Sunday, September 12, 2010

There Will Be More Joy In Heaven Over One Sinner Who Repents, Than Over Ninety-Nine Righteous People Who Have No Need To Repent.

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
The LORD said to Moses,
"Go down at once to your people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt,
for they have become depraved.
They have soon turned aside
from the way I pointed out to them,
making for themselves a molten calf
and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out,
'This is your God, O Israel,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'
"I see how stiff-necked this people is, "
continued the LORD to Moses.
Let me alone, then,
that my wrath may blaze up
against them to consume them.
Then I will make of you a great nation."

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying,
"Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up
against your own people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt
with such great power and with so strong a hand?
Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,
and how you swore to them by your own self, saying,
'I will make your descendants as numerous
as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised,
I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.'"
So the LORD relented in the punishment
he had threatened to inflict on his people.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 51
I will rise and go to my father.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
I will rise and go to my father.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
I will rise and go to my father.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled,
O God, you will not spurn.
I will rise and go to my father.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Reading II
1 Timothy 1:12-17
I am grateful to him who has strengthened me,
Christ Jesus our Lord,
because he considered me trustworthy
in appointing me to the ministry.
I was once a blasphemer
and a persecutor and arrogant,
but I have been mercifully treated
because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.
Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant,
along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Of these I am the foremost.
But for that reason I was mercifully treated,
so that in me, as the foremost,
Christ Jesus might display all his patience
as an example for those who would come
to believe in him for everlasting life.
To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God,
honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Luke 15:1-32
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near
to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
"This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So to them he addressed this parable.
"What man among you having a hundred sheep
and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?
And when he does find it,
he sets it on his shoulders with great joy
and, upon his arrival home,
he calls together his friends
and neighbors and says to them,
'Rejoice with me
because I have found my lost sheep.'
I tell you, in just the same way
there will be more joy in heaven
over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who have no need of repentance.

"Or what woman having ten coins and losing one
would not light a lamp and sweep the house,
searching carefully until she finds it?
And when she does find it,
she calls together her friends and neighbors
and says to them,
'Rejoice with me
because I have found the coin that I lost.'
In just the same way, I tell you,
there will be rejoicing among the angels of God
over one sinner who repents."

Then he said,
"A man had two sons,
and the younger son said to his father,
'Father give me the share of your estate
that should come to me.'
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days,
the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance
on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill
of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
'How many of my father's hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father
and I shall say to him,
"Father, I have sinned against heaven
and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat
one of your hired workers."'
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
'Father, I have sinned against heaven
and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.'
But his father ordered his servants,
'Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead,
and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.'
Then the celebration began.

Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants
and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
'Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.'
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
'Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat
to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns,
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.'
He said to him,
'My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead
and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.'"
We are presented in today's Gospel with an overwhelming picture of God. It is a picture that we could never have guessed at ourselves and, in spite of Jesus' words, it is a picture than many of us still find difficult to accept in its fullness.

We might feel more comfortable with the God depicted in the First Reading, which is from the book of Exodus. This is a God that is more like us. We see a God bent on taking vengeance on his idolatrous, treacherous and stiff-necked people. It is only by a kind of blackmail on Moses' part that God is moved. How can God, asks Moses, wipe out a people who, in the presence of the Gentiles, he has so dramatically liberated? How can God go back on his solemn promise that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be "as many as the stars of heaven"? So the Lord, reluctantly it seems, holds back the arm of his justified anger. Yes, we can identify with such behavior. In our more generous moments, we might feel capable of rising to the same level.

In today's Gospel we are given a threefold picture of how God looks on the sinful person and on a sinful people. The three stories hammer home the same theme: God will go to any length to bring the sinner back to a loving relationship with himself.

There is the story of the sheep, perhaps a rebellious maverick, which has wandered far from the flock. The shepherd does not rest till he has found it and brought it back. There is no punishment but rather an invitation to the neighbors to join in celebrating the reunion. There is the woman, presumably poor, who loses a coin she can ill afford to be without. Again, the emphasis is on the joy shared with the neighbors on finding what had been lost.

