Sep 15, 2019: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – 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.

Today’s first reading reports a dramatic exchange between God and Moses.

Throughout the Exodus from Egypt, God’s people complained nearly constantly.  A few examples:

  • They complained that the pursuing Egyptians were going to overtake and kill them;
  • They complained that they didn’t have enough to eat;
  • When God gave them manna to eat, they complained about the monotonous taste;
  • They complained that they didn’t have enough water (so God gave them water from the rock);
  • They complained that the inhabitants of the Promised Land would be too strong for them.

Now, when Moses was on Mount Sinai (conversing with God and receiving the Ten Commandments), they complained that Moses had abandoned them, so they molded a calf-idol.  This was the first violation of their covenant with God.

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.

God seems to be disowning the Israelites for their infidelity, referring to them as Moses’ people, whom Moses brought out of Egypt.

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!’

In the ancient Near East, it was common practice to construct images of gods for purposes of worship.  In the verses immediately preceding today’s reading, it’s clear that the golden calf was intended as an image, not of a false god, but of the Lord himself, his strength being symbolized by a young bull.  The Israelites, however, had been forbidden to represent the Lord under any visible form (Exodus 20:4), and indeed the calf itself became for them an idol.  They wrongly perceived it as the god who brought them out of Egypt.

I see how stiff-necked this people is,” continued the LORD to Moses.

The stiff-necked description is of an ox or mule that will not respond to the tug of a rope around its neck; it resists by stiffening its neck.  This is a colorful way of describing stubbornness, but it also debases the person being described by comparing them with plow animals.

“Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.”

Judging the people to be an impossible lot, God considers destroying them and beginning anew with a people that springs from Moses.

Note that this is the same promise that was made to Abraham in Genesis 12:2.  This would have been a tremendous blessing for him.

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?

It is probably here more than anywhere else that the greatness of Moses is seen.  Rather than accept God’s amazing offer, Moses pleads for the preservation of the people of whom he is a member.

Moses’ appeal is twofold, first insisting that the Israelites are God’s very own special people.  They are the people God brought out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, amid signs and wonders — it would be a shame to destroy them now.

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.’”

Moses then appeals to the promises God made to the ancestors of the Israelites.  God promised to make their descendants, not Moses’ descendants, a great and numerous people and to bring them into a land that was to be theirs forever.  How could God possibly break those promises?

So the LORD relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.

As the story is told, Moses is successful in his defense of the sinful people, and God relents. The lesson of the story is clear: God refrains from destroying sinners, not because sinners deserve to live, but because God is faithful to God’s promises to love and protect.  What began as a story of a people’s sinfulness became a story of God’s forgiveness.

Of course God doesn’t actually get angry or change his mind.  This is an example of anthropopathism, ascribing human emotions to God. In our efforts to understand God, we have to use human language to show his passionate involvement in the lives of the people.

Depicting God in human ways has both advantages and disadvantages.  On the one hand, it brings God very close to our own reality.  On the other, it saddles God with our limitations.  In order to portray Moses as an unselfish mediator between God and the people, God is depicted in a less than flattering manner.  Still, God does listen to the entreaty of Moses; God does relent; God does give the people another chance.  How else but through anthropopathism can we depict the passion God has for us?

God’s forgiveness on Mount Sinai and his acceptance of a sinful people foreshadowed what Jesus would do and teach, as we will see in both of the other readings for this week.

2nd Reading – 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Beloved:
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.

We now begin a three-week study of 1st Timothy, which will be followed by a four-week study of 2nd Timothy.  Today’s short reading is a bold statement about the mercy of God toward sinners.  It shows Paul to be full of gratitude over the great mystery of mercy by which he, an arrogant and fierce persecutor of Christians, had been forgiven.

Paul’s two letters to Timothy are called pastoral letters because they are written to the pastor of the church at Ephesus. They contain a series of rules and recommendations for the good government of the community, whose members are mostly Gentile. The first letter, which we hear from today, was written from Macedonia around 66 AD.

