BY FR. BRIAN ZUMBRUM, OSFS
4th Sunday of Lent (Year C) | March 31, 2019
So a few weeks ago, a parishioner after Mass was chatting with me. And in our conversation, she looked at me and said, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never work with high school students. I just don’t get them. But it is obvious you understand them.”
Her comment stuck with me.
And I began questioning how exactly I began to understand high school students.
Because the reality is, the vast majority of the students I work with are nothing like me.
Most of my students are counting down the days until graduation and view reading as a cruel punishment inflicted on them by English teachers.
I always loved school. And my favorite idea of recreation is still to curl up with a good book in my bedroom and read until I fall asleep. I mean I am currently reading a college philosophy textbook for pleasure.
Most of my students are athletes. They are earning scholarships to play sports in college. They posses an natural athleticism I do not comprehend.
And I broke my pinkie on a nerf football when I was a junior in high school.
Most of my students push boundaries during their high school career. They share stories of drinking and drug use. Of parties and sex. Of sneaking out and reckless drives down 95.
And I was the kid who didn’t know what pot looked like, who never took a drink until 21, and who was dropped off at home by his prom date because she didn’t want to put me into compromising situations.
It seems that whatever connection I have with high school students has nothing to do with common life experiences.
But then I remembered a moment my first year teaching at Fr. Judge. I was chaperoning a retreat and there was this senior who was not having any of it. He was silent and stone faced through each talk and small group, despite my best efforts to get him to speak.
Then free time arrived and he threw the basketball at my chest and said, are you playing?
It was a disaster. I couldn’t dribble. I never made a shot. And at one point, I passed the ball so hard it smacked a kid in the face.
We got crushed.
That next small group, the senior looked at me and began talking. And by the end of the retreat, it was obvious that he had gotten a lot out of the experience.
As we were preparing to leave, I couldn’t help but ask. What changed?
He looked at me and said, “It’s simple. That day on the court, you came onto my turf. And that made it easy for me to do the same.”
I thought about that interaction a lot as I heard our classic Gospel for this weekend.
Because in his decision to sit with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus was consciously choosing to move onto their turf.
For on the outside, Jesus did not share much in common with these women and men.
He followed Jewish law. He attended the temple. He was a model Jewish citizen.
He had a strong family support. He had a circle of friends and disciples.
And he never sinned.
But that didn’t matter. It wasn’t his inherent similarity with them that made the difference. It was his decision to go onto their turf. To meet them where they were. That allowed him to call his prodigals home.
I believe that Jesus’ choices in this Gospel are a tremendous challenge for each of us this day, especially those of us gathered here at Church.
Because let’s be real, there don’t seem to be a lot of prodigals left here in our churches.
For we have driven them off. Defining the church as our turf. Where “good” people gather.
Those who follow the rules. Who register and go to Mass and drop our donations in the basket.
We are the church of the elder brother. The one who looks at God and complains vehemently about “those people”. The ones who don’t do it the right way. Who have different opinions. Who disagree with Church teaching. Who don’t show up at Sunday.
And if there is a prodigal among us. They best come onto our turf. Where we can show them the errors of their ways.
But this Gospel is Christ’s gentle reminder that our ways are not God’s ways. And our turf is not God’s sole turf.
For at the end of the day, all is God’s turf. And he delights in encountering his sons and daughters, prodigal or elder, on their turf, wherever they may be. Inviting them to join the divine celebration. Healing them of their wounds. Gently leading them to live better lives.
My friends, as he continue on our Lenten journey, may this Gospel be a beautiful wake-up call to each of us. To leave our own turfs and seek our siblings wherever they may be found.
For in this journey, I guarantee we will encounter once again the God whom we seek. The one who will wrap us in his arms and proclaim us his beloved, the one he has been looking for.
May God be Praised.