31 March: 4th Sunday of Lent

Luke 15 may be the best short story that was ever written. Some of its phrases are so powerful that they have become proverbial…

1st Reading: Joshua 5:9-12

The Israelites, free at last from slavery and humiliation in Egypt, enter the land of promise

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Responsorial: Psalm 33: 2-7

Response: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord

I will bless the Lord at all times,
his praise always on my lips;
In the Lord my soul shall make its boast.
The humble shall hear and be glad. (R./)

Glorify the Lord with me.
Together let us praise his name.
I sought the Lord and he answered me;
from all my terrors he set me free. (R./)

Look towards him and be radiant;
let your faces not be abashed.
This poor man called; the Lord heard him
and rescued him from all his distress. (R./)

2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Christ’s aim and mission was to reconcile us with God

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Gospel: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

The vivid parable of the Prodigal Son, on the Father’s patient love

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.

When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and nobody gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe ” the best one-and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


What kind of fairness is this?

When reading the story of the Prodigal Son we might feel some dissatisfaction at how he is welcomed home. Rather than being delighted with the mercy of God, we may feel irked by the apparent unfairnessof the father towards his elder son. And yes, some parents do indeed show favouritism. If they hear a complaint about the apple of their eye, they just shake their heads in disbelief. “You don’t know him (or her). No, they couldn’t do a thing like that. It’s just not in their nature.” At other times the concerned teacher, priest or kindly neighbour will hear the lament, “I don’t know what to do with him, Father. He has my heart broken. I can’t understand him at all.” Could it be that this prodigal offspring was the favourite?

Is it that we know that feeling all too well .. a resentment of those who have been careless, but seem to get all the luck? We can feel some sympathy for the elder son. Sometimes the dutiful quality of our lives make us envy the Prodigal’s wild  freedom. We might grudge the sinner his good times. It is probably why we so readily accept the notion of ultimate retribution. We cherish the thought that our good times are ahead of us and hope that the playboys of this world will pay for their pleasures in due time. So the elder son is the patron of all the solid citizens, “the salt of the earth’, while behind the banner of the Prodigal huddle all the rakes and misfits, drop-outs, lame-ducks and the rest of the world’s rejects.

But the parable is about the boundless mercy of God and the message is clear. Why divert any attention to the resentful elder son? Perhaps our Lord is warning us not to do likewise. What the grudging elder son failed to see was how God’s love reaches out to all creation.

The ideal short story

‘Tell me a story’ we said from our earliest days. “What’s the story?” is used as a greeting by many. Ireland is rich in story-telling. Frank O’Connor. William Trevor, Maeve Binchy.. so many others. The Story invites us into the drama. It is stage and theatre. Jesus was a magnificent story teller. He caught the attention of his listeners. His stories were dressed up in familiar events and obvious elements in the lives of those listening. They knew what he was talking about. They knew what he was getting at. They knew what the message of the story was. Why are so many of our homilies lost in the prose of literalism? (Séamus Ahearne)

Luke 15 is a masterly story. Some of its phrases are so powerful that they have become proverbial. Prodigal Son, fatted calf. . . lost and found. A story that has enriched the vocabulary of the world. And not just the world’s vocabulary ” the world’s mentality as well. Its way of looking at things. No story tells us more about God or makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s a short story with enormous scope, with the widest possible diameter, in that it embraces our sinfulness at one end and God’s forgiveness at the other. The best part of it, of course, is that it brings both extremities to the centre. What provoked it? What led Our Lord to tell it? The fact that the Pharisees objected to the company he kept, to his eating with sinners. So he tells the story to give an insight into his own mind and the mind of God.

The story falls into three parts. The first is about the younger son, an impatient lad who wanted his inheritance now. Couldn’t wait for the father to die. Greedy fingers, itchy feet, a sensual nature; wanting to live it up, and to hell with the commandments. A life based on doing whatever he feel like doing ” not an unfamiliar story in any generation, including our own. “Sure you might as well, life is that short. Anyway. as long as you’re enjoying yourself, as long as you’re happy.” But the happiness ran out, and he came to his senses. And that’s the big point about him. He came to his senses. He really was repentant. Repentance is to be sorry to be in one place, to want to be in another, and to have the will and determination to get there. To be sorry for our sins, to want a different kind of life, and to have the motivation and determination to change. Well, he had that. He was graced with that. “I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men” (Lk 17:19). As I say, the big thing about him is that he acknowledged his sins and wanted to be rid of them. He was really repentant.

