself is planning several ecumenical meetings and visits fall to kick off this year of recalling and renewing. While less interested in intellectual dialogue, Pope Francis has proven his ecumenical wisdom by actions and encounters of all sorts. A meeting in Assisi with high-ranking religious leaders, a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and a papal visit to Lund, Sweden, to inaugurate the 2016-2017 Commemoration of the Reformation are just a few items on the Holy Father’s schedule in the next two months.

Join many others throughout the world as we take this opportunity to recall and repent, to renew and restore a credible witness in the world to the Good News of God who loved the world so much that He gave his only Son, whose last prayer uttered on earth was the burning desire that we would be one. Do not underestimate what the Holy Spirit can do with willing spirits and hearts burning with Jesus’ desire for unity among his disciples!

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
 (John 17:21-23)

Some helpful sites to whet your appetite and fill you with ideas:

World Council of Churches

Canadian Council of Churches

Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue (note the A-RC Pilgrimage of bishops taking place Sept. 30 – Oct. 7, among whom is none other than our own Bishop Donald Bolen 🙂 )

Lutheran – Catholic Dialogue, in particular the new documents:
From Conflict to Communion – Commemorating the Reformation Together
Declaration on the Way – Milestones from 50 years of Dialogue

Evangelical – Catholic Dialogue in Saskatoon: Common Statement of Faith

2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Resources

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”