The piece de resistance, of course, is the marvelous story we usually call the "Prodigal Son". But, as has often been pointed out, it is rather the story of the Prodigally Generous Father. It is the father who is the central figure. He gives generously of his own belongings to his younger son. The son fritters it all away on sex and debauching pleasures. Through it all, the father waits and watches. He is never angry and he never condemns. It is a very different image from the First Reading. When the son finally "comes to his senses", and shamefully makes his way home, he is overwhelmed by his father's love and affection. Nothing is too good to be brought out to celebrate the return of the boy who "was dead and has come to life again".

This is a picture of love and forgiveness we might find difficult to imitate. Imagine if one of your family were to squander all the family wealth in such a way, say, by reckless gambling or indulging in drugs. What kind of a welcome could he expect on his return?

It is likely that most of us can identify much more easily with the elder son. He was a "good boy", dutifully serving his father without thought of personal reward. Naturally, he feels strong resentment at the extraordinary treatment his "black sheep" of a brother gets. How can the father act like this? It is simply not just! But surely the saddest scene in the whole parable is when the elder son refuses to go into his Father's house because his sinful brother has returned.

It is important for us to remember the context in which these stories were spoken. The passage opens by saying, "The tax collectors and sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say." The passage seems to be speaking on two inter-related levels. The first is the contrast between the behavior of the religiously self-righteous and those who were seen as moral outsiders by them. The second is between Jesus' own people (represented by the elder son who scrupulously followed the rules of his father's house) and the "pagans" seen as both amoral and immoral (represented by the younger son indulging in all kinds of depraved behavior).

There are two key words here: they are "seek" and "hear". Anyone - no matter what their past or present behavior may be - who is genuinely "seeking" Jesus and wants to "hear" what he has to say cannot be all sinner. The definition of a sinner is one who has ceased seeking Jesus and has stopped listening to him. Jesus can see in these people gathered round him people in search, people eager to learn and to change.

The Pharisees and the scribes, however, can only see stereotypes, people carrying the label "sinner". So they complain in great righteousness. "This man [Jesus] - horror of horrors! - welcomes sinners and eats with them." In their eyes, as a rabbi, Jesus was defiling himself by eating together with such people. Jesus does not deal with such criticism by giving long theological explanations. He tells a story. In this case, he tells three stories. Their message is abundantly clear: God loves everyone and wishes them to turn to him. If they do, there is a huge welcome for them.

However, there is a danger that we could go to an extreme of tolerance, which is not contained in Jesus' teaching. It would be a false reading to conclude that no matter what we do God is forgiving us.

There are two elements in our relationship with God which need to be distinguished.

The first element is the love of God for us. That love is absolutely unconditional. No matter what kind of person I may be, no matter what I have done against God, against others, or against myself, God's outreaching love (called √Ęgap√© in the Greek original of the New Testament) for me is absolutely unchanging.

He does not love me more if I am a saint or love me less because I am a sinner. God is all love: and so his whole self goes out in love, be it to a saint like Mother Teresa or to the most vicious dictator or criminal. If anything, God seems to be more biased towards the sinner. "People who are well do not need a doctor but only those who are sick," he said once.

However, God's forgiveness is something else. That is not unconditional. It is clear from the story of the Prodigal Son. The father deeply loves the younger son and bears no ill will towards him. This is clearly indicated by his father seeing him "while he was still a long way off". But there can be no forgiveness in the full sense until the son makes that crucial about turn, that "conversion" or metanoia experience. There can be no real forgiveness in the full sense until there is reconciliation. The wound of division needs to be healed.

In our way of thinking, we tend to look on forgiveness as a one-sided thing. "I have been deeply offended by X but I forgive him/her." X may not know that and his/her feelings have not changed. In confession, too, we can think of God one-sidedly forgiving us our sins. But it is not just for novelty that we now refer to 'confession' as the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That is what takes place in the parable between the father and the wayward son, who expresses his deep sorrow, passionately embraces his father and returns to where he belongs. This is what needs to take place when I confess my sins to God or when I wish to heal a broken relationship in life.