The second part of the story is about the father. And when you think about it, it’s truly extraordinary. It says: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him” (Lk 15-20). Still a long way off, a dot on the horizon. Doesn’t that mean he was on the look.out for him, from the day he left, watching and waiting and praying, like many a father or mother? Doesn’t it illustrate how God the Father feels about each of us, how much every one of us matters to him, how anxious he is that we’d come back? And he didn’t just wait for the son; he ran out to meet him ” met him half-way. Some people feel we should call this story “the Prodigal Father.” To be prodigal is to be wasteful or lavish in your use of things. Well, the father threw his forgiveness around. Not in any grudging or reproving way, but in an explosion of sheer generosity and joy: Kill the calf, we’re having a feast, the son is alive again. The father is noted for the prodigality of his forgiveness and the intensity of his joy: “There will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 15:7).

The third part of the story concerns the elder son, so angry that he couldn’t enter into the mood of the party to celebrate his brother’s return. He’s indignant at his father’s easy pardon of the returned prodigal, and refuses even to go in. Of course his anger is quite understandable and he’s treated with some sympathy by his father, but the elder son’s attitude helps to illustrate how much more forgiving God is than we are, and how inclusive, all-embracing, is the Father’s embrace. It includes the two of them ” the rock and the rover. “My son you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right that we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.” What a lesson for the Year of Mercy in which pope Francis has invited us to join.

The story of the Prodigal Son really needs no elaboration and maybe it’s presumption to be commenting on it at all. The most respectful response to it is personal reflection. Just think about it; savour it and let it sink in. We’ll all be touched by different pieces of it, because that’s the way with everything we hear. I doubt if any of us can ignore its central message, that there is no limit to God’s forgiveness and that our repentance brings joy to the Father’s heart. You imagine that God doesn’t want us to turn away from sin? You think God doesn’t love you? Then you haven’t been listening to the story of the Prodigal Son.

Arms Wide-Open 

The clear protagonist of today’s parable is the father. Twice he repeats his cry of joy: “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found”. This cry reveals what’s in the father’s heart. This father isn’t worried about his own dignity or honour, nor how his son has treated him. Does not use the language of morality. He only thinks about his son’s recovery: his precious son isn’t dead after all, but is restored to life.

This story describes in detail the meeting of the father with this son who had abandoned house and home. Even when the returning son was still some way off, the father spotted him, recognised him and was moved down in his heart. Only the father’s kindness and compassion can save us. Only God sees us and understands us so fully. Look at who does the running. It’s not the homecoming son;  it’s the father who runs and who reaches out in welcome. “He caught him by the neck and kept kissing him”. Jesus tells us that God like that: running with open arms to welcome those who come back.

The son starts his confession: he’s been planning it for a long time. The father interrupts him to save him more humiliation. He doesn’t impose a penance, demands no ritual of expiation; he places no condition on welcoming him home. The father cares about his son’s dignity. So he gets the servants to bring him the best clothes, a household ring, and sandals to walk home. There he will be received at a banquet celebrated in his honour. To his amazement, the son is restored to the happiness of the life he had so casually thrown aside when he left.

