The Prodigal Son (1995)

Sermon notes from  February 19, 1995          Luke 15:11-32   The Prodigal Son

Liberty & Peace

It has been claimed that the happiness of the individual is the greatest good according to the American culture. The happiness of the individual is even part of the American Declaration of Independence and the rights of the individual are guaranteed and protected by a host of charters and documents not only here but also now-a-days through out the world.

The happiness and the rights of the individual seems also to imply that protection from the other is a fundamental necessity (Zizioulas, SVSQuarterly, Vol 8, No 4, 1994, p 349). In other words, apparently, if we are to be happy, we must always be protected from the other person who might somehow infringe upon our freedoms. In this system, the “other”, any other person to some extent is always an enemy to my freedom and happiness.

We all are familiar with the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son and its lesson on repentance. I do not want you to forget or lose that lesson. The hymn of the prodigal which you can find in your bulletin reminds us of this lesson, it is a message of great significance as we prepare to enter into Great Lent, that prime season for repentance and confession.

I do also want to challenge you with the Gospel message that the “other,” the other person, all other people, are not our enemies when it comes to salvation. In fact, one common idea to all of the prelenten Sunday Gospel Lessons is that our neighbor is our salvation.

Today’s lesson, the Prodigal Son exercises his individual freedom and separates himself from the constraints of father and family. But, he becomes spiritual heroic only when he comes to his senses and repents and returns to his father to beg forgiveness. Then as the story continues the elder brother wants freedom from that no-good brother of his. But the father pleads for unity, communion, compassion, empathy, sympathy, love. All of these virtues are possible only when there exist others to love and be in communion with. The Lord’s teaching implies love for the other, not separation from them.

Last Sunday, we heard the Gospel lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee, again it was the story’s bad guy, the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not like the other. The Pharisee is glad that he is not like the Publican and that he has nothing to do with the Publican. Yet, according to our Lord it is not this Pharisee who God considers as righteous. Again, we have in God a responsibility to love the other, as God does love every one whom He has created.

Next Sunday is the Gospel lesson of the Last Judgement. Again it is the person who cares for and loves the other, who loves the least of the others, who is called blessed by Christ and who is welcomed into the heavenly joy of the Master.

So many other gospel lessons have a similar theme. The Good Samaritan. Jesus’ lesson when he washes the feet of his disciples. The neighbor, the “other,” is our salvation. Unity, communion with one another, love are all great goods in the Kingdom of God.

Now I know, like you know, that it is not always easy or the easy way to love others. It is not always easy to maintain community or communion with others. It is not easy to love those who make themselves unlovable in our eyes. We wish we could be free of those “others” who irritate us, fail us, hurt us, disappoint us, sin against us. It might be our spouses, our children, our parents, our neighbors, fellow parishioners. We have a parish meeting or an annual meeting and we get angry at the other, and we thank God that we are not like the other and wish we did not have to deal with the other.

But our Lord, calls us to love one another, to maintain the concord and unity of peace in our marriages, families and parishes. We are taught to love one another even as He has loved us. We are both to repent of how we wrongly and selfishly separate ourselves from others, and we are to embrace and accept those who repent and come back to us.

The desert Fathers said that hell, the eternal death, is nothing more then isolation from the other (Zizioulas, p 351).

Communion, that reception of the life-giving Body and Blood of our Savior is that union not only with Christ but with all those who hear His voice and are united to the Savior of our Souls.

As we approach the Holy Chalice to receive that Eucharist, let us in our hearts unite ourselves to one another, in love, compassion, empathy, sympathy and in every virtue which binds us together in God. Amen.

Whose Freedom of Conscience?

madisonwHaving recently finished reading James Madison’s WRITINGS with the high value he puts on the conscience of the individual as versus the demands of the majority, I found Stanley Fish’s opinion piece Conscience vs. Conscience   from the 12 April 2009 NEW YORK TIMES to be both an interesting topic and important discussion.

Fish wrote about the so-called “conscience clause,” the Provider Refusal Rule, which “allows health care providers to refuse to participate in procedures they find objectionable for moral or religious reasons.”  I had previously written about this in my blog Freedom of Conscience and Health Care Workers and voiced support for allowing health care workers the opportunity to exercise their own consciences and refuse to do some procedures for moral or religious reasons.

