Sunday, March 31, 2013

An Idle Tale?

It is difficult to believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. When the women return from the empty tomb and tell the other disciples that Jesus is risen, “they did not believe them.”[1]  Now, these were Jesus’ closest companions, people who had devoted their lives to him.  These were the folks to whom Jesus repeatedly foretold his death and resurrection – as the messengers pointedly reminded the women at the tomb. Yet, even they thought it was an idle tale.

Actually, “idle tale” doesn’t quite capture the meaning of the word leros that is translated here.   It is more like “garbage, drivel, crap.” Their first response to the news of the resurrection was not “Yeah, let’s paint eggs and eat chocolate.”  Basically, there initial response was, “bullshit.”[2] 

The news of the resurrection of Jesus is a disturbing word. We work very hard to find ways to explain it away.  The logic of the resurrection narratives themselves proceed from the assumption that people will not believe.  They try to answer the objections to the resurrection posed in their own time. 

Some said, “Oh, it isn’t really Jesus, but someone who looks like him, his twin.”  Thus, we have accounts of the disciples touching the wounds in Jesus’ body to verify that the Risen Lord is continuous with the crucified Jesus.  Others suggested that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ disciples came and stole his body.  So, the evangelists tell us that the authorities posted guards at the tomb.  Everyone in that time believed in ghosts, so maybe the disciples merely saw Jesus’ ghost.  The Gospels respond with accounts of the disciples eating and drinking with the risen Christ.  This was not a ghost.

As first century people, the apostolic witnesses to the resurrection were not trying to record history. They, like their contemporaries, were far more interested in the meaning of events.  What does it mean for me, for us, that Jesus rises, is seen, heard, touched?  Will I allow it’s meaning to penetrate my defenses, or will I try to deflect it and explain it away?

This question is as challenging to our 21st Century minds as it was to our first century ancestors – perhaps even more so, given how deeply shaped we are by the ethos of scientific materialism.   We have internalized the message that “seeing is believing.”  We are all skeptics.  Like Peter, our impulse is to investigate ourselves.  He is amazed to find the tomb empty, but amazement is not yet belief.

The news of the resurrection of Jesus is difficult to believe.  We resist accepting it, though not necessarily because of its miraculous nature.  There are plenty of phenomena that science can at best describe, but not explain or interpret their meaning.  We accept the Big Bang theory, but do we understand it?  Does the theory really reduce the mystery of there being something rather than nothing?  We accept the theory of evolution, but are we any less amazed by the transition from inanimate matter to animate life, not to mention consciousness? 

I think we resist the news of the resurrection, not because it is a mystery, but because of the order of magnitude of the mystery and its implications for our lives.  His Holiness Benedict XVI described the resurrection as the greatest leap in evolutionary history.  It signifies a degree of transformation akin to that of the moment just before, and just after the Big Bang, expressing even greater possibilities for human being than that wrought by the breakthrough from brain to mind. 

We resist the news of the resurrection of Jesus because we are not altogether certain we want to experience that much transformation.   The transformation of which I speak is not simply surviving death – life after death – though it includes it.  In Jesus time, everybody was thought to survive death, experiencing a shadowy, gray existence in a dimension of reality called Sheol.  Sheol is like living in Daly City and its always summer.[3]  Resurrection is much more than Sheol.

Resurrection is about being changed to a degree we cannot really imagine.  The change is so great that the disciples have a very hard time recognizing the Risen Christ.   There is continuity with our life as we’ve previously known it, but also a degree of transformation that renders us almost unrecognizable to others and even to ourselves; in this new creation “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”[4] 

Fr. Gregory Mayers offers an analogy to help us grasp this transformation.[5]  Each of us has, in fact, already lived another life.  It was a comfortable, safe life, one that we enjoyed very much and did not want to end.  I’m not talking about reincarnation.  I’m talking about the nine months we lived in our mother’s womb.

It was a completely different life than the one we live now.  While there is physical and mental continuity, we have developed in such a way as to be nearly unrecognizable to our pre-natal selves.   Things that are obvious and visible to us now were not obvious or visible to us then.

Imagine twin babies having a conversation together two weeks before their birth about what it will be like to be born.  It would be inconceivable to them.  They wouldn't have language to describe it, and would find the whole idea threatening.  Their conversation would in fact be a lot like our conversations about death.  Birth is like dying.  Our life today is the afterlife of life in the womb.  If birth is like dying, might not dying be like birth?

