My friends, today’s readings, especially the lovely, long reading from the Gospel of Luke, speak profoundly about mercy and love. In fact, the God that is depicted in the first reading from Exodus is the total opposite of the God in the story of the Prodigal in Luke. Moses’ God speaks of mercy mostly through the absence of it! The God we see depicted here could almost be said to be one of our own creation as humans, or in other words, this God acts as we humans are more prone to acting! It was for this very reason that the late Pope John Paul I, with us as pope only 33 days disliked the God of Moses! That in itself should tell us something wonderful about this pope who was with us such a short time!
Moses is given credit for much of the writing in the book of Exodus and we might say that he appears more merciful than God does, questioning God about being so violent toward the people. This story shows us the need for having Jesus come into the world to make clear that his Abba is not so vindictive, but truly a God who loves us in an over-the-top way. This reading from Exodus and its completion in the story told by Jesus of the Prodigal reminds us how important it is to allow God to be God—who is so much more generous, understanding, merciful and loving than we could ever be.
Jesus truly wanted the people of his time to get this one point—that of the over-the-top love that our God has for us by telling 3 stories depicting how much God does indeed, love us: The Good Shepherd, who left the 99 in search of the one, lost, the woman who turned her house upside-down in search of one lost coin—by the way, an equally wonderful image of God—and the best depiction of all—the story of the “prodigal dad.”
I put the emphasis on the “loving parent” because he is as “prodigal” in loving as his son is “prodigal” in not loving as is evidenced by his disrespectful, selfish and uncaring manner toward his father, his family and his community.
Again, a bit of back story will help us to truly understand the depth of love that is depicted by this dad. Family and one’s inheritance was everything to people living in this culture. All one had was their family, so for this son to turn his back on all of this was extremely selfish, uncaring and foolish. To ask for one’s inheritance, which would rightly come only at the death of the father, was additionally, rude. And because families were so intertwined with the community-at-large, the Prodigal son’s actions were an assault on the community as well.
In that light; we can better understand this prodigal dad running to meet the returning son. First, he runs out of deep love for the wayward son, telling him by this action, that no matter what he has done, the only thing that is important is that, he has returned. This great love here can be juxtaposed to that of the vengeful God of Exodus.
Secondly, this dad “runs” to save his son from the humiliation that awaits him at the city gates upon his return. Because his actions were not only an assault to his father and his family, but to the community-at-large, in rejecting their culture and way of life, a representative from the community met the “offending” member at the city gate and broke a clay pot at their feet, signifying the “broken relationship” that existed. Apparently, there was no “fixing” this relationship—the offender lived the remainder of their life as an outcast. We humans certainly know how to punish, don’t we?! But isn’t it wonderful that our God’s mercy, as displayed in the “Prodigal Dad” exceeds that of the God in Exodus?!
With that bit of explanation; we can more fully appreciate this loving parent being willing to take the shame upon himself and welcome his son back with full and open arms, instead of allowing the community to heap shame upon him.
An additional piece to this story which is good for us to know and remember because it speaks to the depth that love will carry a person to make that love known, is the enthusiasm with which this parent welcomes the son back—Scripture tells us that “he ran” out to meet his son, not waiting for him to get all the way home, and in order to do this, he would have had to lift up his garments, exposing his legs, something against the decorum of the day—you see, nothing was more important to this dad than letting his wayward son know, that he was loved—welcoming him back, not the sensible thing, not the righteous thing, not what was the culturally, religiously acceptable response, as the older son would have preferred—only the loving thing. Those of you who have given birth physically or in other ways to children know the truth of this.
Jesus, our brother takes great pains, with 3 different stories, to make sure that we all get this one message—we are each, individually loved and cared about and will never be shunned, turned away—made to pay unceasingly for our misdeeds, or excommunicated—all these punishments are human-made and not of God.
The use of power to control people through shaming, exclusion, excommunication, whatever punishment we might come up with, are simply not of God, and we should wonder at a Church or community which would dole out such responses, especially when we hope to keep them interested in becoming their best selves and part of our communities.
I just finished reading Sister Joan Chittister’s book, The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage and it is basically a work on prophecy and of how each of us is called to the work of prophecy. Chittister says, “The prophet is the person who says no to everything that is not of God. No to the abuse of women…the rejection of the strange…crimes against immigrants…to the rape of the trees…the pollution of the skies…the poisoning of the oceans…the despicable destruction of humankind for the sake of more wealth, more power, more control for a few of us [and] no to death.”
With hope, Joan continues, “And while saying no, the prophet also says yes…to equal rights for all…to alleviating suffering…to embracing the different, yes to who God made you, [and] yes to life.”
We can’t just say what is wrong Sister Joan teaches, but what is needed in its place, and what part of the work we will do! There is a real urgency in her writing for us as individuals, for our country, our Church, our world. If not us, who? If not now, when?
And along with the urgency came a bit of reality too—“whatever you’re doing to bring justice as well as mercy, keep on doing it. Do it, even when it doesn’t seem to work. Do it when it’s long and hard and boring. As the Roman poet, Ovid wrote, “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force, but through persistence.” I think of the persistence of the postcard-writers each Thursday morning at the Blue Heron, I think of the work of this small community of faith-filled Vatican II believers who keep speaking truth to power by our existence—believe that it all makes a difference and don’t ever give up! Amen? Amen!