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24th Sunday - 15 September, 2013
Ex 32: 7-11, 13, 14; I Tm 1: 12-17; Lk 15: 1-32A divorced woman found herself struggling with an increasingly rebellious teenage daughter. It all came to a head late one night when the police called her to pick up her daughter who had been arrested for drunk driving. The two of them didn't speak on the way home or next day either, until at last the mother broke the tension by giving her daughter a small, gift-wrapped package. The girl opened it with an air of indifference and found inside a small rock. "Well, that's cute, Mom. What is it?" "Read the card, dear," the mother replied. As the girl did so, tears began to trickle down her cheeks, and she gave her mom a hug as the card fell to the floor. On the card her mother had written: "This rock is more than 200 million years old. That's how long it'll take before I give up on you." That's what Jesus is telling us about God in today’s readings: He never gives up on us.
The central theme of today’s readings is the invitation to believe in a loving, patient, merciful, and forgiving God. Today’s readings remind us that God actively seeks out the lost, wants their repentance and rejoices when the lost are found. God is eager to be merciful toward us, not vengeful and punishing. He is always in search of His lost and straying children, as Jesus explains in the three parables of today’s gospel. Our God has always been a God of mercy and patience, a God who seeks out the lost, as shown in the experience of Israel in the desert (the first reading),
and through the amazing mercy shown to Paul, the former persecutor of the Church (the second reading). Chapter 15 of Luke's Gospel has been called "the Gospel within the Gospel," because it is the distilled essence of the Good News about the mercy of our forgiving Heavenly Father. The whole chapter is essentially one distinct parable, the “Parable of the Lost and Found,” with three illustrations: the story of the lost sheep, the story of the lost coin and the story of the lost son. These parables are about finding something that has been lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son They remind us that we have a God who welcomes sinners and forgives their sins whenever they return to Him with genuine contrition and resolution. The Hebrew term for repentance, teshuvá, means a return to God by a person who has already experienced God’s “goodness and compassion” (Ps. 51).
The first reading speaks of the rhythm of man’s sin and God’s forgiveness pervades the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. In today’s passage from Exodus, Moses is imploring God to have mercy on the sinful people who have abandoned Him and turned to idol-worship, reminding God of His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It concludes with a consoling passage: “So the Lord relented.” [Some Bible scholars consider this incident of idol-worship as an anachronized event: an event which took place later in Israel’s history and was then incorporated into the book of Exodus. They say the apostasy of the golden calf actually took place during the tenth century B.C.E. during the reign of Jeroboam I the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam set up two golden calves in the sanctuaries of Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:28).]
In the second reading, Paul tells Timothy that, although he, Paul, had been the greatest of sinners, God showed great mercy towards him. Paul’s sin was self-righteousness: he had been a zealot ready to persecute anyone thought to be doctrinally unsound. It was Paul, then called Saul, who had watched over the cloaks of those who stoned St. Stephen. In his letter, Paul reminds young Bishop Timothy how God in his mercy changed Paul’s mind and pardoned him. “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Paul acknowledges the fact that he had wandered from the truth and rejoices that God first found him, then commissioned him to preach the Good News of God’s unconditional love, calling every prodigal home. Like John Newton, the eighteenth century English composer of Amazing Grace, Paul declared his past openly. . . “I once was lost”. . . “I once was a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance” (v. 13). Calling himself, “the worst of sinners,” and, “an extreme case,” (vv. 15, 16), Paul invites us to marvel at the mercy of God, and to find hope and help for dealing with our own need for conversion. [Some Bible scholars suggest 1 Timothy may have been written toward the end of the first or early in the second Christian century by a disciple of Paul who was familiar with his mentor’s teachings and concerns.]
In the first two parables of today’s Gospel, we are shown a God seeking sinners, and in the third we see a God forgiving and receiving sinners. As a group, the parables tell us about God's generosity in seeking and receiving the sinner and the joy of the sinner in being received by a forgiving and loving God. All three parables of Luke 15 end with a party or a celebration of the finding. Since the self-righteous Pharisees, who accused Jesus of befriending publicans and sinners, could not believe that God would be delighted at the conversion of sinners, Jesus told them the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd's joy on its discovery, the parable of the lost coin and the woman’s joy when she found it, and the parable of the lost and returned son and his Father’s joy. Besides presenting a God who is patiently waiting for the return of the sinners, ready to pardon them, these parables teach us of God’s infinite love and mercy. These three parables defend Jesus' alliance with sinners and respond to the criticism by certain Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ frequent practice of eating with and welcoming tax-collectors and sinners and of his receptivity to the lost among God’s people.
Shepherding in Judaea was a hard and dangerous task. Pasture was scarce, and thorny scrub jungles with wild animals and vast desert areas were common, posing a constant threat to the wandering sheep. But the shepherds were famous for their dedicated, sacrificial service, perpetual vigilance and readiness for action. Hence, the shepherd was the national symbol of divine providence and self-sacrificing love in Israel. Two or three shepherds might be personally responsible for the sheep owned by several families in a village. If any sheep was missing, one of the shepherds would go in search of it, sending the other shepherds home with the flock of sheep. The whole village would be waiting for the return of the shepherd with the lost sheep and would receive him with shouts of joy and of thanksgiving. That is the picture Jesus drew of God. God is as glad when a lost sinner is found as a shepherd is when a strayed sheep is brought home. Men may give up hope of reclaiming a sinner, but not so God. God loves those people who never stray from Him, but He expresses even greater joy when a lost sinner comes home.
