To begin we are going to do a little activity. I am going to show you two images, and I would like you to tell me which one you like the most. Thanks it. Are you ready?
Field of flowers vs. garbage dump
100 dollars vs. 25 cents
ice cream sundae vs. overcooked peas
So, what did you notice about the selections we made? What did the things that most of us liked have in common? The things that we didn't like?
In life, we make judgement about the value of things based on their appearance, assumptions we have about those things, and our past experience with those things. For example, anyone a field of flowers is visually appealing, while a garbage dump looks ugly to us. We assuem that a piece of paper with the words 100 on it is worth much more than a round piece of metal. And anyone who has tried an ice cream sundae remembers that it tastes better than overcooked peas.
This is a normal part of life, because we have to be able to judge things quickly in order to make decisions on a daily basis. But what happens when we make those kinds of judgments about people?
This man, Tookie Williams, is an example of what happens. Before he died, he was renowned as an activist, fighting to end gang violence, and was even nominated for a noble peace prize. But do you know how he died? By execution, in a prison. Because even though he had done so much good, he was still judged by his past: as the founder of one the most notorious gangs in US history – the West side Crips. Despite many efforts to safe his life, the governor and the courts still determined that he receive the death sentence.
We are taught by our culture from a young age to judge people in the same way we judge things: by their appearance, by our assumptions about them, and by their past history. And it's no laughing matter, because it can be a matter of life or death, bringing us to the point of violence. And it is so ingrained in us that we even turn that judgment and hatred on ourselves. In 2013 along, there were more than 41,000 deaths due to suicide.
Jesus understood the seriousness of this kind of judgment of one person towards another. That's why, when he heard the Pharisees calling the people he had gathered with “sinners” that he shouldn't even associate with, he made such a strong response.
The story in today's gospel flies in the face of everything the Pharisees were teaching, and all of the assumptions and judgments that we make about others and ourselves. By society's standards, the younger son should have been written off well before the story ended. He had already disprespected his father by asking for an earlier inheritance. Then he abandoned his family responsibilities and ran off to spend all of the money on himself.
But Jesus flips the narrative around from what we should expect, and instead of condemning and disowning his son, and father welcomes him back with rejoicing and celebration. The older son doesn't understand – based on what he's done, that son should be worthless to you! But Jesus drives his point home with the father's answer “my son was lost and now is found”. In other words “what he did doesn't matter; it's the fact that he came back to me that makes all the difference”.
Jesus' is essential telling the pharisees, who loved to judge others as “sinners” who are less worthy than themselves, that appearances and past actions aren't what matter; it's the fact that the so called “sinners” around him have turned their lives to God that makes them his beloved children, just as much as the most devote priest.
This is a message of hope for us. No matter what we've done, or how we've been classified, or what we look like, we are beloved and chosen by Jesus – our value is just as great as that of the pope himself. We can live in the freedom of that knowledge of love and forgive ourselves of the ways we may have messed up in the past, because God does not judge us on the past at all.
And this is a message of challenge – for us to examine the way WE judge others, and work to create a world that values people not by human standards, but by Jesus' standards. This is an urgent need. Does anyone recognize this man? He is extremely popular right now, specifically because he makes negative judgments about all kinds of people, inviting his followers to demonize others based on race, class, and gender. That kind of mentality will only lead to violence and destruction. The world NEEDS a counter-narrative to the voices like Donald Trump that are so strong and prevalent right now. The world needs to hear the voice of Jesus, that greets the most judged, people like Tookie Williams, as his beloved children. We are the ones who must share that message, and practice it wherever we find ourselves.
How do you judge yourself and other based on appearance, assumptions, or past actions?
How can we shift the way we judge someones value? How can we value people based on Jesus' standards instead?