Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Parable, A Pope, and a Conclave of Pharisees

Text: Luke 15 (parable of the prodigal son)

Christianity sometimes seems like an odd religion to me. It is based upon the gospel accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In those accounts, Jesus consistently clashes with the religious leaders of his day. One might therefore expect Christians to be anti-religious and our churches to be humble gatherings of so-called sinners with no elites or hierarchies.

I experience some irony in saying this while wearing a Roman alb on a raised pulpit, two things that are designed to set me apart. As a minister, I am sensitive to Gospel readings in which Jesus provides a devastating response to the religious leaders of his time, as he does in today's famous Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Jesus tells the parable when he is criticized by Pharisees and other leaders. They are scandalized that Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners. In response, Jesus tells a tale about two brothers.

In the parable the prodigal son could take the role of the so-called sinners who are despised by the Pharisees; the Father clould take the role of God in Christ who welcomes them; and the obedient older brother could take the role of the Pharisees.

In years past, I thought the central point of the parable was the repentance of the younger brother and his gracious acceptance by the Father. But now I find myself focusing more on the older brother.

Like the Pharisees, the older brother is quick to judge others as sinners. Like them, he thinks sinners should not be welcomed with gifts and parties. And like them, the older brother is angry at forgiveness and grace.

The younger brother gets into trouble because of his riotous living and his resulting poverty. But the older brother is in just as much trouble because of his moralism. In fact, since the older brother has yet to repent, he might actually be in a worse position than the prodigal.

Viewed this way, I see the parable as sharp attack on religion and its leaders. Jesus had nothing but contempt for the self-righteous moralists, law-givers, and law-abiders who infested his community in Palestine. This same religious elite were the driving force behind Jesus' arrest, trial, and execution.

So how did it happen that a church made up of followers of Jesus became one in which high and mighty rulers stringently policed the morality of the sinners in the pews and condemned those who didn't follow its narrow rules?

The role of Christian leadership will be front and centre in the news this week with the Conclave of Roman Catholic Cardinals who gather in Rome on Tuesday to elect a Pope to succeed Benedict XVI.

The media loves the spectacle of the election of a new Pope. Approximately 1 billion people -- 50% of all Christians -- are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. The next Pope will be elected by 115 elderly cardinals wearing red robes beneath the splendour of Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel. The cardinals are all celibate, unmarried men, although the huge majority of people who attend Catholic mass are married women. Most of the cardinals are from Europe, although less than 25% of Catholics now live in Europe.

The cardinals all agree with the Catholic moral doctrines that have caused controversy for the church over the last 50 years: opposition to sex outside marriage, opposition to artificial birth control, opposition to abortion, opposition to homosexuality, and opposition to equality between men and women in the church.

None of the above positions would have raised eyebrows in 1958 when the cardinals elected Pope John XXIII. Back then, women were absent from the leadership of almost all institutions. Back then, homosexuality was rarely talked about and was illegal everywhere. And in 1958, artificial birth control was not available in many parts of the world.

But today, women hold leading roles in government, business, and many religious denominations. Today, homosexuality is legal in most democratic countries. Today, artificial birth control is the norm among almost all heterosexual couples, including the vast majority of Roman Catholic women.

The Catholic Church has declined in membership and influence in rich countries during these years. At the same time, the Catholic Church has grown in poor countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. But as these latter countries undergo economic and social development -- which will inevitably lead to legal equality between men and women, human rights for gay people, and greater democracy -- it seems likely to me that the Church will decline there as well.

A church that only thrives in countries where women and gay people are violently oppressed and where democracy and the rule of law are absent is a church in big trouble, in my opinion.

I don't make these harsh criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church to steer us back to old-style Protestant attacks on the Pope. I am in favour of greater inter-church cooperation. I enjoy working with the Catholic parish and Father Andrew, and he is an important role model for me in how he has integrated into our communities.

