Who Would We Reject?
The recent mass shootings of Muslims at worship in Christchurch generated a sudden surge of support for the Muslim community but if we look closely it may have also shone a light on some things we might rather have left in the dark.
Although a clear majority were horrified at the shooter’s violence – which more than doubled the number of victims of murders in New Zealand for a typical year, the TV interviews with the New Zealand Muslim community in the aftermath revealed many instances of previous acts of discrimination. It is hoped that as a result many will now renounce their previous acts of discrimination and hate speech. Just for the record some are yet to do so.
Here at random. I heard one of the Muslim women say she had been spat at in the face down the street. At Mt Albert, the day after the shooting, two Muslim girls were sworn at and told to get back to their own country. Shortly after the Prime minister made her heartfelt plea for uniting in love she was sent a picture of herself in a Muslim prayer shawl. The caption read: “You’re next!” A member of our own congregation at Papakura (who would probably have looked Indian to his accuser) was accosted at a South Auckland Petrol station and told to leave the country because his car was in the pump space that the angry man felt entitled to.
Friday a week ago, I visited a Muslim centre with a delegation of Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans and Presbyterians and was assured by one of the Muslim leaders, that all the members of his community are very used to hearing discriminatory expressions.
And so we come to today’s familiar story of the Prodigal Son – a story based in the context of entitlement and discrimination. It is, of course, one of the most famous of all parables. We note, unlike many other parables this one was found only in Luke’s gospel. My gut feeling is that the other Gospel writers thought the actions – not only on the part of the Son – but for the Father as well, would have been totally shocking and inappropriate for people of faith.
In outline the story is probably familiar. The younger of two sons is an immature, selfish young man with no sense of family obligation. He goes to Dad and in effect tells him that, since Dad was probably going to hand on his share of the family fortune as part of his rightful inheritance, he might as well give him his share now while he is still young enough to enjoy it.
Surprisingly (and probably most unexpected to the listeners) Dad agrees to this jumped up young wastrel’s idea and gives him the money. The son promptly leaves home – takes the money to some distant place and blows the lot on the first century equivalent of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Once the money is gone the son has nothing.
He is reduced to the appalling survival tactic of tending pigs and sharing their food scraps. In despair he looks at his total lack of prospects and heads home to throw himself on the mercy of his father. Notice this is self-serving behaviour, certainly not conversion and probably not even genuine repentance. His actions were saying in effect, since the old man was generous first time around, maybe Dad will forgive me. If so I try this tactic I might get back into the family and even avoid the public rejection by the village.
To the understandable horror of the older brother, Dad who has been daily scanning the distance in the hope that one day his son might return, not only welcomes the boy home, he actually runs out in joy to meet him, then organizes a welcome home feast. For my money I wonder if that had happened here today, that Dad seeing his son coming at a great distance would have got out the cell phone and sent him a message to get back to the pigs.
We tend to miss the full implications in this situation because we don’t have our society built on the cooperative family unit with the Father as respected total head of household and patriarch. In Jesus’ day respect for one’s parent was not only expected, it was mandatory. In Leviticus there are rules for family behaviour, including I might add, the death penalty for any child who curses his parent.
Under the complex and highly regulated Jewish society, there was even a ceremony which was supposed to happen should anyone attempt to turn their back on their family. What was laid down by law was that a public gathering, a Kezazah ceremony should then take place, whereby the one who had brought shame to the family was officially rejected by the whole community, banished never to return.
The point of having the village attend the welcome home feast was that this then nullified the possibility of the shameful and irrevocable Kezazah ceremony.
I said earlier it was an unfinished story. The older brother was still on the scene. How would the two brothers have worked together after that? Eventually, the Father would presumably die. Would the younger son now get nothing? The Father was forgiving – and indeed there is a good case for believing the story was not so much about the son as the attitude and actions of the Father. But would others eventually support his decision.
Would the village have come round to share his attitude? ….So many unanswered questions.
And…if I might add my own question. When we encounter what to us is unacceptable behaviour is it forgiveness or a feeling of deserved discrimination which will win? So back to the first question…Why did Jesus tell this particular story?
