Early one morning I had to return to my parish by bus, and from Karachi, which meant at least 5 hours of a hot, dusty, rough and boring road. So as usual I took something to read, a new Urdu translation of the Bible. I thought it would give me a chance to catch up on my study of the language. Well, after fighting my way through a heaving mass of humanity, I found a window seat. I settled down as well as I could in the cramped space, my luggage under my feet and a small bag on my lap. The bus soon filled up to bursting point with an odd assortment of men, goats and chickens. I could see a couple of women and a handful of children on the reserved seats at the front. Two elderly, white bearded-men squeezed onto the seat besides me. We exchanged greetings and shook hands. I thanked God that these men looked as if they would let me read in peace while they talked to each other.
Almost an hour later we had cleared the outskirts of the city and started down the desert road. As the bus gained speed, the hot wind gave some relief from the stifling heat and smell inside, and the people started to relax, trying to doze. Others talked to their companions, while the bus radio blasted out some indecipherable sounds that challenged the roar of the bus’s engine.
Suddenly one of the elderly men gave me a prod in the ribs and asked, ‘Do you speak our language?’ Startled, I said that I could speak a little. He launched into the usual ritual of questions, ‘What is your name? What is your country? Are you married? How many children? (even though I had told him that I wasn’t married). What is your job?’ When I said that I was a Christian priest, I could see that people in the nearby seats were beginning to strain to hear what I was saying.
The bearded man told me that he was Ali Hassan. He lived near Badin, the town where I lived and to which we were heading. I groaned mentally and felt that sinking feeling inside, fearing a long and difficult journey. He pointed to the Bible on my knees. ‘What are you reading?’ he said. I told him what it was and that I was reading a passage from St.Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 15, The Parable of the Lost Son. I asked him if he would like to read it. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I can’t read, but will you read it for us?’
By now there were many faces turned towards us, and those standing were edging closer to the action. This had happened before and I knew God had put me in this situation again for his own good reasons. I had an audience, I had been asked to read the Gospel to a bus load of Muslims and Hindus, so I did.
Before I started to read, I tried to explain that in the passage I would read to them, Jesus was teaching about the loving, forgiving nature of God. I began to read, but as I got to the sentence, ‘So the Father divided the property between them,’ Ali snorted and cried out loud, ‘What kind of a fool is that man, he will ruin his son!’
‘Like God, this father is very generous and has faith in his children,’ I said. I read on to where the son had sold himself as a swineherd. Again Ali wailed and made the sign to ward off evil. ‘Oh God forbid, Oh God forbid! I told you it would ruin him! Why did he let it happen? Ugh, to feed pigs, PIGS!’ I had never realised until now just how dramatic this story must have been to the Jews, and that Ali’s reaction must have been close to that of those who heard Jesus.
I read on to where the boy sets off repentant for home. Someone else piped up. ‘Aha, the boy is not so dumb!’ But then another replied, ‘But he has no right to go home. His father gave him everything that was due to him, he cannot claim any more!’ For a few moments there was bedlam, as everyone wanted their opinion to be heard.
I held up my hand and asked for permission to continue, I got it, and did as far as the killing of the Fatted Calf. Ali stopped me again. ‘Do you know that when the father gave his son the robe, ring and shoes,’ he said, ‘it was like in the old days when a slave was given freedom. They got the same to show that they were the same as other men.’ I was amazed and asked him if he had heard this story before. ‘Never. Is there more of it?’ he said. I continued reading to the end where the father came out to plead with the elder son. Someone then said, ‘Now there is the real fool of the story. He can’t see how much his father cares for both of his sons and that he loves them the same.’
Many of the people on the bus could not have heard me very well or maybe they couldn’t understand my pronunciation of Urdu, but Ali started to recite the story for the benefit of the others. He was almost word perfect, and yet he had only heard it the once and then he translated it into Sindhi.
When he had finished he asked me, ‘Who are these people, the father and the two sons?’ I raised my voice so some of the others could hear as well. I said that Jesus had told this story to explain what God is like. He tells us that He is our Heavenly Father. The elder son is like those of us who have been given everything, who stay near to God, but see only the burden of duty and cannot share the joy of being close to God. Although he is not really bad, he is jealous of his brother and cannot see the need for giving or accepting forgiveness.
The younger son is like many of us who want to do everything now, to taste the pleasures of this world and to have no worries until something goes wrong. Like the boy we are sometimes wild and turn away from God. But he knows the father is loving and forgiving and will be happy if he goes back to him. What we often forget is that the Father will always rejoice and celebrate the return of a lost child. Not only that, God is always looking out for anyone who makes up his mind to come home to him. When he sees someone make such a move, he rushes out with arms wide to greet and embrace with love the one who calls out to him in humility and asks for forgiveness.
I was interrupted again by one of the elders. ‘How can anyone who has sinned go back to God, and why would God accept him? Everyone knows that God doesn’t listen to sinners, he will destroy them!’ I was suddenly aware of the heat, and that tempers were rising, but I felt that I could not stop so I took up the challenge. I answered him by saying that if that were true then there would be no hope for anyone, since we have all sinned in some way. I was warming to the situation and said that this is the Christian faith, that Jesus Our Lord came to forgive all sinners out of the love he has for us all. He tells us that God loves all of us, it is the sin he hates. He tells us that all sins can be forgiven, except the one against God’s Spirit, which means not believing that God can forgive or wants to forgive.
This had set a lot of voices rumbling up and down the length of the bus. Some men obviously did not agree with what I had said, while others were saying, ‘If only that could be true.’
Eventually, Ali asked me how could I know that this was true. I answered by saying that I was a priest and that as such, I had been given the power to forgive sins in the name of God. There was silence for a while and I thought that this marked the end of the discussion. But then Ali turned to me and asked if I was making fun of them. I felt myself stiffen in my seat as some of the others drew in their breath rather sharply. I said that Sin is not something to joke about, especially when it separates us from life. God, through Jesus, has forgiven us all once and for all. When he raised Jesus to life, he then sent his Spirit to us all and to his priests in a special way, to teach this message and to bring back to God those who have cut themselves off from Him by their sins. Ali looked me in the eyes and said, ‘If only I could believe that!’
I tried to explain the sacrament of reconciliation to him and how all of the Christian faith hinges on the belief that we are forgiven and have been promised life for ever with God the Father of us all. I went on to say that sometimes in weakness we do turn away from Him and fall into sin, and it doesn’t matter how seriously; we are not lost for ever. Like the younger son in the story, we can always come back to him by confessing our sins and asking in real humility for forgiveness. This is what Jesus told us to do and we know that this is true through our personal experiences.
Many of those who had been listening to us turned away shaking their heads. Ali and his companion, looked at each other and said something I couldn’t catch, then turned back to me and said, ‘What you say sounds good to us, but…’ After a moment he spoke again, ‘If only we had something like this blessing you spoke of. But it isn’t our way.’
The bus ground to a halt in a cloud of dust and most of the men got off, while many more surged on. Ali and his friend had gone with the briefest of, ‘God be with you.’ and a touch of the hands. I settled down in my seat for the last part of the journey, closed my eyes and prayed. I thanked God for that encounter and for my first sermon on a bus.