Whoever listens to this parable from the heart, will know it applies to himself, or herself. They will feel, maybe for the first time, that in the depths of life there is Someone who welcomes us and forgives us, unconditionally, Someone who only wants us to have fullness of life. (J.A. Pagola)

The elder brother

The younger son is the main focus of commentators and preachers. His return home and the welcome he received can move our hearts. But the parable also speaks about an older son, a reliable fellow who stayed at home with his father, without imitating the licentious life of his brother in faraway places. When they tell the older son that his father has organized a lavish party to welcome the lost son, he gets very upset, understandably. His brother’s return doesn’t make him happy, but furious. “He was angry then and refused to go in” to the party. He had done his duty and never left home, but now he feels like a stranger in his own house. The father goes out to invite him with the same tenderness with which he has welcomed his brother. He doesn’t shout or order. With humble love “he tries to persuade him” to come into the welcome home party. It’s then that the son explodes, making his resentment known. He’s spent his whole life fulfilling his father’s orders, but he hasn’t learned to love as his father loves. All he knows how to do is demand his rights and talk his brother down.

The elder brother’s protest invites us to examine our own attitudes. Do we think we deserve more from God than other people? Do we practice religion as a duty, or resent the mercy that God offers to sinners who repent? Do we create a welcoming space, willing to welcome whoever comes to our church, no matter where they come from? Are we apt to build walls rather than bridges? Do we offer a helping hand, or do we look on others with suspicion?


Spreagann freagra fiachmhar an deartháír níos sine ár ndearcadh i dtaobh stráinséirí a scrúdú. An bhfuil breis agus ár gcuid tuillte againn thar éinne eile? An dtugamíd adhradh do Dhia mar dhualgas orainn ach le doicheall mar gheall ar thrócaire Dé ar na h-aithrí. An bhfearaimíd fáílte le tuiscint rompu siúd a iarann cead isteach chughainn aineoinn a n-oidhreacht? An fearr dúinn ballaí a thógáil in áit an lámh fáilte a shíneadh. An bhfuilimíd cáirdiúil cneasta nó an gcuirimíd droch bhail agus amhras ar eachtrannaigh?


  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Readers can identify totally with the soliloquy of the prodigal son, especially if one is cynical enough to read it not as an undiluted expression of heartfelt conversion, but rather as a calculation about survival. If read as a straight narrative of religious conversion it can appear clumsy or wooden, and the indignation of the elder brother merely churlish. But thanks to the penetration of biblical studies by the subtleties of modern literary criticism we are learning to read Luke as a great master of narrative art, insinuating a wider spectrum of intricate motives than conventional piety normally takes account of.

    The phrase “coming to himself” (15:17) “does not on its own signify repentance. As one exegete says: ‘Coming to one’s senses’ is more the idea,” although “shades of repentance are clearly evident.” At best they are shades, and even then they are far from evident. The “conversion” is prompted by destitution and impossible to dissociate from economic considerations. The speech the prodigal rehearses for his father is skillfully calculated to win back his favour, and in what he says to himself there is no reference to any injury done to his father: “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants’” (15:17-19). A more honest speech would begin, “Father, I’ve come back because I am dying of hunger,” so, as another exegete says, “the lie by omission is flagrant.”

    This soliloquy, like the other calculating soliloquys that dot Luke’s Gospel, meets reversal that overthrows the petty standards of the calculator, for the father forgives the son when he sees him at a distance and interrupts his rehearsed speech before he can say “treat me as one of your hired servants,” a phrase that is not the deepest level of self-abasement, since the servants were paid; “the finesse of a narrator without any illusion about certain discourses of repentance” is to be admired. The paternal response is not in the same key of calculation as the soliloquy, and its generosity undercuts the son’s cautious and mistrustful performance. The son’s judgement thus fell short of the mark, just as his brother’s calculations of merit and reward (15:29-30) are tangential to the father’s uncalculating love for the sons.

    See https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313405945_Luke%27s_selfish_soliloquists

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Rivalry is central here – beginning with the rivalry of the ‘pharisees and scribes’ with Jesus himself. That begins, obviously, with the greater attention Jesus is receiving from the ‘tax collectors and sinners’, as well as the attention he is giving to the latter.

    Stripped down, rivalry is one man (or woman) wanting what another has – covetousness – the reason that conflicting twin brothers recur in both the Romulus and Remus tale and the tale of Cain and Able in Genesis.

