Would you agree with me that two important Canadian values are fairness and compassion? We Canadians want a fair, just society of rights and responsibilities where people are treated equally under the law regardless of their wealth or status. We don’t want the law to treat some people better than others, to give preference to some and not to others. It’s like our health care system: you wait your turn to get treatment; unless it’s life-threatening, you don’t get to jump ahead of others with the same condition. Equality, fairness, impartiality are important to Canadians.
And yet, Canadians also value compassion. We think of ourselves as a compassionate country, caring for those unable to care for themselves; providing benefits and social assistance so people can live a decent and dignified life. That’s why we have a tax system that distributes income: it literally takes from the rich and gives to the poor. We understand that some people require more help than others, need more assistance, deserve more support. Compassion is at the heart of a civilized society.
Fairness and compassion are two eminent values, but what happens when they collide?
I can’t think of a more divisive issue in the United States right now than immigration and whether that country should build a wall to halt the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico. No one has been a more vociferous proponent of a wall than Donald Trump. It’s not that he doesn’t want immigrants to come to the United States – he just wants them to come legally – to get in line, wait their turn, be duly processed and vetted, and then enter the country in an orderly manner. That makes sense to many people because it seems a matter of justice and fairness.
But “the building a wall” talk can get out of hand, become nasty, mean-spirited and antagonistic to people who have darker skin or speak a different language. Maybe that’s why Pope Francis said anyone who wants to build walls rather than bridges, is not a Christian. The Pope is clearly on the side of compassion even when that conflicts with justice.
And lest we think we Canadians are immune from this debate, consider what would be the reaction in our own country if over one million people were to come to Canada illegally. That would be about the number for our country in comparison with the eleven million undocumented persons in the United States. How would we Canadians react to one million undocumented persons in our country? Would we welcome them with open arms or tell them to go home and then apply legally like other would-be immigrants who wait their turn and go through the process? Would we side with fairness or compassion?
Our gospel today is about an incredibility dysfunctional family. The story is about a father who had two sons. The older son was scrupulous in keeping all the rules. He knew the Law of Moses and obeyed it. Every human being was under obligation to play by the rules, and he certainly did so. He never yielded to temptation. He had stayed on the farm. He had worked for his father, following orders and never openly challenging his authority. Since this older son had always colored inside the lines, it was hard for him to understand why everybody didn’t follow the rules. He had little patience with those not as self-disciplined as himself. You know what side of the equation this young man leans to. He is firmly in the fairness, justice camp.
In the same household is a younger son who takes a very different path. He’s restless, rebellious, rude, a know-it-all, and frankly quite arrogant and all too sure of himself. He goes to his dad one day and asks for his inheritance. Would you ever go to a parent and make that kind of request? I tried to imagine my own reaction if I had a son who came to me asking for his inheritance. Asking, in effect, that I liquidate my assets and distribute them long before I planned to exit this life! It would feel as though my son had grown impatient that I was living so long! It would be like he was telling me to drop dead!
Now the father seems to be a permissive parent who goes along with whatever his sons want. He finds it difficult to say “no” to anyone. So, instead of having a fit that his son just told him to drop dead; he writes out a check and gives the son the money. The son hardly says thanks before he is out of the door, heading toward the bright lights of the city.
“And there,” so the story goes, “he squandered his property in dissolute living.”
The young man had done what a lot of us do in our youth. He had given in to short-term thinking. He didn’t have any long-term plan. He spent money right and left. It never occurred to him that he might run out. When he got down to his loose change, there wasn’t even enough to buy a kosher corned-beef sandwich
It was incredible good luck when he managed to find a part-time job – a farm job, of all things! The work involved feeding pigs – not a particularly happy line of work for a nice Jewish boy. Even so, it was hard to scrape together a modest meal. The food he was feeding the pigs started to look good to him.
The young man finally comes to his senses. He realizes that he had it good with his dad on the farm. So he resolves to return to his father and sign up as one of the hired hands. He would admit to his father what he had only lately discovered about himself: that he was a fool; that he had messed up big time. He would just have to take his chances with his dad.
You know the rest of the story. The young man was just turning into the driveway when his father spotted him from the house. The father didn’t even wait for the boy to knock on the door and stammer out his prepared speech. The father threw aside his dignity and went racing to welcome his son, not caring that all the neighbors were gawking at the scene. They had been gossiping about this kid ever since he had left home. So they were astonished when the father invited them all to a big homecoming party.
