Few things are more ridiculous or waste more time than listening to two Christian denominations tear one another apart. Each, certain their "system" is the system Jesus intended His disciples to follow, argues from select passages of the Christian Scriptures.

Many churches still are ignorant (or in denial) of the discoveries and insights which scholars have been trying to share with us for more than half a century. As Father Raymond Brown reminded the priests of our diocese 25 years ago, "The historical Jesus of Nazareth had no intention of founding a church as we know it."

The fact that the first two generations of Christians expected Jesus' imminent return in the Parousia automatically rules out any argument that Jesus created our denomination and no other.

Who needed intricate systems of creeds and structures if Jesus' Second Coming was just around the corner? The centuries-long development of churches and denominations is far more complicated, and involved than most churches and denominations are willing to admit.

Basic message

Not only have we wasted time and created and embarrassing era of Christian history, but while we continued to argue over our various claims of uniqueness, mutually excommunicating and killing our opponents, we ignored the message the Sacred authors were doing their best to convey.

Their intention is clear: Each disciple or community of disciples must be critical of their own beliefs and actions before they can begin to critique anyone else. Almost every passage of Scripture was written to correct and instruct the specific community for which it was composed, not the enemies of that community. How else can we approach Sunday's three readings?

The author of Exodus (Ex 32:7-11, 13-14) is reminding his fellow Israelites about their apostasy, not condemning pagans for failing to follow Yahweh. God's own chosen People are "depraved...and have turned aside from the way." The people Yahweh liberated from Egyptian slavery are now "making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it."

Scripture scholars agree: the Sacred Writer isn't brining up an event from the past to illustrate a history lesson, but is reflecting on this embarrassing episode to point out to the community for whom he's writing that they're guilty of the identical sin their ancestors committed 500 years before.

In the same way, the author who wrote I Timothy at the end of the first century (I Tim 1:12-17) uses the history of the person in whose names he writes, Paul of Tarsus, as a way to remind the members of his community that they should never let their sinfulness top them from following Jesus. "You can depend on this as wrothly of full acceptance," our Pauline disciple writes: "that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these, I myself am the worst. But, on that very account, I was dealt with mercifully."

Parable son

Notice how different we hear the gospel when we put ourselves in the place of the Pharisees and the prodigal son's older brother instead of the place of the old man's reckless younger son (Lk 15:1-32). It's from just such a position that Luke imagines his readers hearing these three parables.

Some in Luke's community have fallen into the trap of trying to limit God's concern for and forgiveness of sinners. Why go out and search for such people? Good folk abound! Why waste time on that bad?

It's to the good, righteous, Christian folk that Luke directs Jesus' words: "There will be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than one 99 righteous people who have no need to repent." The evangelist reminds his audience that, as followers of Jesus, they're not to replace God's interest with human logic.

In the same way, God's forgiveness of others never depends on "evening things up" with us who need no forgiveness. Forgiveness is always unequal, as the prodigal father reminds his good son: "You are with my always and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life, was lost and is found."

Is it possible that we remain dead throughout our lives because we're always pointing our finger at someone who seems more dead than we? Only when we start to repent of our own situation can we begin to accept the life Jesus offers.

(09-10-98)