The gardener who spoke softly to the grieving Mary Magdalen in the garden. The stranger who walked with the despairing Disciples on the road to Emmaus. The appearance that startled the fearful Apostles hiding behind closed doors in the upper room. The cook who appeared on the shore of the lake and prepared fish for incredulous Disciples. The shepherd who pursued with determined love the lost lamb.
This is an extremely rich Gospel. It helps to remember that it was written in a time of trauma for the Church. It opens with the Disciples at sea. They are confused, they are lost, they are empty. They are still reeling from the death of their Master. They do not seem to know what to do with themselves, so in a kind of reflex action they revert to their old trade, fishing.
Each year the Church celebrates Doubting Thomas Day. It is a rough day for the Apostle. Not only does the poor fellow miss out on Jesus’ first appearance to His Disciples, but he tells them that they must have dreamed it, and the only way he will believe Jesus has risen is to put his fingers into the wounds of Calvary. A week later, the Lord embarrasses him with just that invitation, “Trace My wounds.”
When Judas arrived at the Garden of Olives to arrest Jesus, Jesus asked him, “Why are you here?” So today I ask you the same question: friends, why are you here after all our Church has gone through? This is the same Church you have been reading about in the headlines. This is what has been called by one newspaper the “Scandal Ridden Church.”
Two men are facing each other. One is only 10 hours away from death; the other just told a group gathered around a fire that he did not know the man who was going to His death. No, no, he protested, I do not know Him; I have never been with Him; I swear I have not.
Many years ago I was asked to visit a patient in a psychiatric hospital. When I arrived, the patient was with a nurse so I had to wait. I was shown into a large room. At first, I thought I was alone until I sat down. At the other end of the room sitting at a small table was a young woman. On the table was a jigsaw puzzle which she was trying to put together. She held up two small pieces of the puzzle that did not match. She tried to force them together, then she would drop one and pick up another, banging them on the table trying to make them fit. Then some fell on the floor, and she became more agitated. She looked down and said softly to herself, “The pieces don’t fit, the pieces don’t fit.”
Just recently I heard a song by Elton John. The lyrics went like this: “What have I got to do to make you love me? What have I got to do to be heard? What do I do when lightning strikes me? It’s sad, so sad. It’s a sad, sad situation. And it’s getting more and more absurd. It’s sad, so sad that sorry seems to be the hardest word.” I think the Prodigal Son would have sung this song as he looked around at his situation that was getting more and more absurd. So let’s take a look and see what the situation was.
Most of us have heard of the term “freeloader.” It refers to a person who takes and takes, but makes little or no effort to put back. If you go to lunch with a freeloader, more often than not they will forget to bring their money. In today’s Gospel Jesus told a story about this pattern of life, but the freeloader in this instance is not a person, but a fig tree. The tree drains strength and sustenance from the soil and it never gives anything back, it never produces any figs.
There was a young boy named Rocky Dennis. You may have heard about him, his life was once loosely depicted in the film, Mask. Rocky had a rare disease that caused his skull and bones in his face to grow larger than they should. His face was misshapen and disfigured, and people would avoid him.
The words a person chooses to speak are a window through which to see and know their heart. According to statisticians, the average man speaks about 25,000 words a day, and the average woman 30,000. From the first “good morning” to the last “good night,” each engages in approximately 30 conversations a day. So given these figures, the average person spends about 15 years, or about one-fifth, of his or her life talking.
I want you to put aside all the preconceived mental and emotional images we have of Jesus. Forget too all the doctrines and titles about Him. Just think of a first-century Jew living in occupied territory, looking just like everyone else. Jesus would be hard to distinguish from any other Arab or Palestinian Jew of today. He is just an itinerant rabbi, standing surrounded by a crowd of people, some friendly, some hostile. He says some of the most outrageous words ever uttered. Some think He’s mad. Some are intrigued, though skeptical, that such a program is possible to live by. He’s kidding, isn’t He? Is a comment heard more than once.
At a 25th wedding anniversary reception, the husband, who had perhaps had a little too much to drink, began thanking the crowd for coming. He started going on and on about how this was the best marriage in the world, and how much they love one another. When he eventually sat down, his wife said, “Tell me what hurts me.” Bleary-eyed, the husband said, “How do I know what hurts you?” The wife’s answer was swift: “If you don’t know what hurts me, how can you say you love me?”
Failure is a fact of life, it happens to all of us. We try to do something, but fall short of the goal. The experience comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is relatively immaterial: we play a game and lose. We burn the pot roast. We try to lose a few pounds, but end up gaining. These are failures of a sort, but we soon forget them and they do not have a lasting effect on our lives.
None of us like to be deceived. Most of us would rather have the truth, even though it may be unpleasant. Most of us would rather our doctor be honest with us even if the news is bad. Or a teacher letting us know when our child is failing rather than let us think all is well. It is better to be troubled by a painful truth than to be consoled with a pleasant lie, but there is one notable exception.