When I was in university some years ago now it seemed to me that if I wanted, it was possible still, at that time, to read everything that had ever been written about any particular topic.
This sounds like good methodology. After all, in order to write a research paper on some subject you must first master the material and know all there is to know about it, right? Before developing your thesis you need first to gather and consume all the data and information out there.
Today, however, that strategy is impossible. With the democratizing effect of the World Wide Web over the last decades, you can no longer pretend to have all the information you need before acting on a plan. Because there’s always something more that someone has written.
A couple of weeks ago I sat around a table of a group of local Lutheran pastors talking about some of the things being planned for the Joint Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada this summer in Ottawa.
We were considering the suggestion of the national bishops of both churches to act boldly. One afternoon during the Joint Assembly, both church bodies would be invited to walk together peacefully to Parliament Hill and make public witness of our unity and mutual support of some pressing social justice issues of the day; namely, showing our support for First Nations people and for social/affordable housing initiatives — given the growing disparity between rich and poor and the escalation of child poverty rates, even in our city here.
Well, that was interesting. Some raised concern that before we can act on something like this, we need to have all the information: we need to see both sides of the issue, to gather all the opinions and data and perspectives which exist among our diverse membership — to be sure.
This position, I must admit, appealed to me impulsively. You see, I grew up in a family where, in order to do something together, it felt like we all had to agree on the course of action. I mean, each one of us had to agree to it for it to be okay. Our unity of action depended on conformity. Unless we were all like-minded on a position, we held off acting on it.
Now, there are times in the life of a family or community when waiting to act on something is appropriate. Other times, not so much. And when we hesitate, when we look the other way, because we need more information, we may miss out on experiencing something wonderful from God. And that’s tragic.
At root of this paralysis of analysis, I believe, is fear. Fear of the unknown.
In my life as a pastor I’ve also witnessed families sitting around a dinner table where they argue passionately against each other, expressing with loud words and wildly flying hand gestures their divergent opinions. And yet, each and every one of them around that table could never imagine NOT remaining part of that family. They work it out — together, and openly. They’re not afraid of baring their souls, being vulnerable to one another, laying it on the line — lovingly, firmly, respectfully. They are family no matter their disagreements. And, those disagreements don’t hold family members back from acting on their convictions when those opportunities present themselves.
Notice the action of the father of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel text for today (Luke 15:1-3,11b-32). A younger son leaves home with his inheritance and squanders it. Destitute, he decides to risk going back home hoping he will be received.
You can imagine Jesus’ listeners expecting — as in other parables where rebels are dealt with harshly — that this young son will be severely punished. If the steward who failed to invest was cast into outer darkness (Matthew 25:26-30), how much more will a greedy son suffer!
We may be so familiar with this story that we overlook something that would have surprised its original audience: the father hasn’t even heard his son’s expression of remorse. The father doesn’t first hear what his son had to say for himself. The father doesn’t first demand an apology from the lips of the wayward son. Jesus says that the father was only “moved with compassion” simply upon seeing him. Actions speak louder than words. There’s no analysis going on here.
The father does something wondrous — something that might very well have struck listeners as odd. He runs, undignified, and puts his arm around his son and kisses him -uncalled for. Who could not feel confused by the father’s apparent approval of sin? (thanks to Fr. James Martin, SJ, for this insight). What’s going on here? The father even throws a party for his lost son that has come home.
I find it interesting that the end of the story in Luke’s Gospel does not say how the resentful elder son responded to the father’s invitation to join the family celebration. Perhaps this question mark at the end of the story was intentional – as now each and every one of us is invited to reflect on whether or not we will act.
Will we act, first out of compassion and mercy? Will we join the new thing God is doing in our family in the church? Despite disagreeing on some things, despite feeling miffed or frustrated by something, despite not having gathered all the data and information on something, despite our desire first to feel justified in helping people in need.
But as we must make that decision on our own, remember who is inviting us. And, remember that our Father God desires the healing not just of individuals in our own private worlds. But ultimately, our God desires the healing of the whole family of God. And God promises to welcome each of us around that table, in this world and in the world to come.
What a party that will be!