Beloved: I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry.

Paul begins with an expression of gratitude for God’s goodness, giving personal testimony that demonstrates its extent.

The statement about being considered trustworthy sounds a little like bragging without realizing the context: God’s forgiveness included trust.  When people forgive, they often won’t trust the forgiven again. After totally forgiving Paul, God appointed him to a huge service in his Church.

I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, 

Paul previously had denied everything he had heard about Christ; he hunted down Christians and stood in judgment over them. This is offered as evidence that his call to serve Christ was unmerited and unsolicited.

but I have been mercifully treated

Paul is the perfect example of one who deserves punishment at the hands of God; however, the opposite occurred and he was treated mercifully.

(Paul’s former life has many similarities to the Pharisees and the scribes from today’s Gospel reading.)

because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.

This should not be taken as an excuse for his behavior, but rather a suggestion that only the grace of God could help him see the truth.

Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Because he sinned grievously, though in ignorance, the grace bestowed upon Paul had to be abundant. Accordingly, the effects of that grace in his life (faith and love) have also been abundant.

This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

His instruction continues with a pronouncement of the trustworthiness of the statement he is about to make, in which he maintains that redemption was the reason for the incarnation.

In other words, the merciful love of God toward sinners prompted the coming of Christ Jesus into the world.

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.

Paul’s example is “foremost,” a primary instance of the transforming power of grace.

Note that he does not dwell on guilt or remorse. The allusion to his sinful past only serves to illustrate the gratuity of God’s mercy. The greater his own failure, the more remarkable is God’s success in him.  In fact, according to Paul that is the very reason God took the prominent persecutor and transformed him into an apostle: his own change of heart reveals the breadth of Christ’s patience.

To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

These reflections prompt Paul to praise God in a short doxology.

This blessing is composed of several divine epithets, all of which originated in the Jewish tradition:

  • The title “king of ages” was probably taken from synagogue worship — the Greek expression could mean “everlasting king” or “king of the universe”;
  • “Incorruptible” is a term found in the literature of Hellenistic Judaism;
  • “Invisible” is an attribute retrieved from the earliest Israelite traditions.
  • Lastly, the basis of Israelite monotheism is the claim that there is only one God, and the God to whom all these characteristics belong deserves honor and glory forever.

Gospel – 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.’”

Our gospel reading today encompasses all of Chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel.  With three parables, Christ teaches us how God’s mercy defies human expectations and restrictions.

God’s mercy, indeed, is as foolish as a shepherd who abandons ninety-nine sheep to save one, as a woman who turns her house upside down to recover a paltry sum, and as a Jewish father who joyfully welcomes home his wasteful son who has become a Gentile.

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain,

In the opening lines of the chapter, lines are drawn between the scribes and Pharisees, who were considered righteous religious leaders, and tax collectors and sinners, who were social outcasts.

saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Whereas to us it may seem that Jesus was simply being friendly, in the culture of Jesus’ time, sharing food together was a way of showing acceptance of one another.  The scribes and Pharisees are implying that Jesus’ association with unclean outcasts contaminated him. Jesus, however, knew that closeness with his human presence changes sinners into saints.  He took this as a teaching opportunity to show that the reign of God is open to all.

Knowing the audience to whom Jesus speaks and the criticism to which he is responding is important context for the parables that follow; we need this information in order to interpret the parables correctly.

So to them he addressed this parable.

He illustrates God’s care for outcasts by means of three stories, all about recovering something that is lost.

Parables are intended to call their audience to self-knowledge and conversion.  Jesus wants the Pharisees and scribes to understand that when Jesus eats and drinks with them he is eating and drinking with sinners.

“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.’

Jesus depicts the extravagant solicitude of a shepherd in order to demonstrate the extent to which God will go to rescue even one lost individual.  Shepherds were poor and could not afford to lose even a single sheep.

Matthew 18:12-14 also gives the parable of the lost sheep. Matthew emphasizes seeking, Luke the joy of finding.

