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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Window on the World

As I am re-reflecting on the Cathedral windows, preparing my meditations for public sharing, I just realized something: none of the windows depict the crucifixion … An oversight? Maybe, and maybe not … The risen Christ, whose Real Presence is given to us in the Eucharist, also reveals his Crucified and Real Presence  in the least among us, in those sisters and brothers crying out for deliverance and healing, whose death-cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” still echoes around the globe. Jesus’ agony in the garden, his death-cry on the cross, is still with us in chilling, shocking and horrifying ways:

in the millions of refugees walking to safety …
in the missing and murdered aboriginal women
demanding justice …
in the indigenous peoples of the world
trampled on by western interests
of consumerism and economic monopolies …
in the quiet neighbour suffering abuse and neglect
within the walls of a home
intended to be a haven of safety and peace …
in minorities stigmatized for being different
robbed of the right to fullness of life …
in victims of the sex trade and human trafficking …
in the earth crying out for justice and right relation …
in the extinction of countless species
due to human ravaging of resources …
in child soldiers seeking love and belonging
in all the wrong places and in the wrong ways …
in innocent people killed in bomb attacks
in the depletion and unjust distribution
of the earth’s gifts for all …
in death-dealing superiority of one race over another …
in merciless and cold policies from corporate board rooms …

The window depicting the Crucifixion of the Most Holy One does not need a place in churches and cathedrals. That window screams its stark truth on our television screens and media-outlets, draws our reluctant attention on our mobile phone devices, iPads and news stands, ignorantly fills our neighbourhood homes, locker room talks and coffee row gossip clubs. What have we done to our God in one another?

How can we ever reverse our collective human culpability in so much visible and invisible, subtle and blatant, local and global suffering and destruction? We don’t deserve forgiveness. When it comes to sin and evil, all of us are capable, all of us are guilty; we only differ in degree, if we differ at all.

Screaming Friday, horrible Friday, death-dealing Friday … Good Friday??!!
Of all days filled with this walk-with-Jesus
(no walk in the park, that’s for sure!)
this is the day for mass confession,
for taking collective responsibility,
especially in the western world,
for the ravages on creation and all living things,
for the exploitation and destruction
of beautiful human beings
in desperate need of shelter and safety,
food and clothing,
a future and a homeland, a promise and a hope.
Do we truly grasp the extent of our evil ways?

O God, we would have been better off
left to our own self-destruction.
You, O God, would be better off without us!
Crush us, grind us to powder, return us
to the dust of the earth where we belong.
Start all over again,
creating without any mistake this time,
which really means: don’t grant free will
to the loving creating work of your hands,
because that’s what caused all the trouble
in the first place.
Give yourself a chance, crazy God,
to re-create, to begin again,
and do it right this time …

Good Friday, Saving Friday, Redeeming Friday…
Why, foolish  and overly generous Lord,
why indeed, did you save us from ourselves?!

Because my tiny cherished earthling,
I love you, and you are precious in my eyes …
Because I desire your wholeness despite everything …
Because all is not lost, despite
what you see and hear, taste and feel.
Because you are so much more than what your 
conniving ways can scheme.

Because you cannot save yourselves,
I sent a helper to point you
in my saving, redeeming, merciful direction:
look to your Christ, my Jesus, my Son.
Why do you think he is my Son?
Look to that One who shows the way out of your
self-inflicted misery …
Look to the One who held on to LOVE, my LOVE,
amidst a death-dealing swirling tsunami
of HATE and EVIL,
and then see what power is unleashed
when you learn to do
just that …
Death itself dies, its power dismantled,
swallowed up forever
in LOVE …

I hide my face
in shame and undeserving joy …
Love won’t let me drown in the waters of death,
but washes me in waters of life,
a cocktail-potion of terrifying
Grace mixed with Mercy
prepared by a crazy Lover in love with me, with us,
a re-creating Lover who won’t take death for an answer
under any circumstance …

Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy …
I for-give … you …
Mercy within Mercy within Mercy

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
for by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

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