In some ways this story is pivotal in helping us understand a key part of Jesus’ message. It seems to me that Jesus comes to help move us beyond an attitude of a rules based society. For this story the prodigal son comes from a society where rules and conventions dominate. The prodigal son exhibits strong but we would have to say, typical human weaknesses. More to the point, we think he needs sorting because he is not following what we see as appropriate behaviour. I certainly don’t think of immigrants as prodigal, but I wonder if some immigrants are not accepted because they behave differently to what we expect. Different habits, different talk, clothes, different way of worship?
Don’t forget the Father models a new dimension to relationships which moves beyond the rules. Jesus taught acceptance. The father lives forgiveness. Jesus taught with his lost parables (the lost coin, the lost sheep and here, the lost son) the transforming power of showing deep concern for even the odd ones out. The father models this concern.
Jesus also acknowledges that redemption was in a context where others in that society would not understand. For his story he chooses a society where a punitive Kezazah ceremony is the expected norm for those who stray.
For his story he also casts a self righteous brother who has followed the rules – because in real societies families do have such people. For his story he implies that the whole society has to be won over – which is why the villagers must be invited to the feast.
Which brings us to the present…and to the second question. If Jesus merely told the story to explain God’s care we can at least give it a passing nod. Good for a Sunday sermon and not much else. If however we are intended to learn from the Father’s behaviour and change our behaviour accordingly, the parable suddenly raises an unsettling issue. Has the theme of this story become a recognisable feature of our families – our society and our Church? For me at least, and my setting, I would have to say that there is still a long way to go.
Those seeking instant gratification can be seen by the thousand any Friday of Saturday night in any of our big cities. We see them spilling out into the streets in the early hours of the morning – vomiting, drunk, drugged…and who is there to meet them?
Whole communities of society dropouts gather behind fortified walls in gang houses and become increasingly isolated from their waiting fathers, or should that be isolated from us?
But seeking the good life is more than a lure for those at the bottom of society.
Our whole economic system is slowly but surely becoming enslaved to the possibility of using unearned money for selfish purposes. Employers who have no wish to share profits with the workers, investors who will cheerfully borrow money to invest with no genuine intention to repay the debtors, and instead simply walk away protected by a maze of trusts when things start to go wrong.
When it comes to the environment don’t get me wrong. I am not against mining – indeed every time a road is sealed, a house is built or teeth get cleaned it is partly thanks to our mineral wealth. But even as a society, instant gratification of spending the inheritance is what happens when we tear down the hardwood tropical forests faster than we plant, when we allow multi-nationals to destroy the habitat for ethnic populations, destroy the environment with opencast mining, poison rivers with cyanide or fertilizer and effluent to foul the waters with rock-snot or to throw away tonnes of plastic to pollute the seas.
Yet if we are hearing Jesus aright, those who have alienated themselves for whatever reason from the good of family and the good of community must be welcomed back into the family, for as such is the kingdom of God.
I would have to say that I don’t see much sign of the waiting forgiving Father. The streetie sits with empty begging cup as the church members hurry past with unseeing eyes on their way to the safety of the pews with a congregation mercifully light on undesirables. We may not be quite brave enough to invite strangers or even profligate losers into our houses – but are we really being true to the Spirit of the one who described the waiting Father if we cannot even share a smile.
Sometimes those at our door are one step removed from those who have unsuccessfully sought gratification. Sometimes they are the victims. So how do we, as proxy for the waiting Father, do on that score? It is all very well for the West to call for the bombing of ISIS in Syria so that a Western domination of the area can be re-established, but what then should happen with the flood of refugees pouring across the borders. Do they really deserve what they got with their strange religion or with the way they wasted oil that we feel should have been shared with us and are therefore undeserving of our charity?
True we can be sucked into interminable arguments about global warming but a more urgent issue is whether to accept the need to relocate refugees created when their land and livelihood is removed by the gratification seekers. Do we really need to wait until the next Mosque shooting until there is a sudden recognition that we should welcome those we assumed are too undeserving to warrant friendship.
That there are those who have chosen personal gratification ahead of the good of family and community is utterly beyond question. But for each of those we encounter there is an unfinished story.