C. S. Lewis offers this image for the Incarnation, God becoming man: A diver stands on a high cliff overlooking the ocean. He strips to nakedness then jumps from the precipice. He cuts thru the surface of the water at a violent speed then goes deeper and deeper. The brightly lit waters begin to dim and gradually become dark. Still he forces his body on until he reaches the bottom which is murky from centuries of decay. He plunges into the muck and with his outstretched hand grasps the prize he sought. Then up and up drawn by the growing light. When he breaks the surface he opens his palm to show the precious pearl. The terrible dive has changed his body forever, even his color is different, more like the dark green of the depth.
Today's Gospel shows Jesus like that powerful diver. He not only takes on our human nature; he enters into murkiest depths of our world. We see Jesus eating with "sinners and tax collectors." Now, we have a problem grasping what is really going on here. We are so used to hearing the phrase "sinners and tax collectors" that it has lost its impact. They sound like just a fun group of people and of course Jesus would rather have a party with them than the uptight Pharisees. But that interpretation misses the whole point. Sinners and tax collectors were the scumbags of Jesus' day, the ones who took advantage of the system and laughed at the people they bilked.
When I was down in Peru, it was easy enough to come up with a comparison to help folks understand who the sinners and tax collectors are today. They all knew about the policeman who extorted money from campesinos. It was even said that the daughter of one of the catechists was forced to pay him with sexual favors. Everybody knew who he was and everyone avoided him. At a course for our catechists, after a long discussion of the meaning of the crucifixion, I asked them what their reaction would be if I went over to that policeman's house for dinner. They were uniformly disgusted that I would even mention the possibility. I hadn't been to most of their homes and now I was talking about having dinner with him. I could forget about them being catechists any more... After all the reactions rolled in, I told them that perhaps now they could better understand the outrage of the scribes and Pharisees.
It's hard to come up with a comparison for our culture. Sometimes people will say it would be like Jesus having dinner with a group of out-of-the-closet homosexuals. That may have worked fifty years ago, but it would not today. Far from being uniformly despised, gays have acquired a celebrity status in our society. Perhaps a fairer comparison would be this: Suppose a pedophile moves into one of our neighborhoods. The residents, out of genuine concern for their children, call a community meeting. They even send a letter to the parish priest asking for an opening prayer and some words of encouragement. But the priest does not show. They find out that instead of being at their meeting he went over to the pedophile's place to give him a small housewarming. The neighbors would be justly outraged at the priest's irresponsibility. They would feel mocked and maybe even conclude that the priest himself is a dangerous pedophile. That would be something how like the good citizens reacted in Jesus' day when he ate with tax collectors and sinners.
I have tried to get inside this in the most personal way I can. What works best for me is to try to imagine how I would feel if, after years of speaking against abortion, I found out that Archbishop Brunett attended a Planned Parenthood banquet. I would feel confused, betrayed, infuriated. What the h--- is he doing eating with those people!
Please pardon me for presenting such a number of imaginary cases. I do it with the hope that you and I might grasp the scandal of Jesus eating with people considered to be the scum of the earth. It is so easy for us today to miss the whole point. We live in a society where forgiveness of sin has come to mean saying there is no such thing as sin. Our knee-jerk reaction when someone admits wrongdoing is to say, "Oh, come on, was it really such a big deal?" Or, "Don't be so hard on yourself."
I remember once listening to a lady who claimed to be on very friendly terms with angels. She even stated the Blessed Virgin had appeared to her. She said the Mother of Jesus had told her we should pray the Hail Mary, but with one small change. Instead of saying, "pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death," we were to drop the word sinners because there was really no such thing as sin. We are to stop looking at ourselves so negatively. That destroys our self-esteem and, as we now realize, low self-esteem is the root cause of all our problems.
That attitude has invaded even the church. Compassion has come to mean "accepting the other person just as they are, not trying to change them." A supposed instance of that compassion is Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors. But is it really? As I tried to show with the above examples, they were people (like the abusive policemen, the sexual predator or the abortion purveyor) who really did deserve to be despised. Jesus' goal could not have been to reassure them that everything was OK, just keep on abusing people. Like the diver in the opening image his purpose must rather have been to enter the most horrible darkness, to allow himself to be covered with muck of the worst decay. Why? To grasp the prize which is an individual human soul. To bring the pearl to the surface, to the light, to salvation.
The parable of the Prodigal Son must be understood in that context. As I pointed out in a homily last Lent, it would be a great mistake to conclude it means we can go to the Father on our own power. That it is somehow possible to be forgiven apart from Jesus. That there is Atonement without the cross. No, like the powerful diver Jesus has to grasp each one of us and carry us with him to the Father. That is why--shocking as it might sound at first--the parable of the Prodigal Son is essentially about Jesus. This interpretation is not new. It has just been blurred because of the New Age approach which has seeped even into the Church.
I know this teaching is not popular. We have become like the man who is tired and nauseated but does not know the real cause--the tumor growing inside him. He's afraid of going to the doctor because of the bad news he might hear. The cure--in this case, the crucifixion--does not sound like welcome news because he has not yet heard the diagnosis. But once we have accepted the reality of our sins which are like a deadly cancer, it is incredibly good news to discover there is a remedy.
The remedy in first place is an act of recognition. You are, I am, that one lost sheep, the silver coin that the woman sweeps the entire house to find. St. Paul was not using hyperbole when he said that he considered himself the worst of sinners. For that precise he rejoiced in Jesus' salvation. We are invited to do the same.
From Archives (24th Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Homilies on Prodigal Son:
Confession of Sins and New Creation
The Reproach of Egypt
Return of the Prodigal Son
Who is The Prodigal Son?
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
About Stephen Hawkings' Grand Design. (Note: He has been wrong in the past.)
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