    That our clashing desires may all originate in our observation of what someone else has is suggested by the multitude of examples in scripture – and brothers who conflict for this reason is another recurrent theme. (Jacob and Esau; Joseph and is Brothers)

    That status within the family is also at issue in sibling rivalry is never surfaced in my experience of Prodigal Son homilies. That issue is obvious, in the initial grumbling against Jesus – awarded status simply by the attention he is receiving – and in the grumbling of the elder son. It is also likely to have been the issue that led the younger son to leave home in the first place – both because typically elder sons were favoured by fathers and because this particular father later takes pains to insist that ‘all I have is yours’. It is the father’s attention to the younger son on his return that raises for that elder son the question: who matters most in this family?

    ‘Distant countries’ offer opportunities for ‘proving oneself to others’. As long as the younger son’s fortune lasts he will find easy flatterers: then, deserted in a famine, that status issue at home, vis-a-vis his brother, sinks in importance: he would be happier as a servant there than among the pigs.

    So this parable mirrors the one about the awarding of equal pay to the workers who were hired for the vineyard at midday: in both cases self-regard is challenged and the equality of all is emphasised. In this case those who have initially grumbled against Jesus are also the ‘elder sons’ who resent his attention to the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and the attention of the latter to him.

    That issue of status – of who is being most and least honoured in a given situation – permeates the Gospels – from the nativity of Jesus to his Crucifixion. It is ignored in most commentary because, post Constantine, the Christendom status pyramid emerged, to be accepted as the norm. And the covetous rivalries of the Kings of Europe, the root source of all conflict, could not be called out either.

    So covetousness – wanting what your brother has, simply because he has it – became the Lost Sin, the pervasive malady behind all conflict that could not be called out either.

    And so the elusiveness of ‘equality’ – the reason that Enlightenment Reason cannot get us there on its own – is not referenced either, in rebuttal of the claims of secularism. The sentimentalisation of the Gospels must always substitute for the pointing out of their relevance to ongoing problems of sibling rivalry today.

    To take just one example: the strident claims of superiority by white supremacists who cannot abide incoming racial minorities whose issues are given attention by media.

    Ireland now seems a ‘distant country’ for many of our generation, in which ‘famine’ and ‘shame’ are being experienced by the church: will that wake us up, eventually, to the delusion of supposing that the status once enjoyed here was approved by the Father – and to the educative benefits of ‘famine’? Time will tell.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Yes indeed. When the word “brothers” turns up in the Bible, “rivalry” is close at hand — even in the Christian brotherhood (as in 1 Cor 1). What’s most powerful is the way the tensions are resolved imaginatively in each case — Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and the siblings. Wives in rivalry are similar — Sarah and Hagar, Hannah and Penninah. Political rivalries are on the same continuum: Saul and David the classic instance.

    Sean’s idea that Jesus and the Pharisees are rivals in this sense is an illuminating one. (We also get buried hints of rivalry between Jesus and John the Baptist.)

  4. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Kenneth Bailey (died 2016) has long experience and knowledge of the culture of the Middle East, teaching Scripture. He has a set of four half-hour talks on video on the parable. The first is at https://youtu.be/5d8hF84qMPg.

  5. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #3 Yet, Joe, isn’t it significant that, re ‘rivalry between Jesus and John the Baptist’, Jesus himself never indulges in targeted criticism of any individual, least of all John. He is ‘rivaled with’ but he himself does not ‘rival’ – i.e. want and chase after the apparent eminence, honour or attention that anyone else has.

    To be specific, not Herod, not Caiaphas and not the Roman governor Pilate are ever targeted by Jesus’s criticism. He attributes faults to those who come to baulk him (e.g. ‘you look to one another for glory’) but never singles out or names any of those.

    And isn’t that resistance to rivalry prefigured in his rejection of ‘the kingdoms of the earth’ in the temptations in the desert?

    In the end the violence that comes for him is not triggered by any such ambition on his part, but by his attack on a Temple system ‘rigged’ to favour the well-to-do – his protest on behalf of the anawim. Am I right?

  6. Seamus Ahearne says:

    God’s love letter this weekend: The Story is everything.

