TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
All three readings speak of sin and God’s mercy. In the first reading, God shows mercy to the rebellious Israelites in response to Moses’ intercession. In the second reading, Paul names three of his sins and also speaks of God’s mercy. In the Gospel, Jesus presents us with three parables, all of which speak of God’s mercy.
FIRST READING: EXODUS 32:7-11, 13-14
Our first reading today puts us in touch with the rhythm of sin and mercy, which pervades both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Israelites are like the Prodigal Son in today’s Gospel―both turn their backs on God. Today’s reading picks up the story after the “dastardly deed” has been done. The molten calf has been built and the rebellious people, led by Moses’ brother Aaron, have offered sacrifice to their god. This incident is a metaphor for Israel’s relationship with God. They were a people who constantly disobeyed and rebelled against God.
The author of Exodus portrays God as filled with righteous anger for the rebellious Israelites. He even wants to disown them. In his dialogue with Moses, he calls them “your” people. Moses, the “Great Negotiator,” gives God two reasons why he should not destroy the Israelites. First, he reminds God that these are not his (Moses’) people―they are God’s. So why does he want to destroy his own people? Then Moses appeals to God for the promises he had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. How could he renege on those promises? God finally listens to Moses and relents on his threat to punish the people.
SECOND READING: 1Timothy 1:1-17
This is the first of seven readings we will hear in the coming Sundays from Paul’s two letters to Timothy. It fits in perfectly with the theme of mercy found in the first and third readings. Paul tells us that prior to his conversion, he was a blasphemer (for rejecting Christ), a persecutor of Christians, and arrogant― three hefty sins. But God had mercy on him. If God had mercy on Paul, the “worst of sinners,” surely he will have mercy on all wrongdoers, some of whom may consider themselves beyond the pale of God’s mercy.
GOSPEL: Luke 15:1-32
The lost sheep and the lost coin are parallel stories (the second, unique to Luke): one image of God is male (the shepherd), the other female (the woman whose coin is lost). In both, great care is taken to find what is lost. The tenderness of the shepherd, expressed in the detail of taking the sheep on his shoulders, further indicates the loving nature of the search and find. Each parable concludes with a joyful communal celebration. The celebration is not an after-thought, but an integral part of the lesson of the parables. The reconciliation of the lost is naturally portrayed not as an exercise of grim duty, but as something that delights the heart of God―and can be expected to delight the friends of God as well. This theme is carried through the parable of the prodigal son which elaborates all of these features in rich detail.
The last parable brings a new twist as the elder brother strongly reacts to the affection shown by his father to his returning son. When the elder brother’s anger and jealousy keep him away from the feast, the father likewise goes out to him, and in the conversation, the elder son reveals the depth of his resentment towards his brother. He refers to him not as “my brother” but “that son of yours” (a point which the father gently corrects). He harps on his younger brother’s sins, alleging, for instance, his involvement with “loose women” (nowhere mentioned in the story).
Most poignant of all is his revelation of his feeling of alienation from his father. “All these years I slaved for you,” he says. Son though he is and sharing in all that his father owns, he nevertheless feels like a slave rather than a son.
The religious leaders, embittered by Jesus’ teaching that repentant sinners will enter the kingdom ahead of those who have kept the law, are likened to the character of the elder brother. The father’s response is judicious and practical: he is generous with the elder, but will not abandon the younger. All are invited to the feast. Our Church, especially through the sacrament of Reconciliation, continues Christ’s ministry of reconciling sinners to God and others.
In the Gospel, God is imaged as a shepherd, as a woman, and as a father. Which image speaks to you best and why?