The afterlife of Jesus is not an idle tale.  It is a model.  It provides the pattern for what our own transformation entails.  Death is birth into a dimension of reality that we can’t anticipate.  St. Paul describes the life that we are living now as a seed and resurrection life as the tree that the seed becomes.  There is continuity between the seed and the tree; the seed contains within itself all the potential that the tree will actualize – but what a change!

St. Paul also speaks of resurrection life as a new creation, a dying to an old way of being and birth into a new way of being that begins now and continues through death and beyond.   The resurrection of Jesus opens the way into this new creation, not only for us, but also for the whole universe.  It inaugurates a new creation on a cosmic scale. 

Talking about the resurrection life is like two twins in the womb talking about birth.  It is difficult to understand.  We’d rather remain as we are.  Babies don’t choose to be born.  They are forced out – pushed and pulled by a power greater than themselves whose loving intention is that they move through the pain and loss of this transition so that they can realize their full potential for abundant life. 

So it is with our Mother God, who is always creating a new heavens and a new earth, whose final promise to us in Scripture is “See, I am making all things new.”[6]  Through the resurrection of Jesus we are being pushed and pulled by grace into the fullness of life that God intends for us.  Jesus is the model for this resurrection life, the beginning of the new creation, the definitive sign that the endless, unconditional love of God is a creative power that transcends even death. 

There is no barrier to this love.  It is always coming to expression in ever-renewed life.  It is manifest in you and me.  You are an expression of divine love.  Jesus comes to show us the way through the birth canal, dying to loveless life, so that we may share in the abundant life for which we were created.  Our life is meant to be a completely transparent expression of the love of God.  That is resurrection life. 

Resurrection is difficult because it pushes and pulls us into a process of
transformation that we resist.  It requires us to acknowledge all the loveless dimensions of the life we are currently living.  We cling to the identity we have secured on the basis of this lovelessness.  It is comfortable.  It is what we know.

Sharing in resurrection life is about learning to love and forgive as Jesus does, and discovering how often we fail to do it adequately.  It is a slow dying of our loveless self, and becoming ever more transparent to the love of God that is beyond our grasping but shines through us when it is freely accepted.  If we don’t find this hard to believe, it is only because we have not grasped the magnitude of the transformation it entails.

What we see in Jesus’ death is God’s love continually being poured out for the renewal of the world.   In his resurrection, we see that nothing can stop this love from making all things new: from making you and me new!  With God, there is no life before and after death, there is only life – eternal life overflowing into each and every moment.  It is our lovelessness that obstructs our capacity to see and enjoy this life.

Resurrection is not an escape from reality into another world, an idle tale to sooth us.  It is the revelation of the inner dynamic and ultimate nature of reality.  In the words of the Orthodox Easter hymn:

Now all is filled with Light,
heaven and earth, and the realm of the dead.
The whole creation rejoices in Christ’s resurrection,
which is its true foundation.[7]  Amen.

[1] Luke 24:11
[2] Anna Florence Carter interview at
[3] Fr. Gregory Mayers, “Resurrection and the 21st Century Mind” and “The Resurrection,”
[4] Isaiah 65:17.
[5] Mayers, op. cit.
[6] Revelation 21:5.
[7] Monk John, “Canon for Pascha,”

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Love That Offers All

Sermon Preached at 
St. James Episcopal Church • San Francisco, CA
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Lent V – Year C
John 12:1-8
The Rev. Ron Willis

Jesus wept…

Jesus, the Son of God, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, that Jesus, our Jesus, wept…

That’s what happened the last time Jesus was here in Bethany… a village not all that far, just across a valley, from Jerusalem. And according to John’s Gospel it wasn’t all that long ago, either.

Of all of Jesus’ committed disciples during his few years of active ministry, some stand out as having shared a particularly endearing relationship with him. John the Evangelist, our Gospeler today, is most certainly one of them.

Mary of Magdala, and Mary his beloved mother, these immediately come to mind. Then so do Martha and Mary of Bethany, and their brother, Lazarus, about whom Mary cried, “he whom you love is ill.”

