The Fourth Sunday of Lent
[Cycle C Scripture Readings: Jos 5:9a, 10-12; 2Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32]
One of our national characteristics is a concern for fairness. Even though we may bend the rules a little when it is to our advantage, most people try to present some sort of argument that justifies their action in this particular case. However cynical that behavior may seem, it indicates that we still acknowledge the value of fairness. Our attitude is more evident in our objections when we are treated unfairly, or our indignation at the more flagrant violations of fairness in sports, politics or business.
While I agree that fairness is an important value, it is also true that a concern with fairness can be an obstacle to accepting the revelation of God’s love for us. How many of you have had the experience that I have had of being in a situation when all I could say is, ‘God this isn’t fair!’ It is a complaint against God that isn’t limited to the elder brother in this morning’s gospel, or to the scribes and Pharisees in their encounters with Jesus. It has its echoes in the psalms and the prophets. The issue isn’t fairness. It is struggling with the realization that in so many ways our ways are not God’s ways. How many of us would want God to treat us as we deserve? But if I recognize my own need for God’s mercy, can I deny it to my brothers and sisters?
A difficulty I have with this morning’s parable is that I identify with both brothers. I know I need God’s forgiveness and I want God to forgive others, but there are still times when I get upset because God’s forgiveness of someone else contradicts my sense of fairness. Is the father in the parable fair? He takes the initiative and goes out to both brothers. His concern is to bring them both into his joy. He wants them both to recognize his love for them. This parable like all of the parables leaves our questions unanswered. It puts us on the spot to decide where we stand and provide our own answer.
I was asked once if I ever identified with the father in the parable. That put me on the spot too, because I hadn’t. Yet Paul says clearly that we are called to share in God’s work of reconciliation. Can I be an effective worker for reconciliation if I am preoccupied with my own sense of fairness? Can I set that aside and identify with the father? I don’t think I am far off the mark when I say that this is what the father was asking his elder son to do. He didn’t justify the younger son’s behavior. He wanted the older son to realize that he already had his father’s love and called him to share in his compassion. That may seem to be beyond our ability. It is! But in Christ we are a new creation. Christ did not stand aloof from our need for forgiveness. He took it on himself.
Before we share in Christ’s body and blood we will ask our Father to forgive us as we forgive our brothers and sisters. If we think about what we are saying, it will put us on the spot. In this morning’s parable, where do we stand?
The Fourth Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: II Chron 36:14-16, 19-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21]
In the RB, Benedict tells the abbot he should check under the cots and beds of the monks to see that they aren’t storing away any articles. He never understood the challenge that is presented to modern abbots when monks not only have private cells, but also have workspaces filled with drawers and shelves. Two of our revered, former monks were fabled for their capacity to save boxes, containers, watch pieces, cattle pedigrees, anything of possible use from the previous 30 years. Others would make fun of Br. Terrence for his supplies of boxes, but if you ever needed just the right size of box , he would have it.
Most of us have saved items which still have value in our eyes. They resurrect a connection with the past -a maybe a past which has become more meaningful than the present. It was a past which was full of life, purpose, meaning. Life was trustworthy, full of assurance and expansiveness. The more life becomes threatened, at risk – the more we think of saving, of salvation. Often , we think of salvation in terms of security. And , indeed, we are suffering together a great national agony in the name of security. We are under a national compulsion to insure our security, to achieve it for ourselves even at the expense of the widening list of those who become threats. The pattern is an old one, although the scene is new. We feel caught in a dilemma which springs from the way we interpret the world.
Perhaps this dilemma can give us new ears to hear what the Scripture is saying to us. “God so loved the world that he sent his only son to save the world.” God’s deep investment in this world has been to give it life through the love and suffering of his son. I think we need to let our hearts hear that message. At least, to affirm it in the face of the turmoil we see and feel around us. We are inclined to think of salvation as being of a separate, spiritual order or dimension. It is an interior gift of grace. We seek personal experiences of a movement of assurance. Or else, we hold it to be true in an ultimate sense, that we will be exonerated, compensated at some final moment when we will realize what has been hidden from us all along. We wait for the moment when we will be lifted up, seated at the right of God with Christ. Salvation is the well-being of a happy ending.
But salvation is the lifting up of this human life in which we work out our identity, this new relationship with God which he has granted us. It is accompanying Jesus in his continuing passion in this world. And it is knowing that love God has for the world in this way of suffering, in the midst of the suffering.. The Son of Man must be lifted up. Not withdrawn, not held above the conflict. The Gospel of John is very clear that being lifted up is both exaltation and crucifixion., glory and suffering. To our human reasoning, this is incomprehensible and we strive to separate the two. It is the gift of grace that reveals their deep unity. That is why we are happy for the hidden gift that we can save away, but are unhappy for the cost of this grace in our lives. It unsettles us. It seem to offer little security. It calls us to invest our energies again and again in a world and in communities so unyielding , to preach a message of love and peace which seem so ineffective and unimposing. The gift of grace makes us into gift This becomes the work of salvation in which we may know nothing else than this new relationship God has created with the world in the love of his Son. And this may have to be enough.
This working out of salvation in our lives can only be the costly grace that Bonhoeffer has described. It is to allow our lives to be transformed by that love which God has for all the world and all its peoples. It is the path of necessary objectivity and distance from whatever is impermanent and secondary in the human endeavor. It is the self-discipline necessary to maintain true freedom and make right choices. It is the destruction of egoism by the honest person who has the courage to stand naked before self and God. It is the love and grace of God which weds and welds together forces which seem so contradictory to us. We are invited to participate in the love and suffering of Christ which is bringing life and salvation to the world.