Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 15 September 2013
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32
The religious elite in Jesus’ day could not understand how he could befriend tax collectors and sinners, those who were collaborators with the oppressors of God’s people, and those who did not keep the religious laws properly. For Jesus, however, welcoming these outsiders was at the very heart of what it meant for the Kingdom of God to take shape in their midst. In his parables, he presents the Kingdom as a place where those who are lost are sought out and celebrated, those who are alienated are welcomed back with open arms. This is grace – exuberant welcome, unconditional acceptance.
Many people are more comfortable with the notion of grace found in the Sinai story. At the very moment that the rules of the covenant are being given by God to Moses, the people of God are already breaking them. They are turning their back on God and God’s prophet in favour of a more malleable god that they can shape according to their wishes and a leader that will do what they tell him. No wonder God is furious with them. God does forgive them and continue on the journey with them, but Moses has to work really hard for that to happen. He has to beg and plead, to remind God of God’s long history with them and how God’s own honour is bound up with that of the people. How different is the father in Jesus’ parable of the lost son, who is watching out for the son’s return, and doesn’t even let him get through his rehearsed confession in his eagerness to welcome him back.
That’s the wonder of the Kingdom – we are forgiven before we ask. Confession is important, but it isn’t a means of convincing a reluctant God to forgive and restore us. Prayers of repentance like Psalm 51 help us to work through our sense of guilt and shame in God’s presence so that we can emerge into freedom, but Jesus has shown us that we don’t need to convince God to forgive. We are welcomed with open arms. Imagine yourself as the son who can’t even get the words out before being smothered in the Father’s enthusiastic embrace.
St Paul knew what it was to be met by grace at the point when he seemed furthest from God. That experience of grace didn’t make him complacent; it gave him the energy to live the Christian life. It also infused him with the energy to transform the world around him. Goodness swallows up brokenness and ugliness. Grace wins.