Sunday, March 31, 2019

A story of rings and robes

Today's Gospel reading was from Luke and it was the story of the Prodigal Son.  Depending on how you read it, the story of the Prodigal Son is either the easiest and least demanding of Gospel readings or one of the very hardest.

In both cases the story of the Prodigal Son is a story about redemption.

Let's start with easy
The easy version is like the verse in a Hallmark card. In this version we "learn" that God the Father's middle name is "Milquetoaste".

In this version we put ourselves into the sandals of the prodigal son and we are comforted to know that no matter how heinous our behavior toward God and his church, we are already forgiven.

The hard
I need to lay a bit of groundwork here. The portion of the story where the father first sights his returning son is very tightly written. There is no gratuitous detail or fanciful window dressing. Everything that is there is there for very specific reasons.

...his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him...
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.

"Kissed him" The first time "kiss" appears in the Bible is in Genesis when God the Father kissed Adam and breathed life into him. The father's kiss of the Prodigal Son returns him to life.

"Ordered his servants" is code that we as servants and brothers of Christ are expected to be active participants in the story.

Tiny scraps of cloth are still used to "confer" authority. An officer who attempts to issue direct orders while out-of-uniform might not be obeyed.
"Finest robe"  Clothing was more than a badge of authority. It is authority. We still use the term "investiture ceremony" when somebody new is sworn into office. Investiture; where "vest" or formal clothing is the root.

"Ring" Signet rings were used to seal documents and to enter into contracts. Giving the prodigal son one of the family rings meant that the son was granted the power to commit the family to potentially ruinous business ventures. It was the full equal of a CEO's legally binding signature.

"Sandals" Feet were unclean. Those horses and oxen, donkeys and camels did not wear diapers. Jesus washed the apostle's feet to show service and ennobling humility. The story of the Prodigal Son compels us to be actors in the redemption of others even when it is "icky".

Now to make it really, really hard
Using the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke's Gospel as a lens, how does it inform us to treat the clergy who misbehaved?

I own the next part
Q: What are the similarities?
A: The preface to the story has the opinion makers gigging Jesus for ministering to tax collectors, lepers and others who were unclean. In today's society it is difficult to find any group of people who get treated the way lepers were back at the time of Christ but I submit that clergy who committed sex crimes fall into that group.

Q: Do I propose "re-vesting" clergy who misbehaved and setting them lose in the community?
A: No. There are ample examples in the Bible of needing to balance mission with stewardship. It would be a failure of mission to put individuals with documented weaknesses into situations where they will sin.

Q: What I proposing for the Church community with regard to fallen clergy.
A: Nothing. I am simply sharing where MY head is. I would willingly eat lunch with a defrocked clergyman because I still see them as members of the family and worthy of social interactions. Nobody else needs to climb on board. This essay talks about where I am.

Q: But doesn't the Bible single out sodomy as the most vile and disgusting of sin?
A: All sin is repugnant to God.

A counter-argument can be made that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is even more about failures of hospitality. Sojourners from the desert enter Sodom and Gomorrah in a weakened state and the residents sexually abuse them. To use a man (male) for sexual purposes was to steal his claim to humanity, to virtually steal his soul. He was now a woman.

The sin was failure of hospitality. Sodomy was the means of denying hospitality.

To break bread with a repentant sinner is to fulfill the duty of hospitality. Ironically, to shun a repentant sinner is to repeat the sins of non-hospitality which is to repeat the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah by a different means.

As always, your mileage will vary.


  1. I struggle with the prodigal son story, because the son seems still to be rather unworthy and only after a cynical advantage of his circumstances. He is the drunken sailor who is only sober because he's run out of money; It can be easily interpreted that he is unreformed. While I agree that the gracious display of hospitality is a fundamental one to any faith (not just Christianity) this altruism does not carry with it a state of willful blind ignorance. So yes: You may break bread with the sinner who may or may not be truly repentant. But you would never entrust that person with the opportunity of another transgression, out of respect for the potential victims. Once broken, some trusts are never mended until a truly meaningful penance has been paid in full, and this can only rightfully be granted by the persons harmed.

    1. Well thought out and written.

      I am not even sure the victim's forgiveness is sufficient. Witness the Stockholm syndrome (

      Forgiveness and repentance is a very thorny topic.

  2. When Sodom and Gomorrah occurred general society did not consider women to be people. Women were property. In the context of the time, to rape a man was to reduce his status to property. In the context of the time. I don't think that is Catholic propaganda. I think that is history.

    What do I believe? I believe that women have souls. I believe that when anybody is deeply traumatized that it causes chemical and physical changes in the brain. But I do not believe that it steals their souls.