By comparing the shepherd in the story with the audience (“what man among you…?”), Jesus is pointing out that they too would try to find that which they have lost and would rejoice when they found it.

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.

It’s not that the shepherd cares less for the ninety-nine who were not lost, but that repentance generates more joy in heaven and among the angels than does faithfulness.

“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it?

It wasn’t difficult to lose a coin in a house of that time. Houses were often built into the side of a hill; they were dark, being lit by one window (which was small, the better to keep out the elements at a time before glass was used for windows).  Houses had floors of hard earth covered with dried reeds.

Despite its small value, the woman might have needed it to feed her family.  Or perhaps it had great sentimental value because it was one of the ten little coins she received on the day of her marriage and wore on her forehead.

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.’ 

Note the parallels with the first parable:  extravagant effort spent to find the one lost coin, and again, joy upon finding that cannot be contained.  In both cases, they invite their friends and neighbors over to celebrate.  Like the woman, the Pharisees and scribes would rejoice if they found what they had lost.

In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

These two stories went against the tradition, which never conceived of a God who went out to search for sinners.

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.

The parable has a double focus: it is clearly about the mercy God shows to repentant sinners, and it also contrasts God’s openness to sinners with the close-mindedness of those who consider themselves faithful (i.e., the Pharisees and the scribes).

The estate was not necessarily divided only upon the death of the father. The inheritance was usually given when the son married, when he needed it the most. The eldest son received a double portion, so the younger brother would have received a third.

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.

There is no question about the depraved nature of the younger son’s behavior.  He not only abandons his father’s home, but his entire country, and embarks 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.

Not only does he attach himself to a Gentile (a disgrace for a Jew), he is reduced to tending swine, an occupation forbidden by the law.  Adding to this, he longs to eat what the pigs eat.  Here is a kosher boy, in a pig sty, envying the food of an animal that was itself not fit to be good. He has hit rock bottom.

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.’”

The younger son’s repentance is as sweeping as was his disgrace.  He recognizes his sinfulness with full contrition and is willing to relinquish any filial claims if he can only be treated as one of his father’s hired workers.  He does not feel superior to anyone.

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.

This is very undignified behavior for an elderly Oriental gentleman: he disregards convention and runs out to welcome his son home. The picture is of the father constantly checking the road for some sign of his son and immediately recognizing him even at a great distance.

His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’

The younger son makes it clear that he is willing to spend the rest of his life in penance.

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.

  • Finest robe: a manner of dressing that befits his status as son;
  • Ring: a token of honor and authority;
  • Sandals: the mark of a freeman, since only slaves went barefoot.

Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.

The fattened calf was reserved only for very special occasions.

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.

The father had many options for how to respond to his son: he could scold him, demand an apology, be condescendingly accepting, disown him, or demand that he make restitution by working as a hired hand.  This last option is what both the son and Jesus’ audience expected.

But the father chose forgiveness.

The father does not welcome him back as a barefooted servant, but as a son, hosting a lavish feast in his honor.  The forgiveness is total, with the father offering to treat the son’s sins as though they had never happened.

Nothing speaks of the radical nature of Jesus’ message more than his teachings on forgiveness.  Forgiveness is the final form of love, and wholehearted forgiveness is so loving that it’s God-like.

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.

The father is no less attentive to the older brother, coming out to plead with him.  This is quite contrary to the traditional patriarchal image of fatherhood — he is neither domineering nor disinterested.

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.’

The elder son resents his father’s unrestrained joyous treatment of the errant one.  Just as the younger son had formerly repudiated his family, so this son refuses to participate in a family affair: his jealousy prevents him from understanding how his father can do so much to celebrate the return of the sinful child, which separates him from the joy his family feels.

Note that the elder brother refers to the younger as “your son,” and not “my brother.”

Also, the verb used here for “I served you” is douleúō, which indicates that he has served his father like a slave.