    “Write it down.” (Hal Roach used to say.) The ‘Story’ is everything. ‘Tell me a story.’ We said that from our earliest days. Isn’t it normal with most children? “What’s the story” is used as a greeting in Finglas. Ireland is rich in story-telling. Frank O Connor. William Trevor. Even Maeve Binchy or Dave Allen (from our past). If only, we were smart enough as Christians, to grasp/understand that the Bible tells us stories to bring out a message. The Story invites us into the drama. It is stage and theatre. Jesus was a magnificent story teller. He caught the attention of his listeners. His stories were dressed up in familiar events and obvious elements in the lives of those listening. They knew what he was talking about. They knew what he was getting at. They knew what the message of the story was. Why were so many of us in Church life, lost in the prose of literalism?

    Today’s Gospel: Many were scandalised by Jesus. The company he kept wasn’t good. He hung around with some shady characters. The ‘elite’ (Establishment) were shocked. How could a good man, pick his friends so badly? What did Jesus do to reassure them? He told a simple story. It could be told by many a family in this parish (every parish) and by most of us as we look at problems in our own families. The cocky (arrogant) youngster (of the story) wants away. He wants money. He is full of entitlement. He takes off. He has a great time, until things go wrong. He decides to come home. The story doesn’t suggest that he had a change of heart, but rather that he was hungry.

    Then we see the heart-broken father. He has sleepless nights. No emails; no phone calls; No letters; no hint on Facebook. The ‘da’ (and probably the Ma) feels foolish but he watches out every day, hoping against hope. And then the young ‘toe-rag’ (rascal) appears. The ‘da’ is overwhelmed. Does he accuse him? No. Or scream at him? No. The boy is home. There has to be a party. What is the heart of the story? Love, home, never-give- up and a great big welcome. Never mind what we do or don’t do; God is that big Daddy/Mammy waiting for us. The twist in the story is lovely. No begrudging. The older son. The Establishment. The good ones. The ones who always do everything correctly. But. Everyone has to have an expansive heart. Home is where we belong. God is home. Come to the Table. Celebrate the party of hospitality and love. There is no room for small minds or hearts. Be big. Not small! We are people of ‘poetry’. We have to be humble. We always know so little. Tidy and certain minds and hearts lack imagination and humility.

    Seamus Ahearne osa

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    “To be specific, not Herod, not Caiaphas and not the Roman governor Pilate are ever targeted by Jesus’s criticism.”

    But the chief rivals, the Pharisees and the Scribes, get quite a lashing in Mt 23.

    Lk 13:32 has a dig at Herod.

    Jn 7-8 has horrendous polemic against “the Jews”.

    None of this is ipsissima verba Jesu, but the general image the Gospels give of Jesus is that he was “edgy, confrontational” (to quote John P. Keenan).

    St Paul is even more so.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    The parable of the Wicked Tenants is from Q and has a good chance of being from Jesus himself. It is used against Jews in patristic exegesis, but one would like to think it is directed only against the Pharisees.

    Here is how it ends in Luke (Jesus is addressing “the people” in the Temple):

    Lk 20: 15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” 17 But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? 18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

    In Matthew we have:

    Mt 21:42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

    “‘The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
    the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

    43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.

    The reference to “a people” in vs. 43 again makes it difficult to confine the target to the pharisees.

  9. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #7 ‘Rivalry’ is not simply opposition. Rivals are rivals ‘for’ something – e.g. Brown and Blair ‘for’ the UK premiership, or Fianna Fail and Fine Gael ‘for’ the role of leading Irish political party.

    So to attribute rivalry to Jesus – rather than simply vigorous rebuttal of the attacks made upon him in John 7,8 (in Jerusalem) – you need to identify what is is that Jesus and his opponents BOTH want.

    What his opponents obviously want in John 7,8 is verbal dominance of that Temple space – to shut Jesus up, permanently. Does HE want that? Obviously not. He opposes them verbally – until they DO shut him up – but he is not in rivalry with them. He says this himself: 8:50 – trusting in ‘the Father’ to vindicate himself – and allows them to shut him up.

    Rivals are obsessed with victory over one another. That does not describe Jesus.