  3. My deepest sorrow for what you and your children lived through.

    I tried to write clearly. I owned it. Eating lunch with a priest or clergy member who did evil might be my mission. It clearly is not your mission.

    James 3:1 reads "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly" I am not "covering for" or justifying what those people did.

    Should every person who ever did evil be denied all paths to redemption? If only some evil people are denied redemption, who chooses?

    I did not write this post lightly. I expect to lose about 20% of my readers because people who abuse positions of power are the proverbial third-rail.

    Again, my deepest sorrow and sympathy over your loses.

  4. Worth the time to think and look deeper into the bible. Thanks!

  5. "The sin was failure of hospitality. Sodomy was the means of denying hospitality. "

    hospitality = "the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers."

    Wow, and I thought hospitality was an innocuous word. Way to burn the hospitality industry brand! LOL

    1. I am going to play the straight man on this.

      Judaism, Christianity and Islam all evolved in a brittle, desert environment. To deny access to an oasis was to condemn a traveler to death.

      Hinduism evolved in a brittle monsoon region.

      Harsh test regimes produce superior products. Deserts are the crucible that purifies the edicts of God.

      The standards of hospitality that evolved in the desert may be overkill in a softer environment.

      Overkill is a funny word. I have never encountered a problem that could not be killed too dead. And who knows? The poshly appointed elevator you willingly enter on the ground floor can become a prison minutes later when it gets stuck between the 87th and 88th floor.

  6. Joe I think you're pretty much spot on with this post. Having said that...I'm sure you know trying to interpret the Bible is a pretty tough way to go. For one thing it seems to contradict itself. For example Hang with the sinners and try to bring em back to the fold ( ok) . On the other hand I believe there is scripture that says to the effect if someone sins talk to him. If he continues get an elder to go with you and try again. If they wont listen cast them out. OR....turn the other cheek. Yet...Old testament is full of war against the unbelievers who worshiped other gods AND Peter himself carried a Sword. ( Plus, God Normally was forgiving BUT again old testament SOMETIMES let all of Israel go into bondage because they wouldn't listen. That doesn't sound all forgive the sinner or turn the other cheek when an entire people are sent into slavery. For surely the saints were made servants right along with the sinners.)

    1. Part of what makes it a muddle is that clergy who behave badly covers a lot of real estate.

      Is a priest or married clergyman who goes out and discretely has a sexual relationship thirty-five year old woman guilty of sexual abuse? Under current mores, he is if the woman or anybody related to her either works for the church or attends the church due to the relative disparity in power.

      Then there is a spectrum of behaviors up to the grooming and abuse of multiple children with Larry Nassar as an example.

      How hard would it be to eat a sub sandwich with somebody who was guilty of the first scenario thirty years ago? Clearly, it would be easier than to eat a meal with somebody from the second scenario.

  7. Forgiveness - that's the tough test. Sometimes I'm better at it than other times.

  8. Tough post, tough topic, lots of emotion around this. The story of the Prodigal Son is a reminder that we all have to strive to forgive, not just when it is convenient. Harder yet is to forgive when the other is not truly repentant. But that's what we are called to do. I think by not forgiving, you are closing your heart to God.

    As this scandal in the Church has continued on, I have become more aware of the depth of the scandal. There are a number of priests guilty of sexual or emotional abuse. Far too many. These events are terrible, but we must find a way to forgive. As Aggie pointed out, you wouldn't put these people back in a similar situation of trust until they had earned that trust back. Or maybe never, as the recidivism rate for abusers his high.

    The thing that really gets me about the scandal and where my anger is directed is at the bishops and other church leaders. Too often priests were reassigned to commit more abuse. Too often the environment at a seminary was toxic. The scandal does not stop there, but instead continues on in Rome, up to the highest level of the church. And by that, I mean the Pope. The message conveyed is that somehow these events require all of us to share in the blame and take additional precautions. Safe environment training for all, except the Bishops as an example. Blame-shifting is what I call it. It is time to clean things up, once and for all. I think the Church's leaders have taken us the wrong way.

    The Church and the Word itself are not toxic. The people leading the Church are. Time to get the industrial strength cleaners out and clean things up. Time to refocus on God and our relationship to Him and to others and doing what we can to make our world a better place.

    Lori G - I have no clue as to how much suffering you and your family have been through and the pain you must feel. I am sorry and hope for better days for you and your family.

    ERJ - thanks for the thought provoking post. It is good to challenge your beliefs and actions and then either be renewed or know that changes need to be made.


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