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MARCH 18, 2007: Fourth Sunday of Lent


Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
II Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Jesus' frequent use of parables tells us a lot about him.

Teachers who simply want to add new bits of information to their students' store of knowledge never employ such devices. Parables only pop up when a teacher is trying to retool someone's mind, attempting to change that part of the brain which processes information.

Remember the story of the young tourist in New England who pulls his sports car over to the side of a country road and asks a grizzled farmer for directions? After hearing where he wants to go, the old man smiles and informs him, "You can't get there from here."

That's what parable users are telling their audiences. "With your present frame of mind, you can't get to where I'm trying to take you. The only way to reach that 'new place' is to totally change the way you look at people, things and circumstances around you."

Parables snooker us into admitting something on one level that we'd never admit on another. But once we realize the connection between the two levels, we're trapped. For instance, when someone points out to Jesus that he's wasting lots of time teaching people who will never carry out his teachings, people who a few weeks down the road, won't even remember one of those teachings, Jesus reminds the person that farmers waste lots of the seed they broadcast. Yet what little takes root produces much more than all the wasted seed. If farmers don't mind such a waste, why should he? If just a few who hear his word change their lives, the waste doesn't matter.

Here the subject is forgiveness. Jesus wants his followers to acquire a new way of looking at this aspect of their relationship with God. As Paul reminds us, forgiveness revolves around being "a new creation." It isn't only having one's sins wiped away and starting over with a clean slate.

Even the author of Joshua knows there's more to forgiveness than just getting rid of guilt. "Today," Yahweh tells the Jewish leader, "I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you." No longer are the Chosen People a band of runaway slaves. They now have a homeland. They've taken on a new identity. Yahweh relates to them in a new way. "No longer was there manna for the Israelites, who that year ate of the yield of the land of Canaan." Since they're a new people, God cares for them in a new way.

Paul is convinced that when we experience God's forgiveness through Jesus, we're no longer the same people who committed the forgiven sins. He reminds the Corinthians, "Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away' behold new things have come."

Even those Scripture scholars who doubt we can know anything for certain about the historical Jesus, tell us there's no doubt this itinerant preacher took static from the "good folk" for associating with sinners. In chapter 15 of his gospel, Luke has Jesus lay three parables on his critics - those pious people who object to his relating to such outcasts. He narrates stories about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.

As the older "good" son points out in the latter, his father's forgiving generosity is not only illogical, it's unjust.

The prodigal father's response can only be understood against a parent/child relationship. The overjoyed old man isn't the boy's army drill sergeant. He's a loving, relieved parent who sees the boy in a completely different light than anyone else does. No matter what he did in the past, in the father's eyes, the boy's now a new creation.

Jesus could only teach this new dimension of faith through parables. Unless those to whom he's entrusted the "ministry of reconciliation" approach sinners with a frame of mind different from those around them, God's drive to forgive will constantly dead end against the wall our unretooled selves have built.