Monday, 13 September 2010

With Open Arms: A reflection on this past Sunday's Gospel

(taken from the Times of Malta Sunday edition)

Twenty-fourth Sunday of the year

With open arms

Fr René Camilleri

Today’s readings: Exodus 32, 7-11.13-14; 1 Timothy 1, 12-17; Luke 15, 1-32.

The three Gospel stories in Luke this Sunday refer to two types of people – tax collectors and sinners on one hand and the Pharisees and the scribes on the other.

Rather than two categories of people, they represent two basic attitudes in life – that of listening and the know-it-all judgmental attitude.

The long parable of the lost son is a complex story that concerns personal relationships and is heavy with emotion. But it lends itself easily to broader interpretations. The feelings of loss and emptiness that characterise the younger son’s wanderings resemble those of our living in an age which has promised so much and which continues to fall short of keeping its promises of happiness and fulfillment.

The younger son’s alienation, his leaving home and losing himself, as well as his “coming to himself”, are all suggestive of what many go through, and even of what humanity in general has been going through, particularly in the modern age.

In our culture there are signs of the return of something we might have lost, and about which we seem to be nostalgic.

In his book Nostalgia for the Absolute, George Steiner speaks about Western culture’s moral emptiness, and how various alternatives have failed to fill the gap left by the decay of formal religion.

In his letter to Timothy, St Paul says: “If mercy has been shown to me, it is because Jesus Christ meant to make me the greatest evidence of His inexhaustible patience for all the other people.”

In the book The Church. A Guide for the Perplexed, Matt Jenson and David Wilhite offer theological tonic to those for whom ‘Church’ connotes scandal or abuse rather than good news and reconciliation.

With the diversity of pastoral situations we encounter today, making us define situations that are ‘regular’ and others ‘irregular’, it is commonplace that for many, ‘Church’ implies exclusion rather than inclusion, the law rather than mercy, rejection rather than acceptance.

This is the perennial pastoral problem. And it is the problem of the elder son in the Gospel story who today is easily represented in those who feel uncomfortable to discuss certain situations which for them are clear-cut.

How is the Church to manage situations which are clear-cut from the side of the law, yet demand comprehension?

The father in the story had to take sides between two conflicting situations. And he deemed it more important to open his arms rather than lay down the law, even if this meant irritating the elder, self-righteous son.

There are situations and issues we constantly discuss in the Church. But for many, here represented in the elder son, there is nothing to discuss. For them, doctrine is clear, there is only black or white. Grey would be betrayal of the law and of tradition.

But what can be done when nothing can be done? Even the Exodus reading provides surprises in this regard. After their liberation from Egypt, God’s people went astray and betrayed their faith to the extent that the Lord decided to call it a day and give vent to His wrath. But when nothing could be done, Moses intervened and mediated to plead with the Lord.

What a surprise to the prophets of doom who know no shade of grey. Here is a God who changes His mind, who is never prisoner to a set mind, not because He has no principles but because for Him people come before the law. Here is a God whose patience is inexhaustible. Here is the God we believe in, a God kissing tenderly.