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Thought for Sunday 15th September 2019
Thirteenth Sunday of Trinity
It's interesting how it’s the baddies, not the goodies, who found Jesus to be a magnetic character. In the Gospel stories, tax collectors and sinners all crowded around him. They clearly did not feel condemned, but rather accepted by Him.
Of course, what upset the clergy of the day was that he seemed to have sympathy, not for them but for ‘the loner’, ‘the loser’ and ‘the troublemaker’ who would not fit in. Jesus felt for the one who went off the rails and who had no hope of restoration or inclusion. And he does not just speak. Jesus often seems to have used actions as well as words – he gets close to the outcast, he lays his hands on them anoints them with oil and he places fingers into ears and he touches a tongue with his saliva.
He also sits down and eats with them. In those days to eat with someone was sacred. For scribes and pharisees, eating together was a sign of unity within God’s covenant. Therefore, to eat with gentiles, tax collectors or sinners would be scandalous, unthinkable. His actions and his words show that he really was good news to the outcast. He seemed to suggest that there is a way back, and that there is always hope. How do we communicate this grace? It is hard to express this mercy in a way that makes sense to us.
A powerful image of grace is seen In Les Miserables which is being performed in the Theatre Royal at the minute. Having just been released after 19 years as working as a galley slave, convict Jean Valjean, whose only crime was to steal a loaf of bread, is shown amazing grace by a bishop and this turns him around. Valjean spends a night at the Bishop’s house from which, in his fear and desperation, he steals some silver and flees. After being arrested by the police he is returned to the Bishop’s house to answer for his new crime. However, the Bishop forgives him and more than that, to the dismay of police and the astonishment of Jean Valjean, the Bishop declares that the silver is a gift freely given, and then gives Jean Valjean a further two silver candlesticks, which he had previously left behind in error. This was an act of kindness that set in motion Jean Valjean’s transformation into a man of heroic virtue who, in turn, would transform others.
It is that extravagant forgiveness that I think Jesus is trying to express. Jesus says that God does not rest, he seeks us out, he is incomplete when we are missing, He takes risks.
In fact God forgets himself – he puts himself in danger – in order to win us back. Hence that wonderful picture of the father of the prodigal son who forgets his dignity to run to embrace his wayward son. This is to be at the heart of all that we are and do. But if this could be communicated effectively I wonder if we would like the people whom would be attracted to our Services?