  10. Joe O'Leary says:

    I don’t think Jesus himself is ever portrayed as a “rival” — that would be far, far beneath his status as Son of God. (However, it is not correct to say that he “never indulges in targeted criticism of any individual” — he is quite a sharp critic of many individuals and groups — Peter, Judas, Simon the Pharisee, Herod, various groups of scribes and Pharisees. The Acts of the Apostles show the same penchant for targeted criticism form the mouths of the apostles.)

    John 7-8 perhaps reflects the rivalry between the group behind the Gospel and their opponents? Intra-ecclesial rivalries are very much in the air in the Johannine literature. They have been part of church life forever. History, written by the victors, will say that the good side, the orthodox, were not rivalrous, but only the bad side, the heretics or schismatics. But when the issues come down to rival claimants to the same episcopal see (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meletius_of_Antioch), even the see of Rome, the all too human dynamic of rivalry is likely to infect all parties.

    “Obsession with victory” is a good indicator of rivalry — and in all the great theological battles of Christian history that obsession has been intense on both sides (though we may count Athanasius and Augustine as saintly exceptions if we wish). A Girardian therapy is needed here not only for the present but for these past pathologies that can still be influential.

    There may also have been rivalry between followers of John the Baptist and early followers of Jesus, though Jesus and John were above the fray, just as Peter and Paul were above the rivalry between their followers.

  11. Joe O'Leary says:

    Would we dare to apply Girardian analysis to the harsh language directed against individuals in most New Testament texts?

    I don’t say the harsh language is inspired by rivalry; just that we cannot say that the Jesus(es) of the Gospels (or the Peter and Paul of Acts) never speaks harshly to and of named individuals and groups.

    So much of this harsh language has fed into the terrible story of Christian persecution of Jews that a therapy could be of great significance.

    The counter-example of Buddhism, which is much less given to polemic and righteous anger, could be drawn on for this therapy.

    Buddhists believe that evil or erring people are to be pitied, not hated, so the rebuttals of their errors are advanced in the key of patient dismantling, not emotional demonization.

  12. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #10 Surely Girardian analysis is in itself a rebuttal of the charge that the NT is anti-Semitic, Joe – in that Girard categorises ALL scapegoating – including the crucifixion of Jesus AND all Christian pogroms against the Jews – as essentially the same recurrent phenomenon, in ALL cultures?

    Can you quote an instance in which Jesus targets any named individual in a manner that could in itself be interpreted as a bid to isolate and punish that individual with exclusion / scapegoating?

    My recollection is that his harshest criticism is reserved for those (plural and unnamed) who are targeting him in the same manner as their predecessors had allegedly targeted earlier ‘prophets’. That is to say he harshly criticises religious leaders in all generations who ignore justice and violently reject the prophetic voice (Matt 23: 31). Girard sees that criticism as applying to all cultures, as Abel is named as one of the prophets so punished (Matt 23: 35).

    When you say ‘harsh’ do you mean ‘unjust’ or ‘cruel’ – or merely ‘severe’?
    Surely severe criticism is deserved by any lynch mob, and for scapegoating per se in any culture – (in Buddhist culture also, e.g. the Rohingya in Myanmar).

    The Christian tragedy is surely the failure to see lynching and exclusion of minorities, including the Jews, as part of the same pattern – because of the tendency to see the story of Jesus as a ‘one off’ whose meaning had solely to do with appeasing the Father, and nothing to do with any other story.

    Where you see ‘harshness’ I believe Girard saw simply unblinking ‘calling out’ of all who seek to protect themselves by the ‘throwing’ out of the inconvenient individual. That Jesus was targeting men (always unnamed in my recollection) who were Jewish was simply inevitable given that he was a Jew claiming fealty to a Jewish God, and arguing that this God of the Jews did not sanction what his opponents and their earlier prototypes had done.

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    “Surely Girardian analysis is in itself a rebuttal of the charge that the NT is anti-Semitic, Joe – in that Girard categorises ALL scapegoating – including the crucifixion of Jesus AND all Christian pogroms against the Jews – as essentially the same recurrent phenomenon, in ALL cultures?”

