Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann made an insightful observation in a recent Christian Century article: "Every serious teacher or preacher invites people to an `otherwise' beyond the evident. Without that, we have nothing to say. We must take risks and act daringly to push beyond what is known to that which is hoped for and trusted but not yet in hand....Jesus' parables are a prime example. They open the listening community to possible futures."

Of course, this "otherwise" existed long before Jesus started telling parables. Joshua and the Israelites discover a piece of it in the Promised Land (Joshua 5: 9-12). Their wilderness wandering ended, the ancient Jews begin to view reality from a new perspective. Yahweh is taking care of them now in a way quite different from the way they were cared for in the Sinai. Part of what they hope for and trust is finally "in hand."

New creation

Yet, outside of the Hebrew Scriptures, Prof. Brueggemann's comments certainly apply to the best-known of all Jesus' parables: the Prodigal Son (Lk 15: 39-45). Parables always call us to go beyond the comfortable, secure, faith-position we've hollowed out for ourselves. But this story in particular gives shape to the "new creation" (the otherwise) to which Paul refers in the second reading (2 Cor 5: 17-21).

"The old things have passed away," Paul writes: "behold, new things have come. And all this from God, who has...given us the ministry of reconciliation,...not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation."

Though both Paul and Jesus demand "we take risks and act daringly," most of us never do. We insist on hearing their words in the context of the steps which our various Christian denominations insist we follow before individuals can be reconciled to ourselves and God. Some of us actually contradict their teaching by believing we're the cause of God's reconciliation.

Paul insists that our role in salvation history is to announce what has already happened, not cause it to happen. He writes, "We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us! We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God."

The Apostle believes God is constantly reconciling everyone to God's self. Our ministry is to proclaim that reconciliation by being reconciled to those around us, unconditionally, with no strings attached.

Simple in theory, but difficult in reality. When we discover someone actually trying to practice such generous reconciliation, we become furious. Why should we who have followed the rules be treated the same as those who have flaunted the rules?

Major ending

The most important part of Jesus' parable is the end: When He describes the older brother's reaction to the father's total forgiveness of his son. The brother's anger is what prompts Jesus to narrate the story in the first place. He tells the parable only because the "Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, `This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"

The good folk have nothing against God forgiving sinners, as long as the sinners first jump through all the necessary religious hoops. But that's not the "otherwise" message of reconciliation Jesus announces. He holds the radical theological position (later shared by St. Thomas Aquinas) that God already forgives us even before we go to confession or perform any penance. The forgiveness the father offers in the parable parallels the forgiveness God offers in real life.

If Jesus' acceptance of sinners is a sign and proclamation of God's acceptance of sinners, then Jesus' followers must constantly change their attitudes about reconciliation. Those who don't accept Jesus' attitude might run the rick of getting their ambassadorial credentials revoked.

(03-22-01)