Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Action of the Father

This Sunday we read—again: we read it during Lent, too—the magnificent story of the Prodigal Son.  But the context of the story, at the opening, is the Pharisees and scribes complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

We can think about this in terms of action and passivity.  Jesus seems to his critics to be too passive, as if he doesn’t care.  His answer is that they don’t understand just how active the Father is.

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We start with Moses arguing with God over the Golden Calf.  God tells Moses his plan “that my wrath may blaze against them to consume them.”  It often seems to us that God is active in punishment, and passive in relenting.  Because Jesus is not destroying sinners, he seems to be at odds with this active God of the Old Testament.

That wrath is real.  There is punishment.  But the surprising thing we learn is that punishment is God’s inactivity.  Salvation is his activity.

In our story, God has already acted to save them.  But they choose to worship a molten calf—which is dumb.  For God to ignore them is to leave them alone in the desert, worshiping a god who cannot save.  What we call, and experience as, wrath, is the misery that will happen if God does not save us.  Punishment happens when God is not active.

Instead, Moses reminds God of his promises.  God has acted to make those promises, and God has promised to act.

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We begin three weeks reading First Timothy.  Paul begins by talking about God’s mercy toward him, which has rescued him, not from Egyptian slavery or the desert of Sinai, from from blasphemy and arrogance.  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” to get us out of this mess. 

It seems ironic that Paul ends this touching discussion of God’s mercy and our sin with a benediction that sounds cold: “To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever.” The link is action.  God is not weak, he does not fail, he does not flop.  He is the strong God—the God of salvation.

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Jesus warms to his theme with two short parables.  He takes from Matthew the story of the man looking for his sheep—acting!  He adds to Matthew’s version the action of laying the sheep on his shoulders, and then calling together his friends and neighbors to celebrate. 

Then the story, unique to Luke, of the woman looking for her coin, who lights a lamp, sweeps, searches carefully—then calls together a celebration. 

He is turning inside-out the perception of the Pharisees.  They think he allows sinners to come because he is passive.  He describes himself as the most active.

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And consider the father’s action and the sons’ passivity in the Prodigal Son. 

The Prodigal demands—what the Father has earned.  And the Prodigal wastes.  Action?  Of the lowest kind.

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A famine comes.  From the Prodigal’s perspective, the famine is the non-providence of God, God the Father not taking care of him.  But we can see that God was caring for him.  Contrast the Prodigal’s behavior, which is busy but accomplishes nothing, with God’s behavior, which is slow and steady, and accomplishes much.  Which one is really active?

We can see more about the Prodigal by looking at his Elder Brother.  They are opposites in way, to be sure—but also similar. 

The Elder stands outside, refuses to enter the house.  When the Father comes to him, the Elder says, “not once did I disobey”—a very inactive way to respect his Father.  And he says, “You never gave me” (an accusation of inaction) even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” 

The Father says, we feasted together.  The Elder’s accusation is not that he didn’t eat well.  His accusation is that the Father didn’t help him wander off.  The Father wanted him close. 

So too the Prodigal, who cares for his Father only so far as he can take stuff and leave.  When he returns, he is willing to confess, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you,” but only so that he can get bread, like those who are not sons.  How richly ironic is statement, “I no longer deserve to be called your son.”  He doesn’t care about being a son; doesn’t care about the richness of that relationship; doesn’t care about the intense action, in this parable and in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, of celebrating together.  He confesses his sin only because he doesn’t mind sacrificing his relationship so that he can sit outside and eat.

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But how active is the Father.  He gives.  And then he watches.  “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.  He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”  Where the sons are limp and stand outside, the Father rushes to embrace.

He calls for a robe, and a ring, and sandals—not necessary things, just celebratory actions.  He calls a feast.  And then, while the Elder pouts outside, “His father came out and pleaded with him. . . .  Now we must celebrate and rejoice.”

They might accuse Jesus of being passive, for letting sinners come to him.  No, he says, I am active, like the Father.  You, who only want to stand outside and criticize, and demand your rewards, you are the passive ones.

Where is Jesus calling you to the greater action of his love?