    The New Testament has been a catastrophe for the Jewish people for 2,000 years, so would it not seem that it must have been affected by this “phenomenon, in ALL cultures” — including of course the various cultures from which the NT writers speak?

    The portrayal of the Jews as a “lynch mob” in a text written 70 years after the dimly remembered events is a harshness that is also likely to be unjust.

  14. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #11 Re Buddhism and violence, there is an interesting Wikipedia article on this at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_and_violence

    N.B. I know that Wikipedia varies in credibility, but am intrigued by this alleged quote from a Japanese World War II Buddhist source:

    “In order to establish eternal peace in East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of ‘killing one in order that many may live’ (issatsu tashō). This is something which Mahayana Buddhism approves of only with the greatest of seriousness…”

    Note that, if accurate, this quote precedes Girard by a decade or two.

    The article conveys the overall impression that the original pacific Buddhist emphasis has had as troubled a history in the Orient as ‘love your enemy’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ have had in the West – with local nationalisms nowadays seriously challenging the pacific ideal in many different locales.

  15. Sean O’Conaill says:

    # 13: ‘The portrayal of the Jews as a “lynch mob” in a text written 70 years after the dimly remembered events is a harshness that is also likely to be unjust.’

    This formulation is gratuitously extravagant, implying that the NT must necessarily be read as an indictment of the entire Jewish nation, when the victim was a Jew who never himself used the term ‘Christian’ or ‘Christianity’, and the texts were composed by writers obviously close to Jesus’s Jewish followers. Yes, the Gospel of John does sometimes refer to Jesus’s opponents as ‘the Jews’ but does not the context make clear that this is NOT to indict ALL Jews, since Jesus’s own Judaism is emphasised in his frequent quotation of the Hebrew scriptures in the same text, and close by are terms such as ‘scribes and pharisees’ to identify more closely which Jews are being referenced?

    And, moreover, the texts are as remorseless an indictment of Pilate, the ROMAN governor, as they are of Caiaphas and Herod. It is clearly the abuse of power that is being exposed.

    How could any detailed account of a scapegoating event occur that did not implicate specific agents of that event? You seem to be arguing for the complete removal of the passion accounts from the New Testament, to leave us with an advocate for peace whose death occurred for unknown reasons – and no such vivid account in any ancient text. So how then would global literature ever have squared up to this phenomenon, in any culture?

  16. Joe O'Leary says:

    Nonetheless, scriptural and mainstream Buddhism remains a very efficacious medicine-chest for a sanatio in radice of the mental and physical violence that has been so prevalent in our tradition since biblical times. Did Girard ever advert to this? (I see that in 1981 he saw Buddhism as a withdrawal from action in the world.)

    I see that Christian-Buddhist rivalry in Korea produces efforts to deconstruct Buddhism in light of Girard: https://www.academia.edu/1593233/BuddhismGirardChung This work has received encomia from such Buddhist-friendly ecumenical figures as John D’Arcy May and James L. Fredericks.

  17. Joe O'Leary says:

    I think the language of Luke “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” is preferable to that of John, “You are of your father the devil” and to that of Matthew, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” The dire historical effects to the latter language cannot be underestimated.

    Buddhism patiently dismantles the ignorance or false imagination that is at the root of the passions, in calm rational analysis. The Buddhist attitude to the archetypical baddie Devadatta is close to Luke’s Jesus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devadatta#Therav%C4%81da_account

  18. Joe O'Leary says:

    The Psalms are quite obsessed with “enemies” and “evildoers” and resort to bloodthirsty cursing in the parts left out of the Breviary. Here is Har Dayal (The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature, 1932) on the attitude of a Buddhist bodhisattva, who deconstructs the very notion of “enemy”:

    “He forgives them for what has been done in the past, for what is being done at present and for what will be done in future….

    “He forgives all without exception, his friends, his enemies, and those who are neither….

    “He is like a dumb sheep in quarrels and squabbles. In a word, his forgiveness is unfailing, universal and absolute—even as Mother Earth suffers in silence all that may be done to her.