Not all that long before today’s Gospel account took place in Bethany, Jesus had led his disciples to this village to answer the desperate call of Mary and Martha that Lazarus their brother, Jesus’ beloved friend, was dying. But Jesus had tarried on the way, and Lazarus died before his arrival.

Now John tells us that Jesus knew that his mission in Bethany at that time was to prove beyond any doubt that he was God’s chosen One… that he would raise Lazarus from the dead in order to reveal the power of God in and through him, and thereby increase the number of the faithful.

However, when confronted with the profound grief of Martha and Mary, even knowing what the outcome of the situation would be, Jesus cannot help but be touched by and drawn into the depth of their pain… and allowing himself to enter into that pain, Jesus weeps. John’s account goes on to describe that Jesus continues to experience profound sorrow in solidarity with his friends, right up until he raises Lazarus from the tomb.

In John’s Gospel there is a strong connection between what happened during Jesus’ prior visit to Bethany and the one we hear about today. The siblings’ direct experience of Jesus’ divine power inspires Mary’s extraordinary response to Jesus’ presence today.

But before we go there, it is important to take a quick detour and look at what the broader consequences of Jesus’ actions were after that earlier visit to Bethany.

By the time Jesus and his entourage arrived at the home of Mary and Martha, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. Many other faithful members of their Jewish religious community had gathered and were sitting in vigil with them when Jesus arrived.

So when Jesus raised Lazarus from that cold and putrid tomb, there were numerous witnesses to this miracle. Many immediately became his followers. Some, however, ran to Jerusalem and couldn’t wait to tell the religious authorities what they had witnessed.

The authorities were petrified at the prospect of someone who could supersede their authority, as certainly none of them had ever raised a man from the dead. Beyond that, the potential for testimony from a man raised from the dead as a witness was just too much to bear. And it was based upon this fear of loss of power and influence that the authorities decided emphatically that Jesus had to be put to death. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

As a matter of fact, fast forward just a bit to the verses following today’s Gospel, and they were so unnerved that they sought to kill Lazarus, as well, to ensure that the story of the miracle was extinguished for good.

However, after Lazarus is raised, and before word can reach nearby Jerusalem of his miraculous act, Jesus and his disciples retreat northeast into less-populated lands.

Knowing, now, the background of Jesus’ current visit to Bethany, it is clear that he makes his return to Judea knowing how dangerous it is for him to come closer and closer to Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, we are just days away from his passion - which makes today’s Gospel message all that more poignant.

On his way to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to be followed so very soon by his mock trial and sentence, all of which we commemorate in the liturgy of the Palms next Sunday, he pauses on his journey to break bread with his dear friends.

Picture it… Bethany… 33 AD…

A modest but ample home shared by three siblings is abuzz with preparation for a very special dinner party. The aroma of olive oil and herbs mingle with the fat of lamb as succulent droplets collide with hot coals; citrus, anise, coriander, these, too infuse the air. This is a most special day.

The man they know as both friend and Messiah is to join them with his friends for dinner this evening. Martha, of course, is spinning in circles trying to make sure that everything is in its place. Mary, on the other hand, keeps fighting back the urge to cry. And Lazarus, well, he’s just sitting there with a big smile on his face. (Normally I would want to comment on the pervasiveness of patriarchal stereotypes in Ancient Near Eastern texts, but… he was dead and entombed for four days recently, so in my book that gets him a pass).

And now, Jesus and his friends arrive. Warm greetings are exchanged and all are genuinely filled with delight to be together. Eventually the men gather around the low table, and reclining on their sides they enjoy their splendid meal.

Conversation ensues, the meal is devoured, and contentment, at least for the moment, inhabits the home. Unexpectedly, an intoxicatingly sweet aroma commands the room and drives away all olfactory memory of meat or vegetable, herb or spice.

Heads turn around the candlelit room until the source of the extravagant perfume can be identified. Eyes fall first on Jesus, then to his feet, then to Mary’s delicate hands as she anoints Jesus’ feet with the most precious of fragrant oils. As the cracks in his heels and the calluses on his soles become softer and less prominent, Mary begins to wipe the excess oil from his feet with her long brown hair.

Jesus’ disciples, despite all that he has shared with them about the coming days, remain utterly clueless about Jesus’ imminent passion. So Mary’s actions are simply inexplicable to them. Judging by its fragrance alone, they know that the perfume must have been terribly expensive, so why use it on, of all places, someone’s feet?

