16 September 2007

Defeated by Love, we are found!

24th Sunday OT: Exo 32.7-11, 13-14; 1 Tim 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul
, Dallas, TX

Listen here!

Once again we come upon Jesus being confronted by the Pharisees and scribes in what appears to be their nearly obsessive campaign to embarrass the Lord in public and to discredit his ministry. In what our own contemporary media would call “Sinner-Gate,” these self-righteous prigs point their accusing fingers at Christ and claim that he is defiling himself as a Jew and a rabbi by eating with tax collectors and sinners. This attempt to paint Christ with an Unclean brush is thwarted, of course, by a well-placed parable and Jesus’ divine wisdom. Let’s take these parables apart and find out how we can avoid joining forces with those determined to destroy our Savior’s public ministry.

To start, my guess is that we all know what a sinner is, but do all of us know why tax collectors are a problem for the priestly class of Israel? Basically, tax collectors are Jews who work for the occupying Romans. They are, in essence, working for the enemy and they have something of a reputation for being prone to “skimming” the tax-take at the expense of their fellow Jews. For an observant Jew to welcome one of these guys into his home and to eat with him is equivalent to one of us gladly providing room and board to Benedict Arnold! We would be loudly and proudly coming out of the Traitor Closet and declaring our allegiance to the enemies of America. That the Romans are brutal occupiers, a foreign force ruling through a Jewish king only adds to the stink of the tax collector. And, by association, to anyone who eats with them. It is precisely that association, that is, the implied relationship that eating with someone brings to mind that causes Jesus his problems with the Pharisees.

You see, the Pharisees are causing two problems for Jesus: one religious and one political. The religious problem is that Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher of the Law. He doesn’t belong to either “school” of the Law represented by his accusers. In other words, he is neither a Pharisee or a scribe—for lack of a better term, these are names for “denominations” in Judaism. Jesus belongs to either another school that we don’t know much about (some say the “Essenes”) or he is simply free-lancing. Regardless, his authority as a rabbi more or less rests on his public reputation as an observant Jew, which we know he was. If his rep as a rabbi can be undermined, then his allegedly subversive teachings can be dismissed. So, his theological rivals attack him at what they think is his weakest spot: he is associating with traitors and sinners, which make him an unclean Jew, someone to be cast out and left out until he has repented and observed the rules of being made clean again. Jesus’ political problem is just as complex and dangerous. Jesus is preaching the coming of his Father’s Kingdom. This refers back to the prophecies of Isaiah and vaguely hints at some sort of anti-Roman, anti-Temple revolution. Is he claiming to be the King of the Jews in defiance of Roman rule? He is trying to destroy the Temple and set himself up as High Priest? This makes the Pharisees and scribes—those who have the most to gain by keeping the Romans happy—very, very nervous. Here’s the plan: publicly accuse him of being unclean; undermine his authority as a rabbi; emphasize his political ambitions to the Romans; and save the Jewish state and the Temple from Roman wrath.

Now, we have to understand the Jewish notion of cleanliness. Simply put, very simply put: cleanliness is not transferable, while uncleanliness is. To associate with a sinner makes you a sinner. To associate with a saint, however, does not make you a saint. Jesus knows this—for all the obvious reasons, not the least of which is that he is fully divine!—but he goes right ahead and welcomes sinners into his company and then eats with them! And his reasons for doing so are even more shocking. Jesus claims that he is bound to offer friendship to sinners because he is the Son of God come to save sinners from their sin. For his religious and political enemies, this is at once scandalous and advantageous.

Jesus undoes their plot, however, with two parables (three in the longer reading for today). First, he notes that a man with 100 sheep will leave the larger portion of his flock to search for one lost sheep. Surely, this appeals to the practical sensibilities of his listeners. Who wouldn’t go off in search of lost property, right? Once the lost sheep is found, there is an excellent reason for a party. Likewise, our Father will leave his righteous to their graced state and go after the sinner. Once this sinner is found, there is great rejoicing. He says, “…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” Therefore, it is not only perfectly acceptable for him (and for us) to eat with traitors and sinners, it is required of him (and of us). The second parable makes the same point. A woman with ten coins loses one and sweeps her house in search of the single lost coin. When she finds it, she throws a party in celebration. Again, Jesus says, “In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” So, Jesus does what Jesus does best: he interprets the Law and the received tradition through his own commandment to love. We do not abandon sinners to their sin out of fear of contamination; rather, we welcome them in, love them, show them the necessity of repentance, and then rejoice when they are “found.”

We have as a post-resurrection witness in St. Paul to the effectiveness of this teaching. Paul confesses to Timothy that he, Paul, is “an example” for sinners. He writes: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these sinners, I am the worst. But because I am the worst sinner, I was treated with great mercy so that in me, the worst sinner of all, Christ Jesus might show his patience to those who would come to believe in him for their eternal lives.” Paul then praises the King of Ages, the only God: “…[to Him be all] honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” And thus, the Pharisees and scribes are defeated by Love.

We too are defeated by Love. And thank God for this awesome defeat! For their disobedience, the Jews with Moses are again threatened with divine punishment. However, Moses appeals to God, “reminding” Him that His people now are the same people that He promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be “as numerous as the stars” and that “this land” would be for their children’s children a “perpetual heritage.” God relents. Why? Obviously, Moses did not change God’s mind. God relented because he demonstrated to God that he, Moses, remembered the covenant. This covenant, made by Love in love, is our Father’s promise to find us when we are lost, to come after us when we stray, to sweep up His house until we are recovered. Our worst sins, our most terrible wanderings are defeated by His promise to love us, to make us His people, to give us a lasting heritage as His children. And so, we gratefully sing with David in his Psalms: “Create for me, O Lord, a clean heart, and renew in me a loyal and dedicated spirit…Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth will proclaim your praise!” Defeated by Love, all we can do is love as we ourselves have been loved.

Now, does this mean that we love sinners in order to approve of their sin? Do we welcome sinners among us in order to say to the world, “We do not think that this sin is really all that sinful”? NO, absolutely not! We never welcome sin into our homes, or to our tables. Jesus ate with the traitors and sinners in order to show them his Father’s love so that they could repent. Knowing sin ourselves, knowing the devastation that sin has caused us and continue to cause us, we welcome fellow sinners into the House, to the Table in order to show them (and to remind us) what we have seen: our Father’s love defeating sin, conquering death, healing all wounds, and restoring life to those murdered by their own disobedience. No repentant sinner can ever be turned away. However, sinners coming to us to find approval for their sin, or refuge from the consequences of their obstinate sin should be shown the Way, and if they fail to follow that Way, shown the door and invited back when they heed the Spirit’s call to holiness in Christ. There is here a very delicate balance.

Let me end with what I think is the crux of that balance for us: your willingness, your eagerness to pray for yourself: “In your goodness, O Lord, have mercy on me; with your great love wipe out my sin… My repentant spirit, O Lord, is my sacrifice to you.”

Will you rise up and go to your Father?

1 comment:

  1. Faith1:02 PM

    I don't know what to think about Jesus sitting with the tax collectors--sinners. Here's the dilemma. When Boston Catholic Charities invited our Archbishop, Sean PatricK, he declined, because he didn't want to seem to give assent to Catholic Charities practices (allowing gay couples to adopt children). This of course, is only one example of the behavior of Boston Catholic Charities. But the point is...they're sinners. Well, with the story of Jesus sitting down with the sinners in mind, wouldn't it have been more Christ like, for Cardinal O'Malley to attend the Catholic Charity function. Just think of the oportunity he missed to preach to them. Sean Patrick thought attending would cause scandal and confusion. What would you do, Father Powell?