TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2019)
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Psalms 51:3-4, 12-13,17, 19
First Letter to Timothy 1:12-17
Chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel is the ‘Lost and Found’ section of his gospel. In some of the most familar parables in all of the gospels, Luke lines up three parables in a row which speak about lost sheep, a lost coin, and lost sons. The linking of all that was lost (which, incidentally are all found before the end of each parable) with repentance leads us to conclude that behind the details of all of the parables are the important themes of sin, repentance and redemption.
All three parables in today’s gospel are spoken by Jesus after the murmuring of the Pharisees who are complaining that “This man (Jesus) welcomes sinners and eats with them.” There was something about Jesus’ message that caused “tax collectors and sinners to draw near to listen to Jesus,” and the Pharisees were right, He welcomed them. Not only did He make them feel welcome, He chose one as one of His intimate circle of friends (Matthew), and chose another (Zacchaeus) to invite Himself to his house for dinner. To draw such a diverse crowd Jesus surely manifested the unconditional love of God, not only in what He said, but also in how He acted. The Pharisees were incapable of moving beyond their preconceived narrow understanding of what the Law required of them. Life was simply divided into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned,’ and the Pharisees proudly considered themselves the gatekeepers of who would be the recipients of God’s love and who would be saved. A good Pharisee would never find himself in the company of “tax collectors and sinners,” and thus they were incapable of discovering how much they actually had in common with those they considered damned.
While none of our parables from Luke’s gospel today speak directly of sin, they all have a great deal to say about sin. And to make sure that the point of the parables is not lost on His listeners, Jesus all but directly tells His audience what the parables are all about. The benign and familiar details of the shepherd in the first parable of the lost sheep were not just saying something about shepherding. It is in the joy of finding the lost sheep that Jesus reminds His listeners that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous people who [think they] have no need of repentance.” And the parable of the lost coin, as happy as the woman is at finding it, becomes not so much about the real value of the coin, but more about the “rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” The parables are about lost souls who are found, who turn around their lives through repentance, and who are welcomed into heaven.
The third, and perhaps most famous parable in Luke’s chapter 15, is the parable commonly referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, even though both sons seem to be hopelessly lost and the focus of the parable is really on the father, who displays such heavenly traits that He is easily viewed as our Heavenly Father, God. The younger son gets himself hopelessly lost, thinking that a premature share in his inheritance will make him happy. Instead, he squanders his inheritance on a “life of dissipation,” and quickly comes to “his senses” that his father’s workers that he left behind had more than enough to eat and were so much happier than he was. His hunger provides the opportunity for a true conversion experience when he decides to tell his 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.” His father, like God, was on the lookout for and desirous of his son’s repentance, and like the joy we saw in the previous two parables, his inclination is to throw a party, have a celebration because the son “who was dead has come back to life,” the son “who was lost has been found.”
The third parable leaves us with a bit of unfinished business, for it is unclear if the older son, who is lost in resentment and jealousy, ever has a conversion experience and realizes how selfish and sinful he is being. Indeed, it is sin that connects all the lost things in today’s gospel, it is sin, or the awareness of sin, which is a prerequisite for being saved. There is no joy in the “ninety-nine righteous people who [they think] have no need of repentance,” because they lack the self-awareness which reminds them of their need to be saved. Paul in our second reading reminds us that “Christ came into the world to save sinners,” and Paul was such a valuable instrument in God’s hands because he knew at one time “he was a blasphemer and a persecutor [of Christians] and arrogant;” Paul knew he was sinful, he knew he wanted to be saved, and he knew he could not do that by himself.
Before he came down that mountain in today’s first reading, Moses knew that the people in his care were sinful, and he recognized that he too was sinful and undeserving of God’s care, which is why he implored a God intent on destroying His people, to be patient with His people and spare them.
The one commonality in all of our readings is sin. It afflicts Moses and the chosen people, it afflicts Paul, the pillar of the church, and it afflicts all those who are lost to God for whatever reason. It is no accident that even our celebration of Mass begins with a penitential rite which reminds us that we are sinful, and in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. It is our conversion, our repentance, our turning towards the Lord, that will bring true joy to all the heavenly hosts. With the psalmist we pray: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness if your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.” For, “a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn,” just like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son!