The Far Country

EP endorser Matt Morin preached this sermon not long after the Summer Gathering: Immigration meets the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Luke 15:11-32; Ephesians 2:11-22

The fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel begins with a group of scribes and Pharisees grumbling about Jesus’s habit of becoming friends with social outcasts: “This fellow welcomes law-breakers and eats with them.”

It might be tempting for us file this episode under the heading of “pride” and use it to repeat the old trope about self-righteous Pharisees: “There they go again, those elitist Pharisees—always thinking they are better than everybody else, when in fact they are sinners just like the rest of us.”

Or, it might be tempting for us to file this episode under the heading of “nice” and use it to repeat the old trope about everybody’s friend Jesus: “There he goes again, that Jesus—always kind, always accepting of everyone he meets.”

And yet, to read the story in this way—either as an example of individual pride by the Pharisees or as a display of sentimental kindness by Jesus—is really to have the story read us; it is to be shown by our own words what really matters to us; it is to find exactly what we had hoped to find in God’s word. So to whatever extent we are tempted to give an individualistic and moralistic interpretation of this Scripture is the extent to which we must reject such an interpretation. For surely nothing could make us happier than to hear a quick sermon asking us to try a little harder to not be so full of ourselves, and to try a little harder to be nicer—and then to go about our business as usual until next week.

But self-righteous people are not born, they are made. And no powerful leaders have ever gone out of their way to crucify a man who was behaving too nicely. So we would do well to note the larger context into which the words of the Pharisees and the actions of Jesus are embedded, in order that we might hear today’s word in all of its fullness.

You see, far from being a group of elitists, the Pharisees were actually quite popular with the common people—and that had much to do with their attitude towards Israel’s ancient purity laws. The purity laws, which we read in Leviticus, stipulated the conditions under which a person could be made clean before God, the conditions under which a person could enter the temple, and the conditions under which a person could interact with other members of Jewish society. If one wished to be made clean, he or she would pay a priest to perform the appropriate cleansing ritual.[1]

Now the Pharisees, recognizing the undue financial burden that had been placed on many people, worked to eliminate this costly system of priests. In its place, they wanted to establish a system of purity that could be observed and practiced by the masses.[2] They were “the party of the people.”

And so of course the Pharisees are going to grumble when they see a Rabbi named Jesus eating meals with ritually unclean people. How exasperating! “We are trying to transform a system here Jesus, and you are not making it any easier! We are trying to show the people how to obtain the righteousness of the law; we are having a revival; we are making holiness more accessible—and you insist on welcoming the unholy, the unrighteous, and the unclean. How are we ever going to get people to learn to obey the law if you continue to welcome law-breakers?! People are watching you and learning from you Jesus.”

“This fellow welcomes law-breakers and eats with them,” they say.

Jesus offers an unpredictable, if not downright strange, response to his accusers—he tells a story. He does not, as we might have wished, attempt to justify his actions in light of the law. Nor does he pull out his copy of the Tanakh and rattle off a few verses from the prophets. Did Jesus refrain from quoting Scripture against the fundamentalists of his day, because he knew what a hopeless project that always turns out to be? Did he not appeal to the law precisely because he wanted the Pharisees and scribes to be able to think in different terms—to see the world through a different lens? Is Jesus more concerned with re-forming the imaginations of his interlocutors, than winning the argument against them?

Whatever his reasons, Jesus responds to the Pharisees by telling them the story of a brother who almost starved to death in a distant land.

We shall return to that story in a moment, but first I would like to share a story of my own. It is a script actually—a three-act play that I have been working on for a while, and if you don’t mind, I will just share a synopsis of each act. Is that okay with you all? Okay, here we go.

: The story is set in the year 1994. Camera fades in to show the President of the United States standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the President of Mexico. The two men are proudly announcing the passage of a so-called “free trade agreement.” This agreement, the men say, will harness the power of the free market and usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity for both countries.[3] Reporters’ flashbulbs go off, everyone in attendance cheers in approval…and scene.

: Fifteen years since the passage of that agreement, and things haven’t quite turned out as expected. Mexican farmers have seen the value of their exports decrease by over $12 billion in nine years[4], real wages have decreased by an average of 20% in Mexico, and the average hourly wage of a person working in the Mexican manufacturing industry has decreased by 38% in the first year of the law’s implementation[5]. In short, the economy of an entire country has been devastated by increased privatization—and arguably those who suffer most are the poor farmers of rural Mexico. With their country’s economy in ruins, many Mexicans have little choice but to leave their hometowns and families, and head north of the border in search of food and work. And so, in the time period from 1990-2010, the number of so-called “illegal Mexican immigrants” entering the United States increases by 300 percent.[6]

: In the United States, a privately owned prison corporation recognizes the potential economic windfall to be reaped by locking up this influx of poor immigrants.[7] The company’s internal memos state that “a significant portion of our revenues” could be made by detaining undocumented Mexicans—they even begin operations to detain women and children[8]. In the months that follow, the state of Arizona creates a law designed to get tough on Mexican immigration; 30 out of 36 sponsors of the Arizona bill receive campaign donations from privately owned prison corporations. “Illegal immigration” quickly becomes not only a profitable market for some businesses, but also a convenient and tangible talking point for one major political party who has been struggling to find an issue by which it might define itself.

