I’m catching up late with the Gospel readings for the last two Sundays and am newly struck by the fact that roughly the same story comes up three times in Luke 15 and 16. At least the basic shape is the same. I’m catching up with the challenge they present which seems to go much further than I really want to go.
The Bible Study bit is easy.
First, read two Sundays ago, Jesus eats with tax-collectors and sinners, and the religious authorities of the day disapprove (so Jesus then tells two stories about seeking out what has been lost).
Second, read in Lent so skipped over in our Sunday readings this month, there is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Third, read last Sunday, there is the Parable of the Corrupt Steward (the one who is sacked and who immediately falsifies his master’s accounts to build favour with the master’s clients).
All three have a figure who is God: Jesus, the Prodigal’s father, and the Steward’s master.
All three have figures who are wastrels: the tax-collectors and sinners with whom Jesus eats, the Prodigal himself and the Corrupt Steward himself; it is possible that some of the sinners with whom Jesus eats are repentant, and the Prodigal does become so, but this isn’t the common theme
In all three cases the God figure celebrates the wastrel figure: eating with tax-collectors and sinners, slaughtering the fatted calf to throw a feast for the returned Prodigal, and commending the shrewdness of the Corrupt Manager.
In all three cases there are voices of incredulity from the respectable: the religious authorities of the day grumble at Jesus choice of eating companions, the Prodigal’s older brother is angry and resentful, and (I’m stretching a point here, but go with me) almost every preacher agonises, twists and turns to avoid joining Jesus in commending the actions of the Corrupt Manager.
And that is the point. It shouldn’t be difficult to preach about the last of the three passages if one has just read the first two.
The first two say that the great banquet (of which we catch the foretaste now, and to which we are promised full participation soon) will be chock full of bankers and wastrels and people not unlike me a lot of the time and worse. That is how God is. It is hardly surprising news.
So how can any reader be puzzled in any way by the third story? As we stand ready to pronounce judgement on the corruption we see in it, we hear God say ‘you’ve got to admire his chaputz, his imagination, his sheer financial agility, haven’t you?’.
Perhaps it simply sets a standard for our inclusivity. If there isn’t someone out there – or a something inside me – screaming ‘how on earth could you include them?’ then I probably haven’t gone far enough. Certainly not as far as loving my enemies and praying for my persecutors.
But how far should this take me?
From resisting the humiliation of convicted criminals (as St Nicolas’ was doing in 2008 - something I was remembering this week) right up to giving medical treatment to a bomber (not something commended by every candidate for high office – as we were all observing this week) we may only really playing at it.
Please God, may the abuse, bombing, corruption, deception, exploitation and fraud around us be exposed and ended, punished and prevented, and may the victims' needs never be forgotten, minimized or neglected. Let justice prevail. But even then, give us your longing for the lost perpetrators - however hard our inner being calls out against this prayer.