And beyond that, they all knew that Mary was a beloved friend and disciple of Jesus… the subservient act of wiping and drying another’s feet with one’s hair is an ultimate sign of inequity, something that would only be done when there was an enormous discrepancy between the status of the individuals involved.

But then Judas, ever watchful for an opportunity to increase his lot in life, exclaims scornfully that Mary has just wasted perfume worth a year of wages, and for what?! “Think about what that could have done if used for the poor! “(As if Judas cared the least bit about those who were in need.) Judas is ironically trying to stake the moral high ground here, but only out of grief over what he could have purchased for himself out of the portion of the 300 dinarii that he would have stolen from the common purse had they sold the perfume.

Jesus responds immediately and forcefully to Judas’ rebuke, exclaiming, “Leave Her Alone!”

He then follows with one of his most abused of his Scriptural quotes when used out of context, “You always have the poor with you, but you don’t always have me.” How many times has this been proof-texted to uphold a theology that claims that Christians have little or no role in caring for those in need, or for the mindful stewardship of the Earth, but instead are only responsible for making new Christian converts? Faced with the overwhelming number of times that Jesus stresses that our most important obligation after loving God is to love our neighbor, how do people fall into this heresy? But, I digress…

What Jesus wanted his disciples to understand was the imminence of his execution. And at this very late point in their relationship, it seems that it’s less about his concern that they intellectually grasp the fullness of his ministry – he must know that in time that would come. Instead, perhaps it is their emotional state that is his primary concern. If only they had listened more carefully, if only they had understood what Jesus had been saying about his ministry for the last months and years, they might be able to steel themselves for the coming onslaught of disbelief, fear and grief that they would soon experience.

Just as Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb, so too his heart must have ached over the dark path upon which his disciples were about to embark. If only they understood, like Mary of Bethany did, that all God asked of them was faith in Him as their redeemer.

Mary provides an intimate window into the life of a true disciple – to offer all that we have in service to our Lord and Savior. Her act of compassion sets the stage for Jesus’ similar compassionate act of washing the feet of his disciples in the coming days, and his charging them with doing the same for each other. It’s not an accident that John uses the same word to describe Mary’s act of wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair as he uses for Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his disciples. But for now, only Mary of Bethany and a select few others truly understand who Jesus is, and to whom they belong.

To close I would like to share a poem I discovered while studying today’s reading. From Liz Curtis Higgs: 

Gratitude brought her to her knees.
Reverence brought her closer still.
Love now draws her face toward the ground.
Like the perfume before it,
    her dark hair spills across his feet.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mansions of the Heart

In the preface to R. Thomas Ashbrook's Mansions of the Heart: Exploring the Seven Stages of Spiritual Growth, Eugene Peterson writes
"While I was in seminary in training to be a pastor, I was immersed in the Bible (a good thing), provided with an extensive familiarity in the theological thinking of Luther, Calvin, and others (also a good thing), but I learned virtually nothing regarding the on-the-ground living of the Christian life and what was actually involved in following Jesus over a lifetime in the cultural conditions of America." (p. xi)

Mansions of the Heart seeks to fill that void by providing a roadmap of the path to Christian maturity.  In this regard, it is nothing new.  In fact, it explicitly draws on a classic roadmap outlined in St. Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castle.  What is new is the way in which Ashbrook makes Teresa's insights orderly and accessible for contemporary Christian readers.  In so doing, Ashbrook has developed a manual for prayer and spiritual direction that is both catholic and evangelical.

In Teresa's typology, each "mansion" describes a stage of intimacy with God through Christ that moves more deeply into the interior of the "castle" (the human heart or soul).  It is a movement of increasing union with God, and each stage is characterized by different challenges and opportunities.  Ashbrook helpfully provides a template for each "mansion" that includes the heart's desire in relationship with God, key activities in response to God, changing patterns in prayer, Jesus' initiatives to draw us into a deeper intimacy with God, the "schemes of the enemy" that seek to undermine our growth in God, and keys for growth that help us cooperate with God.  These six lenses are used to examine each of the seven "mansions" or stages of growth.

