MUENSTER, Sask. — “Sometimes we read a text and see something new, even though we have read it many times before. The Bible, to me, is never boring, because I see things new, even though I have read them before,” Rev. Walter Vogels, 82, said to the annual retreat of St. Peter’s Abbey.
The Bible has many stories of conversion that are not meant to be taken as actual events, but as stories that speak to us today, Vogels commented; their meanings change as the reader changes.
Vogels, an author and professor emeritus of theology at the University of St. Paul, Ottawa, led the annual Benedictine retreat June 21 - 25. He gave some examples of biblical stories which filled him with new insight after years of study and teaching. The theme of the retreat was Living in Harmony with God and Others.
Many are familiar with the story of Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). A common recollection of Zacchaeus is that when he learned that Jesus was in his town of Jericho, Zacchaeus climbed a tree so he could see Jesus. Zacchaeus was short in stature and Jesus was in the midst of a large crowd.
There are some statements in this story that are often overlooked, Vogels said. The text does not say that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. It says Zacchaeus wanted to “see the kind of person Jesus was.” Zacchaeus was not just being curious, he desired to know more about this famous person. And the passage does not say that Zacchaeus saw Jesus. “It says Jesus looked at Zacchaeus, and not that Zacchaeus looked at Jesus,” Vogels commented. Zacchaeus became a changed person after the encounter.
An example of a parable that can bring people to make assumptions or jump to conclusions is the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-23), he said. The parable speaks of a rich man who lived well and of Lazarus, a poor man who lay at the rich man’s door. Lazarus would have been happy to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. The rich man died and went to the netherworld where he was in torment. When Lazarus died he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
Those who are familiar with this parable often conclude that the rich man was punished for his lack of compassion, Vogels remarked. The story does not give a reason for the state of the rich man following death. It only says he ended up in the netherworld where there was suffering.
The parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32) is always revealing something new, Vogels remarked. The parable speaks of a father and his two sons. The younger son demanded his share of the estate and then went to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance. The younger son later returned home where he was warmly embraced by his father. The older son was angry.
People reading the parable may overlook the fact that the father did not ask any questions and gave the younger son full freedom to do what he wanted, Vogels said. When the younger son spent all his money, he decided to return home, not because of the way he was treated, but because of hunger. His father, upon seeing his son, was filled with compassion, and ran to him, embraced and kissed him. The son acknowledged his sinfulness and referred to his dad with the proper title of “father.” The father ordered the servants to prepare a feast.
The older son learned of the celebration after hearing the music and dancing and asking a servant what was happening. He wasn’t even told about the event, Vogels said. Many may identify with the older son who became angry over the treatment given his younger brother. The older son lamented how he had been an obedient servant and had never been given a feast.
A closer look at the parable reveals that the older son refused to enter his father’s house. He did not refer to his dad with the proper title of “father” and failed to acknowledge the younger son as his bother. The older son’s reaction, Vogels commented, implies he had very little love. The father tried to appease his older son by explaining the celebration was in honour of his brother coming back to life.
“The younger son was pushed by hunger, not by the way he was treated. Do I hunger for God, when I have offended him? Do I want to go back to the father?” Vogels asked. The word “conversion” in Hebrew means “to turn.”
“To turn is to return,” Vogels remarked. The older son felt only anger. “Can you feel the excess of anger that was in the older son? How are we going back to God? Is there anger, disappointment?” he asked.