    “A bodhisattva should cultivate certain modes of thought and ponder on some great principles, so that he may understand why he should forgive others…. His enemy of today may have been a friend, a relative or a teacher in a previous existence and should therefore be regarded as an old comrade.

    “A bodhisattva also knows that there is no permanent substantive individuality in any man or woman. Hence it follows that there is really no one who reviles, beats and injures, or who is reviled, beaten and injured. All beings are ephemeral and mortal; it is improper to be angry with such miserable creatures. They are also afflicted with pain….

    “A bodhisattva should try to alleviate their pain, not to increase it by lack of forbearance. He should also be more or less of a determinist in judging others, who harm him. Those enemies are not free agents: their wicked deeds are produced by causes, over which they have no control….

    “Further, a bodhisattva cannot really blame others for the injuries that they may inflict upon him, because he suffers on account of his own sins and misdeeds in his previous existence. His enemies are only the instruments of the cosmic law of karma. In fact, they are his best friends, and he should thank them for their services…

    “A wise bodhisattva should forgive others even from fear, as vindictiveness always ends in evil.”

  19. Sean O’Conaill says:

    #17, 18. In the plight of the homeless, the trafficked, those displaced by climate change, those queuing at food banks today – and children in places like Syria disfigured by munitions made in western factories – we see copious evidence that Girard may be right in seeing the peace of the fortunate as based historically largely on injustice to the unfortunate – the victimage mechanism.

    Nothing you have quoted from Buddhist sources so far indicates that this perception – a perception that warrants exposure and anger – is part of the Buddhist awakening also. If it is, tell us. Otherwise consider the possibility that there is a need for the angry passages that we find in the Judeo-Christian texts. Two out of three of the Psalms are written from the perspective of the victim – and the Passion story puts us in the place also. If that perspective has no exemplars in Buddhist literature, what would that suggest to you?

    To me it would suggest an incomplete awakening.

    This is not to deny that in seeing desire as the root of evil Buddhism is profoundly insightful, and has much to teach us. There are Girardian Buddhists also, who take seriously what is distinctive about the Bible. The dialogue will continue.

  20. Pat Rogers says:

    That was a fine piece of discussion. But let’s look forward to next Sunday and the Sunday after and focus your minds on those readings too please. Many thanks for joining in like this and livening up the resources section.

  21. Joe O'Leary says:

    Concern for justice is indeed the distinctive thrust of the Bible. But there is too much divinely commanded genocide in the Hebrew Scriptures and a certain unnecessary harshness even in the New Testament. This has borne bitter fruit in Christian history, where genuine prophetic indignation on behalf of the oppressed has been overshadowed by frenetic anger directed against scapegoated groups. A Girardian critique of all religious traditions is in order.

    It may well be that Buddhists today have a far more focused social awareness than Christians. The twin pillars of Buddhism are Wisdom and Compassion, and Wisdom without Compassion would indeed be an imperfect awakening.

    Today’s “Engaged Buddhism” is not just a modernist innovation. It has scriptural roots:

    “From the evidence of the Buddha’s discourses, or suttas in the Digha Nikaya, it is clear that early Buddhists were very much concerned with the creation of social conditions favorable to the individual cultivation of Buddhist values. An outstanding example of this, in later times, is the remarkable “welfare state” created by the Buddhist emperor, Asoka (B.C. 274-236). Walpola Rahula stated the situation — perhaps at its strongest — when he wrote that “Buddhism arose in India as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading superstitious rites, ceremonies and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste system and advocated the equality of all men; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom.” The Buddhist scriptures do indicate the general direction of Buddhist social thinking, and to that extent they are suggestive for our own times. Nevertheless it would be pedantic, and in some cases absurd, to apply directly to modern industrial society social prescriptions detailed to meet the needs of social order which flourished twenty-three centuries ago. The Buddhist householder of the Sigalovada Sutta experienced a different way of life from that of a computer consultant in Tokyo or an unemployed black youth in Liverpool. And the conditions which might favor their cultivation of the Middle Way must be secured by correspondingly different — and more complex — social, economic and political strategies.”


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