Ashbrook grounds this theoretical template in a narrative of the lives of two hypothetical Christians, Abigail and Michael, as they move through the stages.  Their stories give texture and nuance to the stage theory they illustrate.  Ashbrook is well aware of the dangers inherent in such theories.  He is careful to acknowledge the unique way in which each individual will experience these stages, and emphasizes again and again that most people do not move through the stages in a neat, linear fashion.  Nevertheless, his use of St. Teresa's roadmap provides a framework that can help make sense of our own experience.

The great strength of Ashbrook's exposition is that he translates a catholic classic into language that contemporary evangelicals can hear.  This is, at the same time, the source of difficulty for readers, like me, who do not share the presuppositions of evangelicals.  While Ashbrook is far more sophisticated in his use of Scripture than simply proof-texting, he operates with a view of biblical authority that borders on sola scriptura - Scripture alone - that is alien to an Anglican hermeneutic of Scripture in dialogue with tradition and reason.

His felt need to quote Scripture at every turn is a little wearying at times, indicating an overly cautious approach to lived spiritual experience that tries to put God in a box.  At the same time, I appreciated his realism about our capacity to deceive ourselves about ourselves - and to be deceived by the evil one - which requires the corrective of the Christian community grounded in Scripture and tradition.

His depictions of Abigail and Michael felt a little sentimental and cloying in some places.  I would even go so far to say that it was, at times, sexist.  Abigail, for example, ministers only to other women, while Michael is called to ordained ministry.  Even so, their struggles with dating and marriage, parenting, addiction and other issues made their journeys real and compelling.  Ashbrook depicts their humanity, and ours, with a sense of grace and forbearance.

For me, what was most real and compelling about the book was its depiction of the Christian life as an ever-deeping invitation to love, a shift from treating God as an object to be manipulated, placated, or possessed, to experiencing relationship with God as an end in itself.  "Instead of having Jesus live as part of our lives, we had to discover how to live as part of His." (p. 170)  St. Teresa's vision is one of intimate union with God.  Ashbrook is at his best in conveying how this union is our heart's true desire, and all the ways in which we resist this desire.

Ashbrook's description of the spiritual journey is rich, complex, and realistic.  It has the ring of truth about it.  His chapter on St. John of the Cross and the experience of "The Dark Night of the Soul" rounds out St. Teresa's perspective nicely, and his exposition of the two provides a good introduction to Carmelite spirituality.  In spite of its limitations, any Christian who picks up Mansions of the Heart will find his or her experience reflected there.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In Praise of Charity

Saint Gregory the Great

In John’s gospel the Lord says: By this love you have for one another, everyone will know you are my disciples. In a letter by John we read: My dear people, let us love one another since love comes from God and everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Anyone who fails to love can never have known God, because God is love.
  So the faithful should look into themselves and carefully examine their minds and the impulses of their hearts. If they find some of the fruits of love stored in their hearts then they must not doubt God’s presence within them, but to make themselves more and more able to receive so great a guest they should do more and more works of durable mercy and kindness. After all, if God is love, charity should know no limit, for God himself cannot be confined within limits.
  What is the appropriate time for performing works of charity? My beloved children, any time is the right time, but these days of Lent provide a special encouragement. Those who want to be present at the Lord’s Passover in holiness of mind and body should seek above all to win this grace. Charity contains all other virtues and covers a multitude of sins.
  As we prepare to celebrate that greatest of all mysteries, by which the blood of Jesus Christ destroyed our sins, let us first of all make ready the sacrificial offerings — that is, our works of mercy. What God in his goodness has already given to us, let us give it to those who have sinned against us.
  And to the poor also, and to those who are afflicted in various ways, let us show a more open-handed generosity so that God may be thanked through many voices and the needy may be fed as a result of our fasting. No act of devotion on the part of the faithful gives God more pleasure than the support that is lavished on his poor. Where God finds charity with its loving concern, there he recognises the reflection of his own fatherly care.
  Do not be put off giving by a lack of resources. A generous spirit is itself great wealth, and there can be no shortage of material for generosity where it is Christ who feeds and Christ who is fed. His hand is present in all this activity: his hand, which multiplies the bread by breaking it and increases it by giving it away.
  When you give alms, do not be anxious but full of happiness. The greatest treasure will go to the one who has kept the least for himself. The holy apostle Paul tells us: He who provides seed for the sower will give bread for food, provide you with more seed, and increase the harvest of your goodness, in Christ Jesus our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.
                                                        - from a sermon by Saint Gregory the Great

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son

The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the best known of all the stories that Jesus told.  Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the greatest story in the Bible – or out of it. Like any good story, it provides many different hooks to draw us in, evoking a vast array of associations that raise as many questions as they answer.   Parables are like koans:  they break open our hearts and minds so that we can see things we couldn’t see before.  They change us.