The coin in question in the second parable was a silver drachma. Since the houses were very dark, with one little circular window, and since the floor was made of beaten earth covered with dried reeds and rushes, it was practically impossible to find such a tiny coin. But the woman tried her best to get it back because it was worth more than a whole day's wage for a workingman in Palestine. If the coin was one of the ten silver coins attached by a silver chain to the traditional headdress of a married woman, it was as important to her as the wedding ring in our society. Thus, we can understand the woman’s joy when at last she saw the glint of the elusive coin. God, said Jesus, is like that. The joy of God, and of all the angels, when one sinner comes home, is like the joy of a woman who loses her most precious possession, with a value far beyond money, and then finds it again. We believe in the seeking love of God, because we see that love incarnate in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to seek and to save that which was lost.
The Prodigal son has been called the greatest short story in the world. It speaks about the deep effects of sin, the self-destruction of hatred and the infinite mercy of God. This is a story of love, of conflict, of deep heartbreak, and of ecstatic joy. The scene opens on a well-to-do Jewish family. With the immaturity of a spoiled brat the younger son demanded impudently of his gracious father, "Give me the portion of goods that falls to me." Under Jewish law, when a father divided his property between two sons, the elder son had to receive two-thirds and the younger one-third (Deut.21:17). In Jesus' parable, the younger son sold out his share of the inheritance and then squandered the money in a faraway city. The land was sacred to the Jewish people because it was the Promised Land given to the Chosen People. Hence, each bit of land was considered holy and no Israelite could lawfully sell his property (Lev. 25:23, I Kg. 21). Ancient “social security” basically consisted in sons farming their father’s land and taking care of their parents until their death. Thus, the prodigal had sold his parents’ social security.
When he became bankrupt, the prodigal son ended up feeding pigs, a task that was forbidden to a Jew (Leviticus 11:7; 14:8). Having sunk to the depths of economic, spiritual and moral depravity, the prodigal finally “came to his senses” (v. 17). So he decided to return to his father, to ask his forgiveness and to receive the status of a hired servant. When he saw his son returning, the ever-watchful father ran to him and gave him a cordial welcome along with a new robe, a ring and new shoes. Symbolically, the robe stood for honor; the ring for authority (the signet ring gave a person the power of attorney) and the shoes for the son's place as a member of the family (slaves did not wear shoes). The father also threw a great feast killing the “fatted calf’ reserved for the Passover feast so that all might rejoice at the wanderer's return.
The parable illustrates the wonder of God’s love and unconditional forgiveness. God seeks out the sinner and forgives him unconditionally. Jesus recounts the story of the elder brother as his response to the accusation by the self-righteous Pharisees that he was the friend of sinners. The elder brother represents the self-righteous Pharisees who would rather see a sinner destroyed than saved. He reflects the Pharisees' attitude that obedience to Mosaic Law is a duty, not a loving service. Like the Pharisees, the elder brother lacks sympathy for his sibling and levels accusations at him. As a self-righteous person, he refuses to forgive. Thus, his grudge becomes a sin in itself, resulting in his exclusion from the banquet of his father’s love. That is what we all do when we sin. We exclude ourselves from the banquet of God’s love
Messages: 1) We need to evaluate our selves: This can be for us a Sunday of self-reflection and assessment. If we have been in sin, God's mercy is seeking us, searching for our souls with a love that is wild beyond all imagining. God is ready to receive and welcome us back, no less than Jesus welcomed sinners in his time. Let us pray today that we will allow God’s love and forgiveness into our lives. Let us also ask God for the courage to extend this forgiveness to others who have offended us. As forgiven prodigals, we must be forgiving people. As we continue with this celebration of the Holy Mass, let us pray also for God's Divine mercy on those who have fallen away from grace. May their ears be opened so that they may hear that Jesus is welcoming them back home.
2) Let us confess our sins and regain peace and God’s friendship. The first condition for experiencing the joy and relief of having our sins forgiven is to see them as they are and give them up. We have to be humble enough to recognize that we need God’s forgiveness to be whole. At that very moment of sad and painful self-recognition, we will know how much our brothers and sisters need our compassion, and we will be more able to help them. Indeed, that will be a change in our attitude, arising out of our own parallel condition.
In Ernest Hemingway’s short story, a Spanish newspaper carried a poignant story about a father and his son. It went like this. A teen-aged boy, Paco, and his very wealthy father had a falling out and the young man ran away from home. The father was crushed. After a few days, he realized that the boy was serious, so the father set out to find him. He searched high and low for five months to no avail. Finally, in a last, desperate attempt to find his son, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read, "Dear
Paco, Meet me at the Hotel Montana noon Tuesday. All is forgiven. I love you. Signed, Your Father. On Tuesday, in the office of Hotel Montana, over 800 Pacos showed up, looking for love and forgiveness from their fathers!! What a magnet that ad was. Over 800 Pacos because Paco was a very common name!! In today’s gospel Jesus tells the story of such a Paco and the joy it brings to his father and his heavenly Father.