Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.
‘Love is a relationship’
A parable from the midrashic exposition of Deuteronomy Rabbah: “‘You will return to the LORD thy God (Deut. 4:30).’ Rabbi Samuel Pragrita said in the name of Rabbi Meir: To what may this matter be compared? To the son of a king who took to evil ways. The king sent a tutor to him who appealed to him saying, ‘Repent, my son.’ The son, however, sent him back to his father [with the message], ‘How can I have the effrontery to return? I am ashamed to come before you.’ Thereupon his father sent back word, ‘My son, is a son ever ashamed to return to his father? And is it not to your father that you will be returning?’ Thus the Holy One blessed be He, sent Jeremiah to Israel when they sinned, and said to him: ‘Go, say to My children, Return.’ Where do we learn this? It is said, ‘Go and proclaim these words …’ (Jer. 3:12). Israel asked Jeremiah, ‘How can we have the effrontery to return to God?’ How do we know this? It is said, ‘Let us lie down in our shame, and let our confusion cover us …’ (Jer. 3:25). But God sent them word, ‘My children, if you return, will you not be returning to your Father?’ How do we know this? ‘For I am a father to Israel …’ (Jer. 31:9).”
The homiletic midrash Pesiqta Rabbati also preserves a rabbinic parable that deals with the theme of repentance. The parable has many similarities with the text from Deuteronomy Rabbah.
“‘Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God’ (Hos. 14:2). The matter may be compared to the son of a king who was far away from his father – a hundred days’ journey. His friends said to him, ‘Return to your father!’ He replied, ‘I am not able.’ His father sent him a message, ‘Come as far as you are able according to your own strength and I will come to you the rest of the way!’ Thus the Holy One Blessed be He said, ‘Return to me and I will return to you’ (Mal. 3:7).”
“Rabbi Abbahu in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Chalafta, it is written, ‘When you beget children …’ (Deut. 4:25) and it is written, ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day …’ (Deut. 4:26). To what may Israel be compared? To the son of a man who said to his father, ‘I intend to depart into a far country by way of the sea.’ The father warned, ‘But the time for sailors to ship out for sea has already passed!’ He was vehement about the matter and argued, ‘You must understand that if you go to sea now, you face certain destruction! In the end your ship will be wrecked and all that you own will be lost. Listen I am telling you that if you disobey my word and insist on going to sea, all these things will happen to you which I have warned you about. However even if the ship is wrecked, you lose everything in it and all of your personal belongings are swept away and only you yourself are delivered, remember one thing. Do not be ashamed to return to me. Do not say, ‘How can I have the effrontery to return to Abba.’ Now I am telling you, even if you disobey and all these terrible things happen to you – you must never be ashamed to return to me and I will surely receive you.’ Thus the Holy One said to Israel, ‘I call heaven and earth to testify against you …” (Deut. 4:26). Thus he called them, “But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the LORD your God and obey his voice, for the LORD your God is a merciful God …’ (Deut. 4:29-
The rabbinic parables, like the illustration of the lost sons, are filled with the imagery of divine mercy, which is always bestowed on the person who truly repents. The similarities between the Gospel and its rabbinic counterparts are striking. The theological significance of the details of each of these powerful stories emerges in the compelling image of a concerned father reaching out to disobedient children who need his love. The identity of theological content marks the close relationship between their original settings. The stories betray their deep roots in the Jewish thought and religious piety of the time of Jesus.
Like Jesus, the Pharisees stressed God’s willingness to receive the wayward sinner who repents. When studying the religious and ethical teachings of the rabbis (who are the spiritual descendants of the Pharisees), one encounters a strong outreach to sinners. Jesus criticized various and hypocritical Pharisees but, contrary to popular Christian belief, not the Pharisaic movement itself.
The two sons represent two types of sinners, but their sins are remarkably similar. Both view their father more as a banker than as a parent. He is the master who controls the finances, and they are labourers who desire more money. They speak about their relationship with their father strictly from their financial ties and work obligations. They view themselves as hired servants in their master’s house. As heirs, the younger wants an unlimited overdraft and the elder desires a fat savings account with the prestige of wealth and position. While they seem so different in the way they go about obtaining what they want, they are really quite similar. The message of the story stresses that love is a relationship. The commandment is important. They violated the commandment. But of even greater significance than the commandments is the relationship.
We can also think of the two brothers of the parable as representatives of pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism and Christianity – two heirs of Israel – sinful, vulnerable, beloved. And we can think of the parable as a challenge to celebrate, together, the heritage, the promises and love of God.
As we journey with Jesus these forty days of Lent may we resist all anti-