EX 32:7-11, 13-14
PS 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
1 TM 1:12-17
My husband and I recently became obsessed with the Amazon show Mozart in the Jungle. One of the protagonists, Rodrigo, is a young and unorthodox conductor. Rodrigo acts on instinct, desperately in love with music and determined to both make the New York orchestra the best it can be while also reclaiming the music from its stodgy and elitist past. Rodrigo is a man of passion. His passion endears us to him, but it also inclines him towards making mistakes. In a desperate attempt to find a soloist for his first concert, for example, Rodrigo chooses the volatile protest violinist (also his ex-wife) to perform Sibelius, only to have her storm out on opening night after shouting at the audience that she would not sell herself out to such “bourgeois pigs.” In another episode, Rodrigo takes the orchestra on a field trip to the Bronx where they perform an impromptu Tschaikovsky symphony for a poor, mostly black neighborhood and end up jamming and drinking with them afterwards. The beautiful scene of musical harmony is, unfortunately, cut short by Rodrigo’s arrest as a trespasser. Rodrigo is not lazy. On the contrary, he is an incredibly hard worker, but his critics worry that he doesn’t work hard enough on the things that really matter—wooing donors, fundraising, and hobnobbing with the musical elite.
Rodrigo is a character full of passion, but also full of hope. He sees the orchestra not as what it is, but what it could and should be. His hope motivates him to take unexpected, even unreasonable chances to make his vision of the orchestra a reality. As such, he falls prey to some probably rightful criticism, that he is dangerous, that he risks bankrupting the orchestra, that the orchestra will end up worse, not better than how he found it. His antagonist is a major donor who wants to reestablish and maintain the status quo, to make the orchestra a safe place for the endowments of New York billionaires, just as Rodrigo is desperate to do anything to disrupt that same status quo and give the work of the symphony to a larger New York audience.
Our readings for this week present different models of passion and hope. In our gospel, we read of a poor woman turning her house topsy turvy in search of one lost coin, and a shepherd leaving 99 of his sheep behind to go and search out one lost. Both of these characters are like Rodrigo in that their hope of something fuller and richer (having all the coins, having all the sheep) leaves them unable to leave well enough alone. Neither is satisfied with a present that is just good enough. They are willing to put themselves on the line for something better than merely “good enough.”
It is important, I think, to the narrative drive of the pericope to see these two characters as somewhat unreasonable. They take a risk seeking out what is lost. For the poor woman, time, presumably is money. For the shepherd, the 99 sheep he leaves behind are left unattended, at risk of further harm. Furthermore, not only do they “waste” valuable time seeking out what is lost, they then “waste” even more time having a party afterwards. Jesus frames the stories with the rhetorical question “which man among you, having a hundred sheep . . .” or “what woman having ten coins and losing one,” but we have to ask ourselves seriously what man or what woman would act like this.
This brings us to one of the best known biblical stories, the prodigal son. We can approach this story from lots of angles, but here I want to focus on the father who sees his son, who has squandered his inheritance and rejected his father’s counsel and yet dares to return for another chance. This father does not wait to hear that the son has learned his lesson or that his apology is sufficiently contrite. The father does nothing practical. Instead, he runs to embrace his son with rings and robes and throws a magnificent party. If we didn’t know better, we might judge the father’s actions a tad bit rash.
The father’s actions proceed from a profound hope, a hope that his son really will be restored to life, that his relationship with his son will be restored, a hope in the goodness of his son. The father is able to give more than the son deserves because he sees the son as he could and should be, not as he currently is. His beautiful vision of the future leads him to do things that look impractical in the here and now—after all, is it really a good idea to spend more money on a son who has not proven that he can use it effectively? Like Rodrigo, the father’s hope gives him a different set of priorities.
Ultimately, mercy is profoundly hopeful. When we show mercy, forgiving the wrongdoer, giving more than justice demands, providing for the corporeal needs of the poorest among us, we are able to do so because of a vision of the future, no matter how nascent, that is better than the present. Mercy might look impractical, but only if we lose that beautiful vision of what might be.
Mother Teresa’s whose canonization we just celebrated was a model of this impractical hope. The time she took to care for the dying and the outcast, the people nobody cared for, all defies a utilitarian calculus. But Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa of Calcutta, had a hope that allowed her to see those who were most lost worthy of seeking out. Her hope in a better future inspired her to do some of the most impractically difficult things.
As Christians, our own hope should inspire us to be a little impractical as well. Inviting the poor over to dinner, for example, when they can’t repay the favor is impractical but hopeful, looking forward to a future when rich and poor can dine at the same table, neither at the expense of the other. Not resisting the sinner looks forward to a future where the lion will lie down with the lamb. Forgiving those who wrong us, not seven times, but seven times seventy times, looks forward to a future where all will be brothers and sisters in the communion of saints. If we take the claims of our faith seriously, it should give us a hope that allows us to love beyond what good reason might call “practical.”