Monday, July 20, 2020

To evangelize well, we need to re-appreciate the importance of the whole number.

There is a lot of truth and wisdom that is hidden in scripture which only becomes clear when it is revealed to us through wise and sage teachings.  Much of this is lost on the average person who reads not only translated bibles, but also who don’t have much of an appreciation of the mind and culture of the people who wrote the texts.  Sometimes, when a truth is revealed, it becomes a game-changer in terms of not only understanding the text, but also in living out our call to be disciples of Christ and to carry out our collective mission to evangelize. 

When teaching using parables, Jesus revealed to his disciples that there is a two-fold purpose in his usage of parables as his teaching method.  He says that it is “because the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are revealed to some but not to others.”  In other words, there is a certain hiddenness that is embedded within the parables that Jesus used, mainly because the kingdom of God isn’t something that is purely logical and linear in its essence, but has a mystery that needs entering into.  This is also why one can bring the very same part of scripture to prayer over and over and over again, and can also come out of prayer with fresh and different truths and insights each time.  The words have not changed, but its depths have reached new fathoms.

There is something to be said about the context of Jesus’ parables, largely because the evangelists do tend to group them together in a certain way. For instance, in the 15thchapter of Luke’s gospel, we see three parables in rather rapid succession and if we isolate them and only take them one parable at a time, something of essence is easily missed.  Within this chapter, the three parables are 

1)      The parable of the lost sheep (15:3-7)
2)      The parable of the lost coin (15:8-10), and
3)      The parable of the prodigal son (15:11-32)

Each of these three parables can and often are read as stand alone parables.  While that is good and perhaps even laudable, one easily misses something huge if one doesn’t begin by reading the first two verses of chapter 15, which is the context of why Jesus launched into these three parables.  We are told that the Pharisees were grumbling and complaining that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them.

This was what was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and, if you will, his raison d’etre of his incarnation.  It was to bring the good news to sinners, and to share table fellowship and in that sense, to become Eucharist.  What drove him to be so passionate was the Hebrew mind of how crucial the whole number was and how an odd number just doesn’t sit well with in the Jewish culture.

Notice that in all the three separate but subsequent parables, there is one main theme that links all three stories and teachings, and that is how relentless the pursuer is of wanting to restore the whole.  In the parable of the lost sheep, the sheep owner goes out of his way in order to bring that one lost and wandering sheep back.  Why?  So that the 99 can eventually become 100.  The odd number needs to become whole.

In the parable of the lost coin, the woman had 10, but had lost one, leaving her with 9.  That odd number just didn’t sit well with her and she turned the whole house upside down just so that the 9 would become 10 again.  That need for wholeness drove her to go to such extremes.

Finally, in the parable of the prodigal son, the family unit experiences being split and rent asunder with the younger son departing the home and hearth for the life of debauchery and iniquity.  The father was utterly broken and yearned for nothing more than a reunion and return of that son, evidenced by his running out to meet the returning younger son. His excitement and utter joy is enough to justify this act of humility where an elder runs out to greet and meet the younger.  Running as an elder would be deemed an unbecoming act for an elder, but the return of the lost one puts aside all social graces.  

In all the three parables, the thread that passes through them is the unceasing and relentless need for the whole to be complete.  If 100 is the whole, 99 is incomplete and doesn't sit well with God and with the heart.  Because 10 is the whole, the fact that one is lost requires great effort in sedulous sweeping to not settle with 9.  If 2 is the whole, God doesn't want to settle for 1, and neither should we.  

I think many of us have missed this hidden point in the parables.  It really is a call to move beyond tribalism.  This is a term which isn’t quite used in contemporary reflection, but its prevalence is universal.  It’s the self-preserving need to only keep alive and to maintain, support and nurture what we are comfortable with, and not to include those who are outside of our inner group.  Its offspring is exclusiveness and it truly goes against the grain of God’s kingdom of heaven where everyone needs to be invited. 

In our own experience of life, these need to include those who have gone astray, those who are lost and those who have chosen to, like the younger son, live a life that has elements of selfishness and maybe even somewhat debaucherous.  The final judgment is God’s, and we need to respect that.  Ours is to seek them out, incessantly invite them back, and show charity win their friendship.  

This last part poses the greatest challenge to anyone serious in evangelizing to the lost.  It is an art that requires delicate balance and great patience, partly because we are dealing with matters of the heart and soul, and unless there is love, it will always be easier to bash the door in with harsh truths than to knock gently and persuade the door to be opened from the other side.  Our zeal needs to be tempered with tact and humility, which is such a delicate operation. But what fuels our zeal needs to be that hunger for the whole number that these three parables reveal to be at the heart of God.

Our empty churches are not a whole number.   We need all those who are still to be found.  

If we have the heart of God that wants wholeness and isn’t contented until all of his beloved children learn about his truth and his love, we won’t easily settle.  We will ramp up our efforts at talking about Christ and his good news, because every person matters.  Success at evangelizing isn’t ours to measure.  All we are asked is to do our best in showcasing our faith in our love and actions to all, regardless of whom we may be encountering in life.  

If we sometimes write others off with some unspoken prejudice in our hearts, we need to see how zealous Jesus was to go to the Cross for all of humanity, with no prejudice whatsoever.  

1 comment:

  1. I found this reflection very insightful and inspiring. Thank you very much dear Fr. Luke.