I deliver this sermon because I believe that the prominence of the Roman Catholic Church in the media this week poses problems for all Christians. In Canada where the big majority of people no longer attend worship services, I fear that the publicity given to the election of the Pope this week will solidify the image of Christians as a bunch of modern-day Pharisees who are obsessed with sex, opposed to equality, and stuck with outdated doctrines.

Now if, by some miracle, the next Pope is a modernizer in the mold of Pope John XXIII, I will be thrilled. If the new Pope opens the door to female, gay and married priests, endorses artificial birth control as a moral and sensible choice, and democratizes the church, the world will be a better place.

If, as seems more likely, the new Pope continues the policies of Pope Benedict, then Christians who try to follow the path of welcoming so-called sinners will have a more difficult time getting a hearing from those beyond our doors, I believe.

Is there a route forward -- both for the younger and older brother in the parable and for prideful church leaders like the cardinals, or like me?

The parable shows God in the person of the Father offering radical grace to both brothers. However, it does not show us if either one accepts that grace. Both would need to overcome their judgement that the younger brother is a sinner in order to do so, I believe.

Repentance does not involve self-condemnation. It involves turning towards home, and the light of God's Love. The younger brother says "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." The Father, however, does not agree. Not only does he still consider the prodigal to be his son; he celebrates his return with a great feast.

Jesus doesn't tell us the reaction of the younger brother, but what if his shame prevents him from accepting this welcome? What if he continues to feel unworthy because of his rebellion? If so, he would remain lost instead of found. He would remain dead instead of alive.

All of us rebel against our elders in one way or another. It is a normal part of life to leave home and head to the lights of the big city where we try to follow our desires and develop our lives and careers. This path is called sinful -- by the Pharisees, by the older brother, and eventually by the younger brother. But the Father does not do so. He has the wisdom to understand that in difficult lives, we all will engage in at least a little riotous living in order to discover our place in this crazy world.

If the younger son can accept the Father's welcome home, it might amplify the pain of his repentance; but it will also lead him to accept himself regardless of his past life and any future mistakes he might make. It will allow him to enter into a born-again life within God's Spirit.

The older brother remains obedient to social rules and to his father, but in doing so he succumbs to pride. From this prideful place, he then judges and condemns his prodigal brother.

Despite this pride, the Father also offers him radical love and acceptance. But can the son accepts this grace? To do so, he would have to climb off his high horse and agree that his obedience has not given him the right to judge his younger brother.

Not that any of us can avoid obedience either. Conforming to society is just as much a part of growing up as is rebelling. We may hate consumerism and the workings of the economy. But in order to make a living and raise families, we are all forced to make compromises and to live within a society of inequality and injustice. We can work to change those realities -- and I think we should -- but we have to get on with our lives as we do so.

When we conform, we might succumb to the trap of pride like the older brother. The grace offered to us by the Father leads us away from this pride. It allows us to look gently on both rebellion and conformity, just as the Father does. The Father welcomes both his sons with understanding, but without judgement.

So how can we stop judging? We seem to be always judging ourselves and others. For instance, the connection I have drawn today between the Catholic cardinals and the Pharisees is a judgement. Some here might not see or appreciate this connection, which would be OK by me, of course. My understanding of the Parable and my criticism of Catholic leaders is questionable, as is true of any judgement.

The good news is that God in Christ continues to offer us his welcome and his feast. With God's help, sometimes we soften our harsh judgements of self and others and so are able to rise into new life in Christ.

As the Cardinals gather in Rome on Tuesday, I pray that they will do so in a spirit of humility. I pray that the new Pope will help steer his Church away from self-righteousness and towards acceptance of all us so-called sinners who fall outside of its moral teachings. I pray that the new Pope will model the welcoming Father of today's parable and not the moralistic older brother.

As we move further in Lent, may we too soften our harsh judgements of ourselves and others. God calls us to turn away from human judgements and towards God's light. It shines strongest from beyond the darkness of the cross in which all of our human judgements are laid low.

The beauty and the brightness of God's light gives us the courage to throw off both moralism and self-indulgence. It allows us to return home to God in Christ. And it leads us all to the Father's great feast of welcome at Easter.

Thanks be to God.


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