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Attending graduation in the Town Hall is one of the highlights of my job as a teacher at the University of Otago. They are times of great celebration of the achievements of our graduates.
Along with other staff, I have the privilege of sitting on the stage. The graduands walk across the stage in front of me, are congratulated by the chancellor, and then receive their degrees and exit, stage right.
One thing used to mystify me. The graduates-to-be start their walk across the stage from my far left. They often look a little worried. Are they going to trip over their gown? Is their hood on straight? Will they remember what to do at the right time? But then just as they approach the chancellor, anxiety disappears and they break out into a beaming smile. From my vantage point, I see this sudden change.
It took me a while to figure out what was going on. As the graduand approaches the chancellor, they see that he is smiling warmly at them. Suddenly, they relax and reciprocate with a broad, beaming smile. I can't see the chancellor (since he's facing towards the Town Hall audience), but I can vividly see the response to his smile in the students.
It's easy to overlook the importance of a friendly, welcoming smile. An overseas student was talking to me recently, and commented about how friendly people were in Dunedin. When he walks down the street, people say hello, or smile. This was not his experience in some other cities he'd visited. I was proud to be a Dunedinite.
Jesus speaks of welcoming in what has become known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The story starts with the younger son asking his father for his share of the inheritance. This is outrageous - it's the equivalent of wishing his father dead. But this amazing father gives the son what he asks for. The son then goes off to a distant country, lives it up and wastes his money. Famine hits and he's reduced to feeding pigs - a sign of how low he has gone, since, as a Jew, he would normally have nothing to do with unclean pigs. He realises he would be better off at home and decides he'll go back to his father and ask to become a hired hand. He's forfeited the right to be a son, since he wished his father dead, but at least as a hired hand he would be able to eat, and perhaps over time he could pay his father back.
Then we're told: ``So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him'' (Luke 15:20). The son had outrageously wished the father dead, but here this father acts in amazing ways. He's clearly been looking for this son all this time - so the father spots him in the distance. He is filled, not with anger and vindictiveness, but with compassion. And this father runs to greet the son. An amazing welcome!
We can miss several things here. Why does the father run? We're to think of the boy as re-entering the village. The villagers thoroughly dislike this boy. He has brought shame on them all, by wasting resources and bringing the village's name into disrepute. They are ready to treat the son very harshly - at the very least they will bombard the boy with rotten tomatoes. So the father runs to protect the boy.
But the father runs at great cost to himself. Adult men in a Jewish society did not run. It involved hitching up long robes in a very undignified way. No, adult men would walk sedately. The father humiliates himself in order to welcome his son.
The story is about Jesus. In his ministry, he is welcoming those who are considered beyond the pale. He is saying that they are part of the new Kingdom of God that he is bringing. The open arms of the father are the arms of Jesus, welcoming all people.
That the father humiliates himself speaks of the very negative responses Jesus received from those who opposed him - the price he paid to welcome outsiders. In the end, this welcome cost Jesus his life.
For Christians, this is a story that calls for us to respond to others with at least a smile, and hopefully much more. We have been welcomed so amazingly through the ministry of Jesus, and we are to respond in like fashion.
But our society as a whole needs to listen to the story too. Welcoming others, no matter who they are, is a vital part of a good and just society. But this will often have a cost to us - of putting aside our stereotypes and prejudices, and being prepared to go beyond our comfort zones. May we all be welcomers.
Paul Trebilco is professor of New Testament studies in the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Otago.