I have not suffered greatly for my faith. I worship God freely, where and how I choose to do so. My property has never been confiscated because of my convictions. I have never been threatened or harmed because of my faith. The greatest pain I have suffered as a Christian has been self-inflicted—sorrow over sins committed, discouragement over recurring temptations.
These minor sorrows are assuaged by the comfort the parable of the Prodigal Son offers. When I read this story, it is the image of loving, open arms of the waiting Father for his raucous, repentant son that leap off the pages. But this interpretation has something to do with the context in which I read the parable. If I had grown up as a member of a persecuted, endangered church, I might read and interpret it differently.
For the early church, persecution sporadically erupted against the Christian community, inflicting intense abuse and suffering. How, I ask myself, would I have reacted to an order to sacrifice to the emperor, particularly if I knew that simply a pinch of incense sprinkled on the coals of a Roman altar could save my life, family, and property? Or what if I were put on trial, as in the case of the beloved Bishop Cyprian in the middle of the third century:
The proconsul Galerius Maximus ordered Cyprian to be brought before him . …
Proconsul: "Are you Thascius Cyprianus?"Cyprian: "I am."Proconsul: "Have you allowed yourself to be called 'father' of persons holding sacrilegious [that is, Christian] opinions?"Cyprian: "I have."Proconsul: "The most sacred emperors have ordered you to sacrifice [to the emperor as a god]."Cyprian: "I will not do it."Proconsul: "Have a care for yourself . …"Cyprian: "Do as you are bid. There is no room for ...1
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