24th Ordinary Sunday (Year C)
First Reading: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14 Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17 Gospel Reading: Luke 15:1-32
'THE FATHER WHO IS EVER EAGER TO RECEIVE US BACK.'
In the timber mountains of the Northwest of USA a five-year-old boy was lost. Night came. The citizens and rangers searched frantically every cave and mountainside. Snow began to fall. Blanket upon blanket covered the forest floor, but no Bobby could be found. The next morning the father, fatigued from an all-night search, kicked against what seemed to be a log in the path but when the snow fell loose, a small boy sat up, stretched, yawned, and exclaimed: “Oh, Daddy! I've found you at last!”
When we commit sin, we also wander away from God and are lost to Him. But God out of His abounding love and bountiful mercy goes out in search of us until He finds us. He is 'the Father who is ever eager to receive us back.'
Today is the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time; and the three Scripture Readings this Sunday underline God's unmerited love and mercy for the repentant sinner. This is a God who forgives readily and takes great delight in the conversion of a sinner. He is 'the Father who is ever eager to receive us back.'
GOD'S MERCY TO THE SINFUL ISRAELITE PEOPLE:
In the First Reading of today from the Book of Exodus we see the hardness of heart of the people of Israel whom God has freed from the slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. When Moses led them to Mount Sinai, he explained that God wanted to sign a Covenant with them. He then climbed the mountain to receive the terms of the covenant. A month passed with no word from the prophet. The Israelite people grew restless and eventually abandoned their God. They demanded that Moses' brother Aaron create a statue of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of fertility. She was often pictured as a calf. So, while the Covenant is being given to Moses on the mountain, the people make for themselves a golden calf, a false god to worship. This makes God very angry and He is bent on taking vengeance on His idolatrous, treacherous and stiff-necked people. Yet God relents in His anger and forgives the people when Moses intercedes on their behalf and pleads for His mercy.
The key scene in this story is that of Moses pleading to God for the forgiveness of the people. We may wonder how it was possible for the Israelite people to be so blatant in their rejection of God and their forgetfulness of His saving power in leading them out of slavery that they could construct a false idol even as Moses was receiving the terms of the covenant. But it is really just the pattern of our own willfulness and ignorance of God in the face of His goodness to us. We are really the same as them, having been blessed so much by Him.
GOD'S MERCY TO PAUL, 'THE GREATEST OF ALL SINNERS':
In the Second Reading of today from St. Paul's First Letter to Timothy, St. Paul describes himself as a repentant sinner who had wandered far, yet God's mercy was shown him through Jesus Christ. He eloquently acknowledges that he was a sinner, 'the greatest of them,' in doing all he could to wipe out the followers of Christ. He accuses himself of blasphemy, violence and persecution. And, indeed, the early Christians had difficulty with Paul because of his reputation as a persecutor of the Church. Although Paul was once a proud and sinful person, Jesus chose him to be the apostle to the Gentiles. He says God bestowed forgiveness and grace upon him: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost.” St. Paul never forgot the great mercy bestowed on him in spite of his own most serious sinfulness. And finally, he says that God has made him an example of someone he had patience with, and waited for, and rejoiced at his conversion, giving him the gift of eternal life – the party in heaven.
We too must never forget the reality of sin, never calling it by another name, but face it honestly and squarely, like St. Paul. The worst thing we can do is lose the sense of sin, to consider ourselves justified before God when we are truly in need of his mercy. St. Paul was clear about himself, and we must have a similar humility about our situation. Otherwise, we will not pray for his mercy. We should be assured that even the greatest sinner was not beyond God's reach.
PARABLES OF GOD'S ABOUNDING LOVE AND BOUNTIFUL MERCY:
Today's Gospel Reading from St. Luke begins with a stinging criticism of Jesus. He is being accused by the Pharisees and the Scribes of having table fellowship and consorting with ‘sinners.’ What upset the Pharisees and the Scribes, however, was not so much that Jesus had meals with these people, even though there were some purity issues involved with that, but that Jesus had the gall to ‘forgive sinners’ and allow them to accompany him, without the traditional demands called for by the Jewish Law.
In his unique way Jesus answers these accusations by telling three parables about losing, finding and rejoicing – the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the lost son. While each story emphasizes something different from the other, all three depict a seeker in search of something or someone lost. But they all hammer home the same central theme: 'God is willing to do just about anything to bring back someone who is lost!'
In these parables, Luke champions the theme that God’s mercy breaks through all human restrictions of how God should act towards sinners. God’s mercy, indeed, is as foolish as a shepherd who abandons ninety-nine sheep to save one, as a woman who turns her house upside down to recover a paltry sum, and as a Jewish father who joyfully welcomes home his wastrel son who has become a Gentile. Inevitably, all the three parables have a joyous and happy ending. There is great rejoicing over the lost ones having been found.
a) The parable of the lost sheep:
The first parable gives us a glimpse of the heart of a true shepherd, and the joy of a community reunited with its lost members. There is a sheep, perhaps a rebellious maverick, which has wandered far from the flock. The shepherd searches until what he has lost is found. The shepherd's grief and anxiety is turned to joy when he finds the lost sheep and restores it to the fold. In the same way, God rejoices more over one sinner who repents—like the outcasts who have come to hear Jesus—than over the ninety-nine righteous like the Pharisees and Scribes.
