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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before March 6, 2016

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So Jesus told them this parable:

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

What I Am Learning:

Let's remember who these people are.

The Pharisees are a reform movement within the People of Israel. They saw that the occupation by the Romans was crushing Israel's spirit. Their way of doing this was to form a network of religious leaders who tried to increase the religious devotion of Jewish people. The problem was that the way they did this did not challenge deeply enough the fact of the Roman occupation itself.

The scribes were folks who could read and write. They were the administrators and bookkeepers. They sort of served as the Google of Biblical and legal knowledge in their day and as arbiters who could settle disputes.

Both the Pharisees and the scribes benefited from the unjust economic system. They were among a very small middle class - maybe 10 percent of the population.

This does not mean that they were bad people or that they would not have liked a more just economic and political system. But we need to take their social location seriously. Their relative comfort let them focus on issues that were not the real issue for most people.

The impact of what Pharisees and scribes taught was this: the real issue was that the People of Israel were not faithful enough to God in living out the 613 laws of the People of Israel.

Effectively they blamed a portion of the People of Israel for the Roman Occupation by implying that what hindered God from acting to cast out the Romans was their lack of piety. When they saw Jesus hanging out with the impious 85% percent of the people, they thought that Jesus was approving of their lack of piety.

Jesus had a very different analysis of the situation.

Jesus knew that 10% of the people were basically homeless and 75% were very poor. They simply did not have the economic security to tithe mint and cumin and to afford the sacrifices required by the 613 laws. Jesus saw that focus on the religious issues only served to further oppress and judge an already oppressed people.

His strategy was to listen to the poor, understand them, to show compassion to them, to remind them of their inherent worth as human beings and as a part of the Hebrew people. Instead of telling them how they didn't measure up, how they were to blame for the Roman occupation, Jesus chose to love them and identify with them.

So then Jesus tells a story which almost everyone knows: the prodigal son.

In this story begins with the son wishing his father was dead by asking for his share of the estate. In doing so he dishonored his father, his tribe and his village and all of Israel. It even dishonored God in their eyes. He lived high on the hog in a foreign country and ended up feeding the hogs - as religiously unclean as you can get for a Jew.

At it's root, this is a story of radical forgiveness in which the father runs to welcome and forgive the son because the father loves and values him. The father runs because he might have expected that the other villagers might have killed the son on the spot. By running to the son, the father is willing to lose his own credibility by associating with his son who had so profoundly betrayed him and all his people. The eldest son, who now will live with the lowered credibility of his family the rest of his life is angry with his father for the shame the father created by welcoming his shameful son. The father also goes to him and begs him to be reconciled to his brother.

The story is often called the prodigal son. It could also be called the prodigal sons, as each one is at odds with the father at some point in the story. It could also be called the prodigal father as he does not do what is expected of him.

The question is: Who is the son who dishonored his father: the poor or the Pharisees and the scribes?

Remember the story is told in answer to the scribes and Pharisees anger that Jesus was hanging out with the 85% of those they considered unfaithful.

In any case Jesus is saying that God is more concerned about forgiving and reconciling with people than about God's honor.

It is possible that the eldest son represents the Pharisees and the scribes as the unforgiving brother who resists God's desire for reconciliation.

It is also possible that the Pharisees and the scribes are the youngest son. Jesus could be saying that they are the ones who have taken the inheritance of the People of Israel and identified with the Romans, benefiting from their unjust economy and became accommodated to their ways. In this case the eldest son may be the poor who resent the Pharisees and the scribes.

Stories like this are called parables. They are meant to be interpreted in surprising and multiple ways.

Frankly the story works both ways. What Jesus is saying is that the supreme character of God is to forgive and to work for reconciliation between all God's children.

Jesus knows that the future of the People of Israel will require all of the fractured groups to come together. He knows that the Romans used the strategy of dividing people to maintain their control. In this story, Jesus tries to encourage all of his people to join God in forgiveness and in the work of reconciling with each other.

Today there are lots of forces that benefit from our being so divided and actively work to divide us. You know that one such division on my mind is the division between the two largest religions in the world: Muslims and Christians.

Jesus shows us how to respond to this division in his telling of this story. More importantly, he reveals the heart of God for all of God's divided children - a God who loves so much God's doesn't care how it looks.

We are invited to join God in this reconciling work. And we don't have to care how we look to others as we do so.