Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Prodigal Son

Well, friends, we are drawing ever closer to the great mysteries we will celebrate during Holy Week and Easter Week—of the death and Resurrection of the Lord. And to prepare us on this Sunday, the Church gives us one of Jesus’ greatest parables. The parable of the Prodigal Son, which appears only in Luke’s gospel, offers us a very rich meditation on what God is like, and how God saves us despite the many ways that we fail him.

Ever since the first time I read this story, I’ve always felt bad for the older son. There he is, having worked diligently and quietly all those years, honoring the father and doing everything he was supposed to do. He was the good kid. Why didn’t he get the party? Instead, just because the bad kid got himself into enough trouble to come home again, he’s the one who gets the big party. It just doesn’t seem fair—and the older brother feels it. That’s why he complains to the father, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.”

Don’t you feel for this guy? Like I said, he was the good kid. And yet this older brother points out to us one of the real spiritual dangers of being a righteous person. And that’s us, more or less righteous people; people who go to Church, who try to know and follow the will of God, who seek to live a life of responsibility. But one thing that can easily happen to righteous people is that we can become bitter. Bitter against the world, or worse, bitter against God.

We who make such an effort to be good people, who come to Church each week to hear the Word of God—shouldn’t God love us more than he loves the sinner, the criminal, or the terrorist? It only seems fair. But it’s not true. God loves the terrorist, the criminal, and the sinner just as much as he loves you and me. And if the worst sinner in the world were to repent and turn back to God this Lent, there would be more rejoicing in heaven than there is for us who have been trying to serve God the whole time.

Does it seem unfair? Well, we think we’ve been serving God all along, but maybe we’re not so righteous after all. Whether we have the bitterness of the older brother or not, we surely sometimes act like the younger brother, who dishonored his father and squandered his money. All of us have wasted and taken the gifts of God lightly at one point or another. I know I have. In fact, our sins count against us more, because we know and believe in God and we should know better!

Perhaps one of the only good things about sin is that sin makes us anxious and miserable. And eventually, like the younger son, we decide to turn back to our heavenly father. And this brings us to richest and most beautiful part of today’s parable: the father. The father in Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son is an image of our father in heaven.

Does the father protect the security of his money when his younger son insults him by wasting it? No. Does he protect his honor when his older son insults his generosity? No. This father does nothing in defense of his own rights or of his own honor. He is only forgiveness and generosity, and wants nothing more than for both of his sons to celebrate the whole family being back together.

Friends, this is what our God is like. God lets go of all the honor, all the power, and all the rights that go with being the almighty God. God refuses to control the world and insists on giving us the free will to shape the world as we see fit. And when we make the world violent and miserable with our bad choices and our sins, God doesn’t punish us or fix the world with a heavy hand.

We human beings constantly the squander the great gifts of God. We destroy the earth. We treat each other like furniture. And in all this we make ourselves and our world miserable. And God’s only response is to let go of everything it means to be God, to become the least among us, and, on the Cross, to absorb all of our sins and bitterness and violence in his own body.

As Paul says today, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them.” Just like the father in the parable, God is only concerned with reconciliation, with having the whole family back together again, and not with punishment or honor.

Paul goes on to say that through Christ we can become the “righteousness of God.” This is the real good news today. The righteousness of God is what we seek, not to be righteous ourselves.

The older brother, who had served the father quietly all those years, thought he was righteous. But taking that righteousness to himself made him self-righteous and bitter. The younger son, who knew very well that he wasn’t righteous at all, well, the father puts the good robe over him and the ring on his finger and makes him the guest of honor.

This is our good news. Not that we are good, or that we are better than other people who don’t try to serve God, but that God is good. And God is not interested in defending his honor or in punishing sin, but only cares about loving and reconciling the world. Contemplate the Cross then, as we get closer to Holy Week, and see the God who is literally, just dying to bring the whole human family back together again.