Following the passage of Arizona’s law, over a dozen other states—including Wisconsin—draft similar bills. As the public is drawn into the debates over these bills, violent speech and actions increase: one state senator remarks publicly that undocumented immigrants should be shot like wild pigs[9], and groups of United States citizens take to the desert in order to slash open jugs of water that have been left for immigrants by Christian and humanitarian groups.[10] Act III closes with members of a church arguing over the question of how to treat people who enter the United States illegally.

The End.

So, what did you think? Compelling story huh? Do you think it’s believable or did I over-reach a bit in the third act?

In the story that Jesus told, a young man has found himself starving in a land that—according to verse 14—has been devastated by severe famine. We tend to rush right past this part, blaming the young man’s wretched condition on his own personal irresponsibility—again, finding exactly what we hoped we would find in God’s word. But in the story, the young man has been brought low, in large part, by circumstances that lie far outside of his control—a famine has spread throughout the land. Whether the famine was caused by drought, disease, or “free-trade” agreements, we do not know.

And while feeding a group of pigs, the starving man catches himself wishing that he could share some of the tree husks that they are eating. Now, we might be repulsed by the thought of eating a dirty, hard, tree husk, but let me assure you that those are no more dirty or hard than the deer corn that filled this feeder. This is a picture taken by a motion-activated game camera in Southwest Texas. It shows three men who are most likely Mexican immigrants, huddled around a dirty deer feeder, eating deer corn that is as hard as rocks.

Then it dawns on the young man: “I have a family”—hear this brothers and sisters—“I have a family who has plenty of food. Why should I literally live like an animal, when there is enough food to go around at my family’s table?”

And so the man starving in the far country goes to his family, prepared to say what he believes he must say in order to be brought into right relation, and receive the help he needs. Yet the man’s father asks for no such words, requires no penance at all, and in fact, does not even acknowledge the young man’s groveling. Instead, he throws his arms around the young man, kisses his face and neck, and weeps tears of joy.

And then the father—the one to whom belongs all of the estate’s riches and the fullness thereof[11]—dresses the young man in fine clothes. He prepares the most expensive meal he can find and then “this fellow welcomes” his son “and eats with him.”

Yet, not everyone is so glad to see this young man return. His brother objects: “Hey, what has he done to earn such treatment? I have worked for decades to provide a better life, and you never gave me such a handout. But this freeloader shows up, having contributed nothing, and you treat him like he is still part of the family.”

To which the father replies, “Boy, take a look around—you have everything you need. So stop sulking about what your brother has received. Come out, join the feast.”

Is it any wonder that Jesus would tell the story about the plight of a poor man in a far away country? If there is any person in the United States today whose life most closely resembles the life of Jesus—it is the immigrant.

Remember, in the beginning, Jesus the Word was with God, but he left his heavenly home, became flesh, and lived among us.

And Jesus is the son of illegal immigrant parents who fled to Egypt in an effort to save their young boy’s life.

And Jesus is the Galilean of whom it was said, “Can anything good come of Nazareth?”

And Jesus is a wandering homeless man whose words can be heard in the voice of every immigrant throughout history if we would just hear him lament: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests—but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

And Jesus is the one who dies as an immigrant—taken outside the city walls, into the far country, and killed by people whose laws and systems were more important to them than Jesus’s call to love one another.

You see, the problem with the Pharisees’ project, the problem with attempting to decentralize the purity system, the problem with trying to get the purity practices to soak into the broader population, is that you still have a system of purity. You still have human-made divisions between people; you still have those on the margins of society—the law-breakers—and those members of the inner circle, the law-followers. And as one who understands the plight of the outsider all too well, Jesus will not stand for such divisions, and so he eats with the law-breakers. And in this very act Jesus pronounces the end to any man-made divisions; whether that be a system of ritual purity or a system of state and federal laws.

Thus, Jesus is the embodiment of human solidarity, and the end of human division. Or as the Apostle Paul says in today’s passage from Ephesians: “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law in order that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace… So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

‘They may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ ”

Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?”[12]

El que tenga oidos para oir, que oiga. Amen.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 76.

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