God expects us to work

  • March 11, 2007
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C), March 18 (Jos 5:9a, 10-12/2 Cor 5:17-21, Lk 15:1-3, 11-32)

The manna from heaven and the fruit of the Promised Land are both testimonies to God’s loving kindness and provident care. But they also testify to something else: human doubt and unbelief.
It has been a long, hard haul: 40 years, a real tug-of-war between God’s graciousness and human doubt and ingratitude. The people whined about the harshness of the desert and the lack of food and water, despite God’s powerful miracles and promises of protection. God sent them manna — just enough for each day.

When they came to the Promised Land the first time, Moses sent in spies who brought back samples of the wonderful abundant fruit of the land. But they also brought back fear: an extra 40 years in the wilderness was the consequence. Now the moment is at hand; they enter the Promised Land and finally receive its bounty. The manna ceases, as does that stage of their journey.

Although God will still be with them, they will have to depend more on themselves. But more than that, they will have to leave the past behind. They can and should always remember what God did for them, but they cannot cling to a certain period in their journey and to a particular experience of God. God has new experiences in store for them.

Most spiritual traditions insist that we not cling or be attached to things. It is the same principle when we speak of people, places and experiences. Life flows on; we change, the world changes, and our experience of God (should) change. Manna was great, but now the work begins.

Paul alludes to this principle when he proclaims that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. Taking the Christian message seriously means more than giving up sin (and we don’t do a terrific job of that!). “New” applies to our experience of God, our consciousness, our values and our way of life. Much of the tension in early Christianity occurred when people who had embraced the Christian message were unable and/or unwilling to let go of old attitudes, ideas, opinions, and ways of life.

This tension is still with us in various forms. The demands of history and the signs of the times draw us to new ways of thinking and living, while habit, tradition and fear work to keep us imprisoned in the well-worn ways of the past. Being an ambassador of Christ is a lofty calling indeed, but representing Jesus requires putting on the mind of Christ, which is something guaranteed to put one at odds with the world and at times with one’s own community.

Some very proper and upright religious types — and they are plentiful in every religion and in every age — are offended that Jesus goes out of His way to extend a compassionate and merciful hand to those branded as sinners and losers. The indignant ones feel that they have somehow been cheated. The all-too-human desire for someone to look down on rears its head.

Jesus replies with two short parables and the story that we have all heard so often. They all insist that we cannot be complete and happy as long as some are excluded. Humanity is only complete when all are reconciled and healed. Regardless of what they have done or how far they have wandered, their return is a cause of rejoicing in heaven in which we should take part.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, God has been with the younger son every step of his journey, even providing him with experiences to help him remember who he is and where his home is. When he returns, the father runs to meet him where he is and brushes aside his apologies and self-condemnation. It is a completed life lesson, and rejoicing is the only acceptable response.

The older son, who represents so many, feels cheated. He feels that his correctness and fidelity have been wasted. But that is a response governed by fear and calculation. There are more than enough of God’s blessings for everyone. What is required of us is generosity of heart, not stinginess. 

Grace, salvation, blessings and the experience of God are not ours to give or withhold. They are only ours to share and rejoice in.

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