Herb Montgomery | March 25, 2022
To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.
“This week’s parable calls us to question whom we are excluding and the basis for our exclusion. And it’s calling us to question the practice of marginalizing and excluding others regardless of the basis . . . There is no conclusion. The elder brother who would exclude his younger brother is left alone by himself in the night, outside the party going on inside, not because he himself wasn’t welcome, but because he could not affirm the one being celebrated. And maybe that’s the point.”
Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable . . . Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ (Luke 15:1-3, 11–32)
In this week’s story, Jesus is not answering his listeners’ questions about who gets to heaven or not. The context of the narrative isn’t about an afterlife at all. It’s about social and political dynamics in this life, in Jesus’ society. Within that context, the narrative addresses the exclusion of certain ones, tax collectors and those labelled as “sinners”, by those privileged in their society.
I want to note that I do not believe this story accurately represents the Pharisees or Jewish scholars of that time. It might represent some leaders within those social groups, such as the Pharisees of the school of Shammai. But this story does not rightly characterize the more inclusive Pharisees of the school of Hillel. Lumping all Pharisaical and later Rabbinical schools into a monolith and then to use that group perjoratively is deeply antisemitic and has an long history. (See https://truah.org/antisemitism/)
We must also address the label of “sinner.” I’ve written at length about this before:
“The term ‘sinner’ is used in the gospels in a very particular sense. It’s not used in the universal ‘everyone’s a sinner’ sense. We see this in Jesus’ socio-political context. Imagine a circle. Those at the center controlled and made the decisions for the circle while those pushed from the center toward the edges had less and less say the further away from the center they found themselves. What determined how close to the center someone operated was an idea that we now have a difficult time understanding: this was the idea of purity. Those on the edges were pushed there by labelling them ‘sinners.’ Those on the edges of the circle had no power, privilege, or voice.” (See The Lost Coin)
It would help us in our context today to read “marginalized” where the text reads “sinner.” Sinner was the pejorative religious label that those at the center of Jesus society used to marginalize whomever they chose.
This all leads us to the central point, I believe, of this week’s reading. Jesus’ parable was originally aimed at those who excluded or marginalized others and then disparaged Jesus because of the people he embraced, affirmed, and included.
Within Christian faith communities today, many exclude and marginalize LGBTQ people of faith, and then label and exclude as dangerous allies who embrace, affirm and include them. I have firsthand experience with this.
I’m also reminded of patriarchal traditions that exclude women from certain ministerial roles or credentials and then label those who don’t exclude them as dangerous. White churches have practiced similar exclusion over matters of race and multiracial diversity, not only in their congregations, but in who is allowed and supported to take on certain leadership roles.
In our larger society, there are inclusions and exclusions, too. We at Renewed Heart Ministries have condemned Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine and our hearts are with all being harmed by this action. We continue to maintain that the road to peace is not war, but distributive justice, safety and compassion, and we affirm Ukraine’s rights of self-determination and self-defense.
I also notice the disparity in the global support for Ukraine now compared to other humanitarian crises. Journalists have even compared Putin’s problems with Ukraine to the U.S’ historical treatment of other countries. I wondered if they realized what they’re admitting about imperialism, because that is a level of truth-telling I don’t think we in the U.S. are willing to embrace. News reporters have betrayed their own racism when speaking of this conflict and their surprise at the plight of Ukrainian refugees. They use rhetoric as “relatively civilized,” “relatively European,” “blue eyes,” “blonde hair,” “not a developing, third-world nation, but Europe,” “well-dressed people.”
We should care about our Ukrainian siblings and other people living in that country as part of our human family, but we shouldn’t care about them or base our involvement or help on whether we perceive them to be White or European. Refugees from other parts of the world deserve our care and concern just as much.
The U.S. shows these patterns, too. Those who are working toward this country’s high ideals for an inclusive, multi-racial democracy or those working to transform society into a place of equity for women are characterized as dangerous. There are hundreds of legislative attacks against trans people and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in states like Texas and Florida right now, including efforts to exclude children who belong to the LGBTQ community or have parents who do. Children this age are often asked by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and others, “Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend yet?” Or their teachers ask them at school to “Share about your family.” But some of those children are being excluded now.
This week’s parable calls us to question whom we are excluding and the basis for our exclusion. And it’s calling us to question the practice of marginalizing and excluding others regardless of the basis.
Jesus’ story ends open-endedly. There is no conclusion. The elder brother who would exclude his younger brother is left alone by himself in the night, outside the party going on inside, not because he himself wasn’t welcome, but because he could not affirm the one being celebrated. And maybe that’s the point. As we are working toward a more inclusive, safe, compassionate, just society for everyone, if any are left out in the end, it won’t because they themselves aren’t welcome, but because they can’t accept other people.
As we consider our own practices of exclusion, this week’s story warns each of us that those we exclude may end up enjoying God’s party, while we, because of our exclusionary practices, may find ourselves outside the party, alone, in the night.
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. We have many examples today of folks who have been excluded because of whom they include. Share some examples of how people or communities, today, are being, excluded because of their own exclusion? Discuss with your group.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week
March is Donor Appreciation Month at RHM
During the month of March, we want to do something special to thank you for supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries.
Renewed Heart Ministries provides deeply needed resources that help enable Christians to discover the intersection of their love for Jesus and their work of healing our world through actions of love, justice and compassion; actions Jesus modeled and called us to follow.
Engaging our communities in ways that shape our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone is often hard work and its worth it. We appreciate the actions, big and small, each of you take each day to engage this work.
This month, we are partnering with Watchfire Media to offer a free thank you gift, shipping included. We want to offer you Watchfire Media’s absolutely beautiful Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints 2022 Wall Calendar to everyone who makes a special one-time donation of $50 or more through the following special link during the month of March to support RHM’s work.
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Like the book Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints, this calendar centers holy troublemakers who are women, LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who have too often been written out of religious narratives. Their stories inspire, educate, challenge, encourage, and move us all towards more love and a faith that works for the common good of everyone.
Packed with original artwork, short bios, and inspiring quotes, the calendar also includes important holidays from diverse faith traditions, social justice movement anniversaries, and dates that help us remember that joy is an essential part of holy troublemaking.
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