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Why Does God Wants Us Back?

September 16, 2007

The Backseat Homilist…

Readings for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Just why does God want us back so badly? I ask because it seems clear from today’s Scriptures that this is God’s eternal enterprise: healing the breach that constantly seems to rip open between God and us. With the rare exception of close friends like Moses, who on more than one occasion managed to talk the Almighty off the divine high horse, today’s Scriptures are filled with a rich cast of alienated characters who drifted, stumbled, turned their backs, cut and ran or barely recognized the waiting arms of God. And for some reason, God gives chase.

We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God, so it’s worth taking a moment to see where we fit in this picture painted by today’s Scriptures. Just what kind of lost are we?

If we are like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel, we may not even realize we are lost. But when we refuse to sit at table with Jesus’ friends, we are lost to his company as well. In our Pharisaical moments, we use our own self-righteousness as the measure of who should have Jesus’ attention. So we might ask why the U.S. Catholic Bishops have championed the rights of workers who have entered the country illegally, as we bite into the low-priced fruit of their labor. Or we might refuse to share the table or dialogue with those who seem to fall short of our ideals; for some that can mean Republicans or the religious right. They are lost to us, and in that broken relationship, Christ is lost to us as well.

Then there are the lost on the other side of that coin, those sinners with whom Jesus was dining. They are the ones whose human dignity has been so shattered by the way that society – and often the Church itself – has treated them, that the path to the divine seems to have petered out. When we’re this kind of lost, it feels like the door has hit us in the back on the way out. I think of people denied everything from Christian fellowship to affordable housing to food because they are dark skinned, or homosexual, or divorced, or Muslim or poor. Name your poison.

The parable of the lost sheep gives us a lot to work with. I don’t know a lot about sheep, but I know they follow whoever is in front. So I imagine that to get lost, a sheep stops following the group and sort of wanders off, nibble by nibble, until the surroundings are unfamiliar and the herd is nowhere to be found. We get this kind of lost gradually, when we distance ourselves from the practice of community, when we drift away from the relationships and rituals that form and sustain us. Again, the break in fellowship, means a break in the relationship with Christ.

If you delve into the long version of today’s Gospel, you follow Luke into the story of the prodigal son. A father had two sons – both lost. The first kind of lost is obvious – that’s the kid that squanders his privilege and comes to his senses only when he’s hit bottom. When we’re prodigal-son lost, we indulge ourselves until we’re choking on our own dry husks. But then there’s that other brother – the one who stayed home and did everything he was supposed to – while resenting every minute of it. He might be like those 99 sheep that stay put while the shepherd goes out looking for the one he lost. You can imagine what they said about that sheep while it was gone. And so it is with the older brother, a good Pharisee. Father, why do you waste your time with that one who took advantage of you, and neglect me who served so obediently? But while one brother is lost to the other, the family remains broken; the return is not complete.

Which brings me back to my initial question: why does God keep chasing after a stiff -necked lot like us? Why take us back at all? Why not keep heaven small? The Scriptures point to two things: union and joy. It seems like the Almighty finds the fall an unacceptable state in which to leave humanity. God got lonely in the Garden and left it shortly after Adam and Eve did, hot on their trail. God was in pursuit of joy. The depraved Israelites get another chance to prove themselves. Paul recovers from his blindness and jumpstarts the church. The shepherd finds his sheep, the woman her coin, the Father gets his sons back, and maybe even the Pharisees come to their senses. And there is great rejoicing in heaven.

All of which is to say, that whatever kind of lost we find ourselves in, the promise of prodigal joy is nipping at our heals, inviting us to get up the courage to turn around and embrace those upon whom we have turned our backs. And that is akin to a leap into the waiting arms of God.

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