Twenty-Third Sunday: Loving the Slaves

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to hate our family.  It’s a shocking passage.  And an interesting aspect of Luke: Matthew only tells us not to love our family more than Jesus, Mark skips the passage altogether—and Luke tells us to hate our family.

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The Lectionary perfectly pairs this Gospel with our one reading from Paul’s letter to Philemon, the shortest book of the New Testament, which is also about the transformation of relationships. 

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Philemon is the master of the slave Onesimus, who has been working with Paul.  Paul’s discussion of this slave is thick with irony.  Paul appeals for Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother, not a slave.  But he says he sends him back to Philemon because “I did not want to do anything without your consent”: Paul affirms Philemon’s freedom to make his own decisions—maybe Philemon can do the same for Onesimus.  “So that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary”—by freely freeing Onesimus to do what is voluntary, not what is forced.

Onesimus serves Paul, but with diakonia, chosen service, not as a doulos, a slave.  And Paul, himself in chains, in prison, commands Onesimus not as a slave master, but as a father.  He does not use Onesimus, but calls him “my own heart” (the Greek is splagchna, “my guts,” where I really feel things).

Paul appeals to Philemon to be “a partner,” a koinonos, who participates in the koinonia, communion, with which he has opened the letter. 

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Philemon adds to our reading from Luke the idea of transformed relationships.  Luke’s stark language, “if anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,” makes us think of ending relationships.  Paul shows us that our relationships must be transformed—radically, so that the one we viewed as a slave, the person we trampled on, becomes our “beloved brother,” and the flesh relationships, our earthly beloved brothers, melt away into the real love of the Christian communion. 

That sounds pleasant—but it is very hard.  One can imagine the division it would bring to a household if, for example, you started freeing slaves, or giving up property, or befriending those your family thinks are beneath you.  Our Gospel reminds us that this kind of transformed relationship is a way of carrying our cross, of dying to the old man and beginning a radically new life.

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Our Gospel opens with “great crowds traveling with Jesus”: a communion of friendship with the Master, which is a good thing.  But Jesus “turned”—or, “twisted around”—“and addressed them.”  He walks with them as friends, but he also turns to address them as Master.  To walk with Jesus we need to accept his authority to challenge our life.  Many among those “great crowds” are happy to be his friend, but less happy to be his disciples.

The shocking line, about hating father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters—and even our own life—is only one sentence, though an important one.

The next sentence proclaims that we have to carry our cross.  We are still on the road to Jerusalem.  Just before he set out on that road (9:51) he had announced that he was going to be killed (9:22) and so, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (9:23).  He predicts only his own death—for his disciples, he predicts the cross, which means carrying on our own two shoulders the implement of our death. 

Love is lovely.  But the love of Christ passes through the way of the Cross.  To say that it requires hating our earthly loves is to say that they must die with Christ before they can rise again.

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He says the same thing another way with two parables.  If you’re going to build a tower, you need to calculate the cost—the cost of discipleship—and lay the foundations.  Christian love isn’t just happily doing what comes naturally.  It means embracing the cross.

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The second parable takes another angle.  Heading into this battle, we discover that we are outnumbered.  We cannot win—this is a battle where we will die.  Realizing that, we need to “ask for peace terms.”  When you’re outnumbered, those peace terms mean asking the other party what you have to do to avoid annihilation.  In the Christian life, on the one hand, we realize that we need the Strong Man’s help: the things that make for peace are the gifts of Christ. 

But on the other hand, to accept those gifts is to accept the transformation he demands.  And in the final sentence of our reading, the demand is not to hate our family, but to “renounce all his possessions”: all the relationships we metaphorically cling to, and all the material things we literally cling to.  Somehow, like Philemon, we have to free our slaves, find those we treat as less than human and embrace them as our brothers.  The love of Christ comes only through renunciation.

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Our first reading, from Wisdom, then, reminds us of something essential.  Weighted down by our bodily concerns, we can scarcely make wise decisions about earthly things—so to know higher things, the things of God, we need to shut up and listen.  We who walk on the road with Christ need to let him turn and speak to us as Master, and demand of us what we would never embrace on our own. 

What slaves is Jesus calling you to befriend?