26 March 2011

On eating with sinners

2nd Week of Lent (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

Way back in the early 80's, my university's Episcopal chaplain told me that he frequented a local pub wearing his collar. I was a just a little scandalized. When he saw my discomfort, he went on to tell me that he went to all sorts of bars in his collar—biker bars, “alternative-lifestyle” bars, pool halls, honky-tonks, and even truck stops! I asked him if he went to these places to preach. He smiled and said, “No, I go to get a beer. But I always end up hearing confessions. When people won't come to church, the church has to go to them.” Though I undersstood his point, I was still a just a little scandalized. Wouldn't people see a priest hanging out in a bar as a sign that he approved of what might be going on there? Shouldn't a Christian—especially a priest—give a better example by avoiding these places and the people who go to them? Tax collectors and sinners were drawn to Jesus and they listened to him. The Pharisees and scribes saw this, and they began to grumble about this imprudent rabbi, “He welcomes sinners and eats with them! They will start to believe that they aren't traitors and sinners!” Jesus answers the complainers with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Bad Son returns to his father after wasting his inheritance on wine and women. The Good Son complains to their father that his own goodness has never been celebrated. The father says, “My son, you are here with me always. . . your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” 

Very often this parable is misused to dismiss or downplay the seriousness of sin. Or to justify merely socializing with notorious public sinners. Not every instance of eating with pagans, prostitutes, or enemies of the gospel is used to preach or to hear confessions. Sometimes, the excuse, “Well, Jesus ate with sinners and the Pharisees accused him of being impure too!” is just that, an excuse, a convenient alibi for rubbing elbows with the people we want to be seen with—the rich, the powerful, the prestigious, the popular people who might be able to sprinkle a little of their glitter onto us. Yes, the father welcomed his Wayward Son back into the family with a grand celebration; and yes, the Good Son is whining about having his goodness ignored. But the father is crystal clear about one thing: before returning to the family, the Celebrated Son was lost. Now, he is found—contrite and reconciled. 

The parable Jesus tells in answer to the Pharisees' accusation is the story of each of us returning to the Father. Our Father doesn't celebrate our leaving. He doesn't celebrate our sin. Had the Bad Son returned to the family unrepentant, demanding his place at the table and arguing that his dissolute behavior wasn't sinful or that it is his right to live anyway he chooses, his father wouldn't be celebrating. But b/c his son returns to him, repentant and resolved to live righteously, the party goes on! So, there are two cautions in this parable. The first caution is for those of us who would accuse Jesus of impurity for eating with sinners. Sinners are the ones who most need to hear God's mercy proclaimed. Do not assume then that Christians who eat with sinners are merely socializing. The second caution is for those of us who would see in the father's celebration an implicit approval of sin, or assume that the father is ignoring the son's sin just be fatherly. The son was lost. But now that he has repented, he is found. 

Each of us is a sinner. All of us are called to repentance. Between sin and God's mercy, we need all the help we can get.

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  1. A Random Friar7:56 AM

    And of course, we have the fine example of our Holy Patriarch Father Dominic! I love being a Dominican! :)

  2. Nice work. I came across your blog while “blog surfing” using the Next Blog button on the blue Nav Bar located at the top of my blogger.com site. I frequently just travel around looking for other blogs which exist on the Internet, and the various, creative ways in which people express themselves. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Friar, indeed we do! Who can forget his famous routing of the heretic in the pub?

    Inspector, welcomed!