(4th Sunday of Lent, C)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Burning Bush and Fruitful Tree

(3rd Sunday of Lent, C) These days we can’t help but be aware of all of the severe weather in the world, of all the earthquakes and natural disasters, of El NiƱo and global warming. And once in a while you hear someone saying that all of the suffering of these misfortunes is God’s punishment on the world. There are folks here in the United States who want us to believe that recent hurricanes and tornadoes are a punishment from God for our sins, for things like abortion and so-called gay marriage. But do you really think that a loving God would punish schoolchildren in Georgia or the poor folks in New Orleans for these sins?
In our Gospel today Jesus comes right out against this kind of thinking, and turns it around on the hearer. As we heard, “those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
Do you think the parents who lost their children in the tornado in Georgia were greater sinners than we are? How about the folks who lost their homes and their lives in hurricane Katrina? Were they greater sinners than you and me? Certainly not. Jesus teaches us today that these misfortunes should not lead us to reflect on other people’s sins, but on the state of our own souls, and on our own need for repentance.
This is what Lent is about, is it not? It’s a time to get back to basics, to turn ourselves back to God and to let go of what gets in the way between us and God. The Scriptures offer us so many models of how we can do this, but we have one of the greatest in our first reading today: Moses approaching God in the burning bush.
And what does God say when Moses begins to come near? “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” What’s that all about? Sandals are great, but they are made of leather, and leather is dead skin. And nothing having anything to do with death can come near to the living God. And it’s the same with us: in order to approach God, or, better, to allow God to approach us, we have to take off everything that has do with death—that is, the sins by which we bring suffering and difficulty into the world.
This is our choice in life: to approach the Lord or to remain in the selfishness of sin. Moses was amazed at the bush that was on fire, but was not consumed. The fire of God, the Holy Spirit, does not consume, does not destroy. But when we burn with the grumpiness and anxiety of sin—that’s the fire that consumes us. The burning of sin hurts and consumes us, leaving us burnt and dulled in our feeling and perception. But the fire of God does not consume, but rather affirms us, makes us more into the people we are meant to be. And when we see someone truly on fire with the love of God, their true humanity shining through so brilliantly, we are like Moses who was amazed to see the bush burning without being consumed.
So that’s our choice: to burn and be consumed in sin, or to glow safely in the fire of the love of God.
And this choice has some urgency to it, as Jesus teaches us today in the parable of the fig tree. The owner of the vineyard, who is God, of course, comes to look for his figs. Finding none, he tells the gardener to cut down the tree. The gardener promises that, although the tree has been fruitless up to now, he will take better care of it, and it will bear fruit in the following year.
When I was staying at our novitiate in Honduras, the novice master gave each of the novice friars a little patch of ground to cultivate. He said to them, “I need to see that you can care for a living thing. And I can’t see your soul, but I can see this little garden.” How beautiful, right?
This is one way we can hear Jesus in his parable today. We are the gardeners, each of us taking care of the fig tree of our own soul. God is owner of the vineyard and comes to see if our hearts have borne any good fruit, if they have blossomed with love and gentleness and faith.
But God is no absentee landlord! God is right there working in the garden with us. God provides everything we need to grow and flourish. The warmth of God’s love is like the sun that strengthens. Like the Israelites in the desert we receive the life-giving water that flows from the rock—and as Paul says, the rock was Christ!
In this Eucharist, blood and water flow over us from the side of Christ to nourish and fertilize the little garden of our souls. The bread of life gives us the strength to continue to prune and cultivate ourselves, so that, when we finally come face to face with God, we may be found flourishing with all the fruits of love and faith.
Each week we come closer to the great feast of the Resurrection of the Lord. Let us receive today the bread of life and the life-giving water from the Rock, and allow God to cultivate our hearts, so that, when we come to renewal of our baptism this Easter, we are found with loving and peaceful hearts, blossoming out with joy.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Incarnation and Transfiguration

I have this weekend off from preaching, but you can click here for a short reflection on this Sunday's wonderful readings.