Imagine the first people who heard Jesus tell this story.   They probably were gathered in the synagogue on the Sabbath to hear him teach, or possibly just outside of the synagogue since the tax collectors and sinners among them would not have felt very welcome.  They Pharisees are grumbling about this motley crew when Jesus begins to expound upon the readings for the day.

For more than 100 years before Christ, the books of Moses, the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, had been divided into 150 sections so that they could be read in their entirety over a three-year cycle.  More recently, readings from sections of the Prophets had been added.  So, Jesus would not have been commenting on a text at random, but would have been commenting on the appointed lessons.[1]

Jesus may well have been commenting on Genesis 46:28 – 47:31 and Ezekiel 37:15-28.  Both readings are about the resolution of sibling rivalries: Joseph being reunited with his father, Jacob, and his brothers, who had previously left him for dead before selling him into slavery; and the tribes of Judah and Joseph being reunited into one kingdom in which God would make his dwelling place. 

It also is possible that Jesus could have been commenting on Deuteronomy 21:15-23 and the Book of Malachi.  The verses from Deuteronomy deal with splitting the inheritance among brothers: the first-born gets two-thirds of the possessions, while the second gets one-third.  It goes on to command stoning for stubborn and rebellious sons, and concludes with instructions on how to handle capital crimes: by hanging – “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”  The Malachi reading begins with reference to a younger brother whom God loved, and an older one whom God rejected, and concludes with the promise of the return of the prophet Elijah, who will reconcile parents and children.

All of these stories of sibling rivalry, inheritance, and the difficulties of reconciliation between fathers and sons would have been familiar to Jesus’ hearers.  His story of the Prodigal Son would thus have been rich with allusions and perhaps even confusing.  In Genesis, it is Joseph who runs to meet his father and falls on his neck weeping.   With the Prodigal, it is the father who runs to meet the son.  The father gives his younger son a ring and celebrates his return, while in Genesis it is Pharaoh who gives Joseph a ring and places him in charge of Egypt. 

So in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal, the father could be Joseph, or God, or even Pharaoh.  The younger son, the prodigal, could be Joseph, but then Moses was also a younger son who sojourned in a foreign land for a while before returning to bring his people home; and Jacob was the younger brother of Esau, and stole his brothers birthright, not unlike the prodigal son who takes pride of place.  The younger son would be the rebellious son stoned in Deuteronomy while the older brother is the one who gets the two-thirds of the inheritance; but then he could be Aaron, Moses’ older brother, or Cain, who slew his younger brother, Abel, or Esau or even a stand-in for the older brothers who ganged up on Joseph. 

If you aren’t confused, you should be.  The Parable is like a koan: the more we think about it the more our head hurts.  It floods us with so many possibilities that we become awash in meaning.  One of the reasons this parable is such a great story is because it resonates with and interprets so many other stories in the Bible – far more than I’ve been able to allude to here. Jesus is offering us a story in and through which we can read all the other stories in a new and startling way. 

Now, if Jesus first hearers were confused by the many allusions, reversals, and connections being made in the parable of the Prodigal Son, they were shocked by the parable’s narrative thread.   Here too, we must try to understand what the hearers assumed about their world, filling out the story in ways not immediately available to us.[2]

The first thing to note is the audacity of the younger son.  In those days, wealth was held primarily in land, which was passed from generation to generation.  While sons could inherit property while their father was still alive, the patriarch retained right of use until death.  Keeping land in the family was absolutely essential to its economic well-being and to the ties of mutual respect, reciprocity, and responsibility that bound it to the wider community. 

Upon the death of the patriarch his oldest son would inherit two-thirds of the land, while the second son would get the remaining third.  For the younger son to ask for his inheritance now, while his father was still alive, was essentially to say:  “You are as good as dead to me.  Give me what is mine.”  

Understand that this would not have meant writing a check.  It would have involved the selling of land, livestock, etc. in a very public process that would have been humiliating to the father, undermining the family’s honor in a time and place where honor was the main form of social capital.  Without it, you were powerless.