The older son, checking fences out in the field, heard distant sounds of music and laughter. When he went to investigate, he found the whole household and the neighbors partying, and, it turned out, the guest of honor was his kid brother. The older brother, the rule keeper, was dismayed. To overlook his younger brother’s contempt for the rules seemed like condoning inexcusable behavior. The older son was angry at his brother, but angry as well at their father. The father’s compassion seemed to the older son nothing but softheaded sentimentality. If everybody behaved like their father, the rules wouldn’t make sense anymore. Society would fall into chaos.
Nobody would stay home and manage the farm. Where is the fairness, where is the justice in what his father was doing in treating the son so kindly?
This story bothers me, and it may bother you. I am a priest but I am also a lawyer who believes in justice. The world could not function properly if justice did not exist. There would be no right or wrong, no accountability for criminal acts, no compensation for people who do us injury. A world without justice would be a chaotic, maddening world.
Where do you come down on this story? How would you react to the young man after what he did to you?
A psychologist friend of mine claims the father in this story suffers from co-dependency: he can’t let go of his son no matter how abusive the son has treated him. I don’t know if that is an accurate analysis of the father, but I understand it.
How do we balance fairness and compassion, justice and mercy? We don’t want to be heartless but neither do we want to be a sap. The bottom line seems to be that fairness makes war on compassion, and compassion threatens fairness. Logic doesn’t always help here. The fact is: the most vital human relationships are not logical.
In one of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels, a man named Corky Corcoran is looking for his stepdaughter, whom no one can find. He isn’t even married to her mother anymore. Her whole life long, this stepdaughter had been nothing but trouble for her mother and for Corky. As an adult, she’s gotten herself into some pretty deep water. Corky has no obligation toward this grown-up young woman. She’s made clear that she wants no part of him. But despite all logic, Corky cares about her welfare. He takes one risk after another to search for her. Stepfather he may be, and twice rejected besides, but he exhibits this strange chemistry of parental love.
Parental love doesn’t follow the rules of logic. The father in Jesus’ story loved his younger son, even though he had brought disgrace upon their household. It doesn’t make any sense, does it? But the truth is: love rarely makes sense.
This is the heart of the gospel and of Jesus’ message: no one is too far gone from the unconditional love of the Father, not even the worst of the worst; and no one is too good, too dutiful, and too full of rectitude, for that love. It is the nature of the Father to love both the rule-keeper and the rule-breaker.
God’s character is that of a parent. We expect our parents to love us unconditionally, to guide us, teach us, and encourage us to be our best. We count on them to set boundaries and yet give us freedom to explore and even to fail. We depend on them to pick us up when we fall and hold us when we are in pain. We want them to believe in us when everyone else doubts and to claim us even in our moments of shame. I’ve tried to be this kind of father, though at times I have failed. But God never fails. Jesus says that God is a father with outstretched arms always willing to welcome us home, embrace us as his own, forgive us and restore us into the family.
There was a young woman who discovered in high school that she was gay. That shouldn’t have been a big issue, except that she was a Mormon living in Utah where her father was a Mormon Bishop. She couldn’t dare tell her parents that she was gay, so she left for university in California, stayed there, met her partner who was an ex-Mormon, and had a child.
The couple found their way to my parish where they were regular attenders, always asking me incisive questions about the differences between Mormons and Episcopalians. Eventually they both asked to be baptized along with their daughter. This was a big step – they were officially leaving the Mormon Church and becoming Anglicans, even though both had already been excommunicated for being in a lesbian relationship.
On the day of the baptism, all three of them were in church – along with the Mormon bishop father and the entire family. They were in church to support the couple in their Christian commitment. The father, the bishop, admitted he was still having trouble with his daughter’s homosexuality, but he said to me that he was still her father, he stilled loved her, and still wanted the best for her. And then he said he was happy there was a church that was willing to accept his daughter and her partner, and support them in their Christian commitment. As for the bishop’s daughter, she said to me after the baptism, “I have never felt more loved than I do at this moment.”
That’s what God’s love is about, isn’t it? God loves us just the way we are. The Gospel is not primarily about morality, church going or rule keeping, but about God’s unconditional love for each and every one of us, a love that none of us deserves but which God gives anyway.
Our loving Father/Mother God will never give up on us, or turn away from us. Yes, we have to repent, come to our senses, and turn to God, but God will always be there to welcome us with open arms. God loves both the rule keepers and the rule breakers, and God will not give up on any of us until we are all safely home.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
March 6, 2016
Text – Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Lent 4, C