This is the picture Jesus draws of God – that, says Jesus, is what God is like. God is as glad when a lost sinner is found as a shepherd is when a strayed sheep is brought home. As some one has said, 'God, too, knows the joy of finding things that have gone lost.'
b) The parable of the lost coin:
The second parable is remarkably short but its meaning is clearly communicated:
In the first instance, we may presume the woman to be poor; therefore, when she lost a silver coin, she faced something of an economic disaster, since the value of the coin would be equivalent to her husband's daily wage. They were poor and would suffer greatly because of the loss. Her grief and anxiety turn to joy when she finds the coin.
However, there is a much more romantic reason. The 10 coins or pieces of silver weren't worth very much monetarily, but were of great sentimental value. These pieces of silver were a gift from her husband's family, the mark of a married woman, which she put in her hair on very special occasions. She might wear them while her husband was away to remind her of his love. These pieces were to be worn with five pieces on each side of her head, fastened with little hooks. To lose one piece would be shameful and devastating.
It was believed that the loss of this precious coin represented the withdrawal of God's favor from the family. It was also a cause of great grief for the husband, so much so that he might actually expel his wife from their home because of the disgrace she had brought to him. This is why she lit the lamps, diligently swept and carefully searched. She wouldn't give up until she found it. When she did, she would invite her friends and neighbors in to rejoice with her. They would all understand the significance of finding the coin and her relief.
The lost coin could be likened to a person within the household who is lost. The parable of the lost coin also gives us a glimpse of that in which God delights. When a sinner is restored to fellowship with God, it is a cause of great rejoicing.
c) The parable of the lost son:
The third parable is probably the most memorable one and is commonly known as 'The Parable of the Prodigal Son,' for obvious reasons. The younger son is prodigal by senselessly spending all his inherited wealth. But it is a misnomer, for the popular name fails to indicate that the father has two lost sons, not one. The resentful elder son, however, did not know that he was lost. Though physically near, he was just as lost as the one who had set off for a distant country squandering his inheritance in a dissolute life.
There are others who feel it more appropriate to call this story, 'The Parable of the Prodigal Father.' For them the point made in the story is not how bad the boys are, but rather how good the father is. It is the father who is excessive and extravagant and immoderate, anything but frugal with his forgiveness and mercy. It is the father who squanders love and reconciliation on his two sons. The father is the true spendthrift here, sparing no cost of labor to celebrate the homecoming of the wayward younger son. Also, with similar prodigality, his offering of everything to the older son, who is reluctant to forgive his younger brother, makes the father all the more generous.
In the parable, actually, we are given a most beautiful description of our heavenly Father. The father is outside of the house waiting for the younger son to return; and when the son returns, he runs to him, clasps him in his arms, kisses him, brings him in and throws a party for him. There is no negotiation, condition or fine print - just pure acceptance and total forgiveness. Similarly, when we return to God, He does the same to us and throws a party for us.
Perhaps the saddest part of the story, even more pitiable than the prodigal son, is the resentful and arrogant older brother who refused to enter into the joy of the occasion. Because the bulk of the narrative is centered on the younger son, the fact that the story is actually a double-edged parable has sometimes been overlooked. In the father’s treatment of the younger son, the lesson of divine mercy offered reassurance to sinners. In the interchange between the older brother and the father, a stern warning was issued to the self-righteous whose resentment hardened them against the joy of God’s magnanimous goodness. This son who never left, just like the Pharisees and scribes who feel they are righteous, refuses to enter his father's house to join in the rejoicing. He has served his father. He has obeyed him. Perhaps it was not out of love. The father's response teaches us that God's care and compassion extend to the righteous and sinner alike. When we are lost, God doesn't wait for our return. He actively seeks us out. And when the lost are found, how could He not celebrate and rejoice?
All three Scripture Readings of today reveal the drama of human sin which is so deceptive. How often do we worship the golden calves of today's society? How often do we run away from home? The image of God presented to us by Jesus in these parables is one who seeks us in love so that He can forgive us. He is the merciful Father, who receives us back and restores us to our place as a son with all the rights and dignity. He knows that we are lost because we have sinned against Him by disregarding His will. But He is willing to overlook that and extend the hand of forgiveness if we only repent. This is the heart of God toward us. He does not look to punish or to make us suffer, but to celebrate our homecoming with us. He does not hold our sins over us, but rather rejoices that we are back safe with him. He does not make us suffer any more than our sins have already made us suffer because he no longer considers us slaves, but sons.
There are many areas in our lives that need forgiveness and therefore repentance. A good place to start is ourselves. We often say to ourselves, 'I can never forgive myself for doing that stupid thing.' Because we have not forgiven ourselves, we feel bitter and angry - with ourselves, with others, with the world, and even with God. When we forgive and are forgiven, a great healing takes place in us. We learn to be humble. We also develop a positive outlook not only about God but also about ourselves, others, and society. We then think and speak well of them and do them good. This transformation in ourselves is certainly cause for great rejoicing in heaven.
God does not rejoice in the loss of anyone, but desires that we be saved and restored to friendship with Him. He seeks us out and like the father in the parable He runs to meet us. He is 'THE FATHER WHO IS EVER EAGER TO RECEIVE US BACK.' Let us humbly repent our sins and hastily run to meet him. And this is the Good News of today.