The younger son not only breaks up the estate, he means to leave with his portion, leaving his parents more vulnerable in their old age: with one less son and one-third less property to depend upon.  If this younger son is not to become a pariah, he has only one option left if he ever wants to return home:  be better hit it big with his share of the estate and shower everybody in town with enough booty and honor to make up for the shame he has brought upon his whole family.

Of course, that is not what happens.  He looses everything in the most degrading way possible:  wasted on whores and Gentiles.  When he finally comes to himself, he decides that maybe he could get hired on as a farmhand at his dad’s place.  At least then, he wouldn’t be hungry.  So he sets his face toward home.

This is a risky move on his part, underscoring how low he has sunk.  He knows that he will not get a very welcome reception in his hometown.  In fact, what he has done is so reprehensible that Jewish custom prescribed a ritual for just such an occasion as his return.  It was called the qetsatsah (kweat-sat-sash) ceremony.  The villagers would gather around him and break earthenware jugs filled with burnt corn and nuts, shouting his name and pronouncing him cut-off from the community.  It was a rite of excommunication, and no one could have any dealings with him thereafter.  He was as good as dead.

The prodigal son is rolling the dice.  Maybe he can sneak into town before anybody notices.  Maybe he can earn enough over time as a common laborer to pay his father back; maybe, maybe not.  It isn’t easy to move out of the place of shame once you’ve landed there; at least, not under your own steam.  It requires an act of grace.

That is exactly what happens, and in the most astonishing way.  The father has been waiting for his wayward son all along, and runs to meet him while the son is still a ways off.   He knows what will happen once the villagers get wind of his son’s return.  He is willing to do anything to promote reconciliation and reunion, and, in fact, does the unthinkable.  He races to occupy the space of shame in place of his son.

Imagine what the neighbors must think when they see Dad running to embrace his deadbeat son.  They live by Aristotle’s dictum: “Great men never run in public.”  Fathers don’t run to sons; sons run to fathers.  But if Dad can get to him before the village does, he can save his relationship with this son, and his family’s relationship with the village.  The price he will have to pay is his own honor, the loss of respect from his friends and neighbors.

He literally wraps his son in the cloak of honor to save him:  giving him the best robe (which would have been his own), putting a ring on his finger (a signet ring, a sign of authority), and sandals on his feet (only a slave walks around barefoot).  He then orders the slaughter of a fatted calf for a feast.   He is throwing a party for the whole town, using up every ounce of his rapidly diminishing social capital to foster reconciliation.  For Dad, relationship means more than anything  - more than honor, more than wealth, more than life itself.   He bears his son’s shame, so that he can give him back his life.

What of the older son?  He is pissed.  When he hears the party and learns what it is about, he remains outside in a huff.  His refusal to join the party is yet another insult to the father.  Can you blame him?  Nobody asked if he wanted to be reconciled with the brother who squandered their inheritance and left him with the burden of taking care of the family.  As Barbara Brown Taylor observes, "Dad never threw a party for him, and, dammit, he is the good son." 

So Dad endures yet another walk of shame in front of the whole town, to implore him to come in.  What a pair these sons are: one is preoccupied with being fed, the other with being right; neither seems much interested in being at peace with others.  We never know if the younger son was truly repentant.   We never find out whether the older son eventually joined the party.  We do know that Dad continues to patiently wait outside, betting the farm on reconciliation.

The greatness of this story lies in its invitation to see that relationship is more important than pleasure or piety, more important than self-realization or self-righteousness.  Reconciliation is everything, and God is a bottomless abyss of compassion poured out continually in the hope of reunion.  Dad – or Mom, if you like – wants us to come home and be at peace with one another.  And God will do anything, pay any price, endure the greatest shame – even death on a cross - for the sake of restoring us to life in love.

God is throwing a feast for us yet again today.  And you are invited.  In fact, you are the guest of honor, or are you the host, or maybe the person sulking outside? Does it matter?  The point is that the party is going on, and God is waiting patiently, watching attentively, for the last guest to arrive. 

[1] James Alison, “He opened up to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27b):  How can we recover Christological and Ecclesial habits of Catholic Bible Reading? at  Alison offers a brilliant reading of the Prodigal Son parable, illuminating the scriptural background upon which Jesus was very likely commenting.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor does this beautifully in The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family at