What is true, however, in our reconciliation with God is that once, like the son, I take that initial step, I can be absolutely sure that I will be received back. There will be no "ifs" or "buts", no conditions, no reservations, no punishment, no compensation to be made.

This is eloquently put by Paul in the Second Reading. He acknowledges that he was a sinner, "the greatest of them", in doing all he could to wipe out the followers of Christ. But he discovered Christ and the mercy of God. "Here is a saying that you can rely on and nobody should doubt: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." And he regards himself to be the greatest of them. But he came to experience the "inexhaustible patience" of Christ his Lord. He more than made up for that and in another context will call himself the greatest, the hardest working of the apostles. But he knows the source of his zeal: it is Christ his Lord working in him.

At the same time, all that we say about the way God receives us back must clearly be carried out in our relationships with other people. "Forgive us our sins," we pray constantly in the Lord's Prayer, "in the same way we forgive (i.e. we wish to be reconciled with) those who sin against us."

"Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect," that is, love all unconditionally just as God loves me and be ready to forgive and be reconciled with every single person just as he does.

And that is where perfection lies. Not, as the Pharisees thought, in the perfect observance of rules and law but:

a. in loving others unconditionally and not on the basis of their behavior or the attitudes they have towards us;

b. in doing our best that our forgiveness concludes in full reconciliation with the person we believe has been unjust to us.

It is not easy, it is a challenge, but it is also by no means impossible. Would you prefer the opposite - to be a consistently hating, unforgiving, vengeful, bitter person? And guess who suffers most - the one hated or the one hating? Nearly always it is the hater. If we have any sense, we will follow the Way of Jesus, not just because he tells us in the name of God but simply because it is the better way to go. The Prodigal Son learnt that lesson the hard way. We are meant to learn from him.

The Irish Jesuits


Sarah in the tent said...

I was recently trying to figure out the parable that follows these three - the crafty steward - and that led me to look at what they all say about wastefulness.

The older son is the 'heir' and the younger son is the 'spare'. Although the destiny of the 'heir' is clear, there is a terrible pointlessness to life as the 'spare'. It is the human condition in microcosm - trying to amuse ourselves until we die because ultimately our very existence is a pointless waste.

We tend to criticize the younger son for preempting his inheritance and leaving, but many families with wastrel sons would feel the family had got off lightly! There is also something poignant - and typical of the young - about the way the son just leaves, without even knowing he is loved. Perhaps he sees himself - the spare - as a waste of his father's DNA anyway, so it does not matter if he wastes his life.

But existence is gloriously wasteful! It is the wastefulness of God, full of purpose and founded on absolute love. Anyone who does not know this should be told!

There is also a comparison between the miserliness of men and that of God. The shepherd with his lamb, the woman with her coin and the older son all show a very recognizable kind of obsessive human miserliness. The first two expressions of it lead to shared joy, while the third - the older son's - leads to a refusal to share in joy.

Ultimate joy is the purpose of creation and salvation. Creation is God's wastefulness and salvation is God's miserliness: He wants us all to be saved.

Regarding the crafty steward - who is not included in today's reading - he cleverly managed to use his waste somehow to offset the massive (possibly 'bad') debt of some people to his master. The difference between the amounts cut from the oil and wheat debts points to Roman taxes, because they demanded 20 percent of oil and 10 percent of wheat (for the Jews it was 10 percent across the board). Maybe by reducing the debt volume he cut the sales tax his master owed to the Romans by the same amount as the value of what he had wasted? I don't know; I'm just guessing.

The food the Romans took was for Romans, not Jews, so it was an oppressive tax. Carrying over food taxes from one harvest to the next is rather pointless. The Jews had a mechanism for wiping out debt, but I don't think the Romans did. I suppose indebtedness just grew and grew until someone stormed the government and burned the records! It was only in the Middle Ages that the Lombards finally systematized bankruptcy and started to compete with Jewish lenders.

Forgiving debt seems like wastefulness, but it can actually be financially canny. The steward's pointless waste is transformed into something liberating that serves true justice, making it a paradox rather like the Cross.

Angelina Bong said...

Thanks for the light given on's gospel is one of my favourite and i greatly needed to hear it.God bless you for writing.