Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I guess that this week’s readings are all about those who make mistakes and learn from them. In the apparently moralistic world in which we live this is a very important message, for it appears that it is not the squeaky clean that are loved to bits by God, but on the contrary those who have messed up, and often spectacularly. By now I should think that most of us are thoroughly sickened with both major sides in the battle for the American presidency, though I would suspect most of us find the Trump campaign the worst of the two. If we take that as our model of correct and religiously acceptable behaviour, then we do seriously have to question whether any of us could possibly be saved. In comparison, the work and life of Teresa of Calcutta, made a saint this weekend, reminds us that not making judgements about others, give the recipients and the giver a wholly different perspective on life, and that marked out by God himself.
Of course, our Reading from Exodus (32:1-11.13-14) is not in reality a dialogue between Moses and God, rather more a soliloquy in which the prophet vents his anger and despair to God, in full realization that the justly deserved punishment of Israel would in fact be quite contrary to God’s will. Annihilation of God’s chosen and loved was and never is God’s plan. The simple fact is that God really does love us and never works to destroy his creation. As Julian, the woman enclosed at Norwich wrote with very good cause, “Though we sin continuously, He loves us, endlessly.”
St Paul, or a follower borrowing his name, labours this message to Timothy the leader of a community in Ephesus under some stress, not from external persecution but rather from internal strife: apparently from members who would have liked to return to a more Jewish law-based following of Christ. Clearly Paul realised that this could all too easily lead to a Pharisaism, and an exclusion of those who for so many reasons failed to come up to scratch. Paul reminds the community of his own sickening past, and one they possibly laboured to forget; of how he persecuted Christians and caused their deaths, and of how he blasphemed the faith. With a track record like his, Paul remarks that there is no way in which he could possibly have been rendered acceptable to the faith. Yet, as the Greek puts it, the “Superabundant grace” of Christ revealed his ignorance to him and “The grace of our Lord filled me with faith and with the love that is in Christ Jesus.” Re-created in love, he is now fit to be of service to the community, he Paul is the pre-eminent example of the inexhaustible patience of God, and a demonstration of his plan to give eternal life to those he has chosen. Grace is the divine prerogative. Metanoia, change, is his gift.
Quite clearly Jesus found it extremely difficult to get this pre-eminently important point over to his adversaries, who like us find it so much easier to judge by human standards. In our Gospel (Luke15:1-32) he begins with two simple parables of loss and regain. Sadly English, unlike Greek, loses the play on words in all this, but we are meant to feel the enormity of the loss of the single sheep and the coin, and appreciate the level of rejoicing at their regain. Given the context however, I think we should imagine that this all fell on deaf ears with the result that Jesus then told the powerful story of the forgiving father and the prodigal son.
This was a truly scandalous and shocking story. The younger son is not merely asking for an early grant of cash, which would have been his in the end – rather in which hard up offspring today go to the bank-of-Mum-and-Dad. No, quite to the contrary, he treats his father as one dead and from whom he can now inherit. It is an incredible assault, and suggestive of real ill will and contempt on the part of the younger son. Now this might not have been quite so bad had the son intended to buy land and settle down, but instead, we are told he blew the lot in a life of debauchery. Indeed, so degraded does he become that when famine hits the land he hires himself out to a pig farmer, thereby becoming utterly defiled and contemptible, and even contemplating eating the pig swill. Here is a picture of a human being sunk way beyond hope of redemption in Jewish eyes, but we are told that he comes to his senses and returns home penitent, willing to work as a hired man, no longer recognised as a son and heir.
Now this is where the God-bit kicks in, for we are told that the Father, who apparently never gave up on the wayward son, spied him from a long way off and was not ‘moved with pity’ but in the words of the Greek “His guts were torn apart at the sight” and here he lays aside all his Father and Master-like and Middle Eastern status and runs to meet the son and embraces him. Middle Eastern men do not run in public. This action so easily passes us by, for here the father, clearly representing God the Father, casts aside all his power, respectability and standing in the community, to embrace this disgusting defiled reprobate, the one for whom society has no room and would stubbornly reject. The younger son’s apology is cast aside, for what the father feels is joy, unbounded joy, joy which cannot be quenched, and he gives orders for a party. The other side of the coin is the response of the virtuous son whose response to the loving father is equally as rejecting as was that of the younger in the first place. His outrage at the treatment of the returnee, who had ‘devoured’ the father’s property, knows no bounds; and he cannot forgive it or his father either. At the end of this radical and disturbing parable we are left feeling very uncomfortable, and not the least about the fate of the elder son.
I often wonder if this is not in fact a parable about the divide between the gentile and the Jewish worlds, about those who ultimately made up the church and those who parted company with it. It is a wonderful story of God’s grace and forgiveness, but with very dark undertones too, and a yearning sadness.