Sunday, March 10, 2013
While We Are Away...
If you are having a difficult time finding the courage to go to confession, chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel is probably the best thing that you could possibly read. The chapter begins with the parable of the lost sheep, followed by the parable of the lost coin, before our Lord finishes his lesson on repentance with the timeless account of the prodigal son that we hear in the Gospel reading this weekend. This is not the only place in the scriptures that Jesus speaks about the beauty of repentance and forgiveness. He preached on the theme of reconciliation continually.
As we hear the familiar words of the parable of the prodigal son once more today, might we ask ourselves, “Why does Christ place so much emphasis here?” “What is our Lord trying to teach us, to teach you and I?”
On the face of it, the lesson might seem simple: That God is good and merciful. And this is a lesson that I think is pretty clear just in a simple reading of these passages of scripture. Most Christians have learned this lesson, at least in theory - that God does not exact revenge or keep grudges. Now and then I do hear someone expressing an idea that something bad was visited on them as if God had it out for them, as if they deserved it because of their sinful past. But this mistaken idea that God harms us in retaliation for our sins is not very common. Most people, I think, have a very robust faith that God will forgive them no matter what happens, that if they turn back to God he will never turn away from us.
But there is another lesson that our Lord implicitly gives throughout his teaching on reconciliation that I think is far more important for us to encounter in all its depth today. And really it is not so much a lesson as it is a perspective, the correct way of seeing how God interacts with us: understanding the truth about God’s great intimacy and empathy and self-identification with us.
God’s forgiveness is part of a bigger picture, it only makes sense in the context of a thoroughly intimate and profound relationship. Again and again, Christ made this point throughout his ministry. That there is not a hair on our heads that is unknown, there is not tiny pebble that passes beneath our feet without our Heavenly Father’s notice. When the prodigal son is away, the father’s eyes are constantly scanning the horizon. How many sleepless nights were there? How many times did he wonder if he was still alive? Wish that he would come home? Think of the things he would like to share with him, like to give him. Lament that he could not entrust him with his life’s work. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd almost foolishly leaves the 99 in search of the 1 – as if he had an inordinate attachment to it – just could not stand not to hear it’s bleating in the flock, it’s absence almost painful. The parable of the lost coin shows this same almost obsessiveness – someone who tears apart the whole house and stays up half the night, calling all her friends over to help until she finds this coin – the coin she just has to have, that cannot simply be replaced, that is not expendable.
The parables demonstrate not just that God is generically good and merciful to those who call upon him because he can’t help it, but that he is personally invested in us. Why does Christ use the image of a Father and Son when speaking about God’s relationship to each of us? The way that a parent loves a child, is invested in the wellbeing of a child is the closest thing he can point to in our experience to indicate how God cares for us.
But we have a hard time understanding this way that God loves. We can only love maybe one or two people with a bit of this kind of intensity – maybe a few more if we have a large family – some of the saints has given us glimpses into what this kind of deep personal investment in each human being might start to look like - but even their example pales in comparison, is just a shadow - you and I can’t even begin to fathom loving the whole human race with the intensity that God loves us. How he pours out his life on this altar – what this even means… we are at a loss. All of our hopes and fears, our anxieties and temptations, our joys and consolations… Christ is so connected to it all, so alive in it all that he calls it his own, he says that we are his, that we are him – we are his body, the Church.
And this perspective, this understanding, this knowledge of reality, of the truth about God, about the way that he cares for us, that he is connected to us… is foundational, is critical. It is especially critical if we are to understand the sacrament of penance. Because it is only when we understand the depth of the gift of Christ to us, in us, with us that we realize that our so called private sins are not only personal failures, but sins against Christ. It is only when we understand God’s great compassion for each person, the way that Christ identifies himself with every brother and sister we encounter, that we see that we must confess our sins against others in the confessional. We understand clearly that when we injure others, we injure Christ. And when we sin against our brother or sister we not only apologize to them before coming to this altar, but we must also be reconciled with our Lord who cares for and and identifies himself with our brother and our sister and with each of us.
In short, Christ’s parables show us that when we are away on prodigal paths God does not just continue on as if nothing were wrong. No, his eyes are constantly on the horizon. He is always waiting. Our wanderings always trouble him. Our injuries always injure him. We never wander, we never sin alone, privately – we always dissipate our lives under the loving gaze of our heavenly Father, every sin is in some way a sin against his love. St. Paul urges us today “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” The light is on for you this week. Go to confession.