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Friday, March 05, 2010

“Tax-collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and the scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2)

“SOUL-SURFING” – March 14, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

“A man and his dog were walking along a road. The man was enjoying the scenery when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead. He remembered dying, and that the dog walking beside him had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them.

“After a while, they came to a high, white stone wall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight. When he was standing before it he saw a magnificent gate in the arch that looked like mother-of-pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold. He and the dog walked toward the gate, and as he got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side.

“When he was close enough, he called out, 'Excuse me, where are we?' The man at the desk answered, 'This is Heaven, sir.' Exclaimed the traveler, 'Wow! Would you happen to have some water?’ With a smile the man responded, 'Of course, sir. Come right in, and I'll have some ice water brought right up.' The man gestured, and the gate began to open. 'Can my friend,' gesturing toward his dog, 'come in, too?' the traveler asked. The response stung the traveler. 'I'm sorry, sir; we don't accept pets.'

“The traveler thought a moment and then turned back toward the road and continued the way he had been going with his dog. After another long walk, and at the top of another long hill, he came to a dirt road leading through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence. As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book.

“'Excuse me!' he called to the man, 'do you have any water?' Looking up from his book, the man responded, 'Yeah, sure, there's a pump over there, come on in.' Continued the traveler, 'How about my friend here?' as he gestured toward the dog. With a wave the man smiled, 'There should be a bowl by the pump.' They went through the gate, and sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it. The traveler filled the water bowl and took a long drink himself, then gave some to the dog.

“When they were full, he and the dog walked back toward the man who was standing by the tree. ‘What do you call this place?' the traveler asked. 'This is Heaven,' the man answered. 'Well, that's confusing,' the traveler said. 'The man down the road said that was Heaven, too.' Laughed the man, 'Oh, you mean the place with the gold street and pearly gates? Nope. That's hell.' The traveler protested, 'Doesn't it make you mad for them to use your name like that?' With a laugh the man replied, 'No, we're just happy they screen out the folks who would leave their best friends behind.'” (Original source unknown)

And what’s the point of this story? It’s this: if even dogs are welcome in heaven, then who of us is not welcome? The answer, of course, is obvious. We are all welcome, and heaven is forfeited only by our choice, not God’s. Indeed, the span of God’s open embrace is completely inclusive; there’s room for everyone. Even dogs.

But how often do we judge God’s abilities by our own limitations? How often does even our widest embrace exclude this group or that group, this person or that person? Yes, we are limited simply because we’re human. And try as I might, I expect there will always be someone out there who remains beyond my ability to embrace, someone who will stand as stark reminder that God’s love is more inclusive than mine will ever be. There will always be that person about whom I must admit a painful truth: “God loves you and I’m trying really hard.”

In the gospel passage we hear today, a story so familiar is related that speaks of the scope of God’s love, the expanse of his embrace. Yes, the story of the prodigal son stands as witness to God’s desire that everyone be welcomed into the kingdom. But what prompts Jesus to tell this moving story? The opening verses of today’s gospel passage set the stage. St. Luke writes, “Tax-collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and the scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1-2) Indeed, the Pharisees and scribes could not imagine that he who claimed to be Son of God would choose public sinners as his intimates. Either their comprehension of God was defective or this man claiming to be Son of God was a blasphemous heretic.

On this Fourth Sunday of Lent, we are invited to consider the scope and breadth of our ability to accept others and then to love them. While our embrace will never match the long-armed expanse of God’s, we need ask ourselves if we’re really reaching as far as we might. Indeed, today we are challenged to confess the sin of exclusivity: that there are those whom God loves but I don’t. At least not yet.

Yes, as the opening story reminds us, even dogs are welcome in that eternal home reached by “a dirt road leading through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed.” God’s love: a gate that has never been closed.


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