Fish raises another level of concern which is worth considering: the freedom of the individual’s conscience as versus the right of a democratic society to decide that some procedures are health rights for all.

Citing the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Fish writes:

Hobbes’s larger point — the point he is always making — is that if one gets to prefer one’s own internal judgments to the judgments of authorized external bodies (legislatures, courts, professional associations), the result will be the undermining of public order and the substitution of personal whim for general decorums: “. . . because the Law is the public Conscience . . . in such diversity as there is of private Consciences, which are but private opinions, the Commonwealth must needs be distracted, and no man dare to obey the Sovereign Power farther than it shall seem good in his own eyes.”

billrightsFish argues that the values of the Enlightenment which have served religious diverse cultures well is that individuals may believe what they want but when operating in the public domain the rule of law trumps personal beliefs.  He says this is a cornerstone of multicultural democracies.  It is also the complete compartmentalization of religion which is a hallmark of secularism. 

Referring to a U.S. court case from 1878 which has been upheld more recently by the courts, Fish writes that the courts have not viewed favorably actions taken by individuals which follow one’s religion but which are opposed to “generally applicable laws” because “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

In other words the court has defended the right of society to promulgate laws the promote the social order at the expense of individual beliefs.   The court thus defends “society” as a legitimate legal entity which also has “rights.”  Thus the courts do not accept the rights of the individual to be unlimited and inviolably sacrosanct.   There are legal and social limits to what any one individual can do even in the name of their conscience or religion.

The issue in regard to health care workers being allowed to exercise their own consciences and to refuse to participate in medical procedures which are legal could open a Pandora’s Box as these workers declare their conscientious objection to blood transfusions, organ donations, vasectomies, vaccinations, reproductive technologies, biracial or “illegitimate” babies, STD patients, AIDs patients or any other number of medical issues which have moral implications to some.

Will patients walk into health care facilities not knowing whether they will be given legal and available treatments because one or more workers have moral or conscientious objections to doing the medical procedures?  How will health facilities or the police for that matter monitor or enforce such rules? 

Though the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm is not always given nor always required, do health care professionals have any obligation to perform legal medical procedures which a patient requests or needs?  Whose conscience rules when there is a clash of consciences and cultures?  These are indeed the difficult questions an individualistic and diverse society has to wrestle with.

soldier_kevinAmerica has a conscientious objector right when it comes to military service which allows citizens to refuse to engage in actions that are morally reprehensible to them (see also my blog Soldiers of Conscience).  This has also been part of Christian tradition, but I do not think the Quran allows for conscientious objection to war.   So we do have precedence for allowing some to opt out of certain professions or “procedures” based on their own consciences.  How this can work in the complicated world of health care is perhaps not as clear.

Freedom of Conscience and Health Care Workers

In a society such as our which highly values personal freedoms, individual choice, and following the dictates of one’s conscience, there are going to be many conflicts between the rights of individuals or the right of society over individuals.  Such a conflict is on-going in the health care industry where health care professionals may at times be expected or required to offer services which they find morally reprehensible or even evil.   A 31 July 2008 Washington Post article, Worker’s Religious Freedom Vs. Patient Rights, address this issue and the efforts of the Bush administration to grant some protection to the individual rights of care givers especially as related to reproductive issues.  According to the article:

“The Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing a draft regulation that would deny federal funding to any hospital, clinic, health plan or other entity that does not accommodate employees who want to opt out of participating in care that runs counter to their personal convictions, including providing birth-control pills, IUDs and the Plan B emergency contraceptive.”

We already in our society recognize conscientious objection when it comes to serving in military combat roles.  The thinking of this proposal actually seems to be simply allowing such thinking for health care workers.  Health care agencies would only be required to assure that individual workers have an ability to opt out of being involved in processes or procedures which violate their own conscience.

“Richard S. Myers, a law professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., said: ‘Religious freedom is an important part of the history of this country. People who have a religious or moral belief should not be forced to participate in an act they find abhorrent.'”

Abortion rights people have objected for years to being forced to advocate sexual abstinence or to have to counsel women against abortions.  The issue is the same – they don’t want anyone to tread on their consciences and they don’t want to have to advocate things they disagree with.  The proposal by Health and Human Services is trying to ensure that the conscience of the individual is respected by private agencies and by the government.