Sunday Homily – 24th Sunday C
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
All through his days on earth, Jesus shows pastoral care for all sorts of people. But he has a special affection for poor people. He has special loving care even for extortionists and prostitutes. His opponents sneer: ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (Lk 15:2).
The warmth and generosity of his human caring and welcome are signs of the warmth and generosity of God’s warmth and welcome. Especially by sharing meals with them, Jesus is saying that in the eyes of God they are not ‘rejects’, ‘outcasts‘, losers’, and ‘no-hopers’. On the contrary, God wants to put them back together again. So, in and through Jesus, those labelled the ‘lost’ (Luke 15), come to meet the God of the lost. It is for their sake and in their defence, that Jesus speaks his famous parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.
The story of the lost son has been called the greatest short story ever told. It is not really the parable of a prodigal, i.e., of a spendthrift, as it is usually called, but the parable of an incredibly generous father of two sons (see v.11), who in different ways have both lost their way in life.
For Jesus, any persons who have strayed from God are not truly themselves. Amid his failures and mistakes the lost son comes to understand that he will be happy again only in the company and home of his father. Meanwhile, his father is waiting for him to return, and as soon as he catches a glimpse of him he runs along the road to meet him and hug him (v.20).
When they reach the house, the father cuts short the son’s prepared speech. There is no reprimand, not even a small dose of ‘I told you so …’ There is no pay-back, no penance, no punishment, and no recriminations. Instead, the father is so glad to have his son back with him again that he gives him the robe of honour, the ring of authority, and the sandals of a son. He just doesn’t take the boy back. He welcomes him home with affection. All is forgiven.
The Pharisees, to whom Jesus was telling this story, would have been shocked to the core at the way Jesus was keeping company with people who were not only outsiders but sinners, contact with whom would bring defilement. In a sadistic way, they were looking forward to the destruction of those whom they so easily and so self-righteously labelled ‘sinners’
The parable tells us a great deal about Jesus himself. His own way of acting is the starting point of the story. He is explaining why he ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (v.2). They are the lost ones, the ones he is bringing home to God.
At the sound of music and dancing the eldest son comes in from the fields. His father goes out to him and pleads with him to come to the party (v.38). This eldest son believes he has done everything ‘right’, and has spent his whole life slaving away on the family farm. His attitude to his wayward brother is one of utter contempt. He even refers to the prodigal as ‘your son’, not ‘my brother’. His anger that his wayward brother has been fully welcomed back into the family with a big party is understandable but unacceptable. For one thing, as the eldest son, he was due to inherit double the amount of property his father gave the youngest.
In the details of his story, Jesus is saying that our God is not a mean book-keeping God at all, but a warm, gracious, and generous Father who never stops loving simply because he never stops wanting to save. Jesus is reminding us that while justice is good, it is good only up to a point. One step further and it becomes cold and even out of control. Do those people among us, if there are any, who are hell-bent on strict justice for offenders want them to change their ways? Don’t they somehow feel that offenders are getting away with their offences and escaping their just desserts? Perhaps what they really want for those who have done wrong is to suffer all possible consequences of their wrong-doing, and forever.
As soon as we hear the words, ‘A father had two sons’, we begin to be moved by this image of God as a tender, loving, and forgiving father, wanting nothing but the best for us. God’s care and concern for every single one of us are so great and so personal that God cannot bear the thought of losing even one of us. No matter how often we may turn our backs on God and go away to do our own thing, God, like the father in the story, waits patiently for us to come to our senses and return home. The moment that we begin to wake up to ourselves and admit that our selfishness has brought us only frustration, misery, and guilt, like the father in the story, God starts searching for us. The moment God catches sight of us, he comes running to embrace us and take us back. There he treats us not as our mistakes and sins deserve, but with tenderness and compassion. In the Eucharist, he even throws a party and lavishes ‘welcome home’ gifts upon us – Christ himself in his body and blood.
We might wonder what happened to the two sons in the end. The parable does not say. What it does tell us is where can find God. God is to be found in every place and in every situation where we sense God saying: ‘Come back to me with all your heart’. One special place for finding our God of mercy and compassion is at our Sunday Eucharist. The Eucharistic meal is not a nice gathering of the pure, the respectable, the saved, and the honest. It is rather a sacrificial meal of reconciliation, repentance, and forgiveness for imperfect and struggling Christians like you and me. By celebrating the presence of Jesus, the ‘friend of sinners’, by hearing his word and receiving him in Holy Communion, we are cleansed, purified, forgiven, and strengthened. So, our communion with him is not a reward for being good. It is a means of becoming good because it is a sign and source of mercy and healing from God.
In providing this reading today, our Church invites us to look again at how we think of God. Is God for us the loving and merciful father waiting for us to come home that Jesus told us about? Or do we think of God as some kind of eye in the sky, or some kind of heavenly accountant, ready to pounce on us for even our slightest and smallest mistakes? God is easier in judging than we are, and is ready and willing to forgive the faults, mistakes, and sins of others, even when we are not. No wonder, then, that St Paul of the Cross, Founder of the Passionists, as an old man looking back on his life, said this: ‘If I had my life over again, I would go through this world, preaching nothing but the mercy of God!’
Brian Gleeson is a Passionist priest, and a member of the Passionist community in Endeavour Hills, Melbourne.