Years ago I was asked to say a few words at an ecumenical service held in a Methodist chapel where most of the people attending were Protestants. I went along with just one Catholic family from the parish who came with me for moral support. They brought with them their six-year son Mark who was a bit of a handful. The minister leading the service invited everyone to pray and all the people sat down and put their heads in their hands. I understand that posture is called the Protestant Squat. I use it myself and it’s a very comfortable praying position. Anyway, when the minister said Let us pray, all these Protestant heads went down and almost disappeared from view. And in the silence a child’s voice – and you can guess who – was heard to say: Daddy, who are they hiding from? Now there’s probably more wisdom and truth in that child’s words than we care to admit. We all pay lip service to the idea of a loving God who has nothing but our welfare at heart, but in practice we are more than happy to keep a low profile. We don’t really want to get noticed. Deep within us there’s a nagging suspicion that God is in some way out to get us. As a student once said to me: God is up there with his telescope keeping an eye on us. Unfortunately, this is the picture many people have of God: the policeman God, ever on the watch to see if we’re doing something wrong, and if we are, to punish us for it. No matter how much we are told that God loves us, we still can’t quite rid ourselves of that hard image of God as judge: albeit a judge of meticulous and fair judgment, but still a judge. And for many, that’s how they see him.
The main problem about that image of God is that it is nothing like the God whom Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ reveals to us. It cannot be said too often that Our Lord shows us what God is truly like. He is God for us; and either we take that seriously, or we don’t. And if we do take it seriously then there can be no place in our thinking for a God who is out to get us.
We have only to look at today’s gospel to see the truth of the matter. The Pharisees and scribes had complained bitterly because Our Lord welcomed public sinners and ate with them. We may wonder what made the Pharisees tick. We just can’t understand how they could have been so blind. But in their place would we have been any different? I don’t think we appreciate just how shocking it was for Our Lord, the sinless One, to mix with sinners. Perhaps we picture the sinners as being rather nice, jolly people it would have been easy to be with. But this wasn’t the case at all. Our Lord was mixing with the dregs of society. He welcomed them precisely as sinners and he didn’t wait for them to show signs of repentance before associating with them. Our Lord sat down and ate with sinners precisely because they were sinners. It was that the Pharisees couldn’t stomach. In their eyes sinners were deserving only of condemnation and judgment. And they just couldn’t cope with someone who saw things differently.
Just how differently Our Lord saw things is emphasized in the parable he told them: The Parable of the Prodigal Son. The story is so familiar to us that perhaps we don’t appreciate just how unexpected it is. The youngest son, having squandered his share of his father’s inheritance by a life of debauchery, decides he will return home, not as a son, but as a servant. He is prepared to relinquish his rights as a son and become a worker on the farm. This is what he thinks he deserves. But he hasn’t a chance to even begin his little speech before his father has embraced him and organized a coming-home party. The boy expected judgment and punishment. What he got was overwhelming love and compassion. Judgment is what we expect too. Punishment is what we think we deserve; and perhaps rightly so. But God isn’t interested in what we think.
But the parable is not yet over. The elder son now makes his appearance. This young man stands for moral integrity; for religious zeal; for a proper sense of justice. He is outraged at the treatment his father has extended to his younger brother and he can’t understand why there is no punishment for him. He can’t understand why he himself, who has never done anything wrong, and always obeyed his father, should never have had a party thrown in his honour. The father listens to his son’s grievance but doesn’t change his mind. He has got his younger son back safe and sound and that is something to rejoice about. This boy who was dead, is now alive.
This parable teaches us that God’s ways are not our ways. And in this Year of Mercy, we should thank God for that. It is human to answer hurt with hurt. It is human to punish, to judge, to seek revenge, even to kill the wrongdoer. God’s way is different. His word is forgiveness: and not a grudging forgiveness which pretends the sin hasn’t happened, but a wholehearted love and acceptance of the sinner; a forgiveness in which the sinner can hold up his head again; a forgiveness which restores life.
This is the God Jesus reveals to us; this is the God Jesus shows us in his own life. If we cling to an image of God as the one who is out to get you, then we reject Our Lord’s teaching. We prefer a pagan image of God to the One, true God Our Lord reveals to us.
Time and time again Our Lord insists that he has not come to condemn but to save; to seek out and rescue the lost. We find it hard to take him at his word because our instincts are different. We demand justice and punishment for the sinner – even when the sinner is me. God sees things differently. He just wants to have a party to celebrate our return to him.