This scene with the older brother is not an afterthought; it returns us to the opening verses, which describe the Pharisees and the scribes.  As the Pharisees and scribes listened to this story, they would have identified with the older brother. Like the elder brother, they lack compassion, and they seem to resent the fact that God is merciful toward sinners who repent.  They feel that since they have obeyed the law, they are better than those who have not. They want sinners named as sinners and marginalized as sinners — they certainly don’t want sinners invited to the banquet, much less have them be the guests of honor.

This is all the more interesting when taken in context of our first reading: God had shown mercy after their own ancestors had “become depraved” at the base of Mount Sinai.

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.’”

Even after the elder brother’s angry outburst, the father still addresses him affectionately, assuring him of his inheritance. Note that he respects the decisions of both of his sons, even when he disagrees with them.  When it becomes clear that they have been mistaken, he forgives them.

This startling new picture of fatherhood becomes a metaphor for understanding God.  God’s mercy is so great that man cannot grasp it.

However, Jesus is not only teaching a new perspective on God’s love.  He is teaching the Pharisees and scribes that they too are sinners. Their inability to love their brothers is a sin.  The effect of their attitude will not be to exclude other sinners from the banquet, but to exclude themselves.

Note that the father invites both sons, both sinners, to the banquet. Note also that the story actually has no ending: We do not know if the older brother accepts this invitation, repents, and joins the party…. or if he nurses his self-righteousness outside.  It’s left open as a challenge, to both Jesus’ audience and to us: will we go in or stay outside?

Connections and Themes

This Sunday we temporarily pause our contemplation of discipleship and meditate on the character of God and the nature of Christ.

The search. So often we say that we are searching for God.  In a sense such a search is futile because we are really not sure what we are looking for.  And if we are sure, then it probably is not God for whom we are searching.  Besides, we do not really “find” God.  Rather, God is revealed to us.  What is so shocking about this is that the God who is ultimately revealed is a God we never would have thought of seeking.  The God who spoke to Moses is pained by the depravity of the people yet moved to show them mercy.  Who could ever have imagined such a God?  The God depicted in the gospel actually searches for what is lost.  He seems to abandon the safe ones for the sake of the one who has strayed.  The woman goes to great lengths to find one coin.  As a spurned yet loving father, God patiently waits until we have come to our senses.  Who could ever have conceived of such a God?

It isn’t enough that God chooses to enter into covenant with us.  Our God is foolishly consumed with an insatiable desire to reestablish a relationship with us after we have turned our backs on him.  What is it about us that makes us so desirable?  The answer, of course, is that it has less to do with us than with the magnanimous character of God.  It is almost as if unconditional love is not simply a characteristic of God, but God’s very essence — and no human frailty or depravity can change this.

God’s celebration.  In the gospel reading, the jubilant father graced his son with fine clothing and all the trappings of a sumptuous banquet.  Once our covenant relationship has been re-established, what blessings does God bestow upon us?  The first is mercy, the intimate love of a parent.  It’s almost as if God’s rejection of us would be like rejecting part of his very self.  This mercy compels God to forgive us as totally as God forgave the perfidious Israelites and as the loving father forgave the chastened and repentant son. God’s mercy and forgiveness take the form of freedom from slavery, and if not slavery from Egypt, certainly slavery from evil impulses, from addictions and habits that can destroy us.  The younger son left his dissolute life behind him.  The elder brother could have been freed from envy and resentment had he opened his heart to the loving concern of his father.

The celebration that follows the return of the lost nation, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, is open to all who will attend.  And who will they be?  Only those who admit they are sinners and who repent of their sin will recognize the need to celebrate. Those who have no sin to repent have no reason to rejoice.  Only those who share the joy of God in the repentance of others will recognize the need to celebrate.  Those who envy the celebration or who harbor resentment because of God’s mercy will have no reason to rejoice.

Through Christ.  Paul insists it is through Christ that all of this is accomplished.  It is through the sacrifice of Christ that the depraved are forgiven, that sinners are saved, that the lost are found.  It is through Christ that we are sought by God, and Christ is the very gift of mercy, the forgiveness of our sins, the celebration of our return.  Paul is overwhelmed by God’s goodness to him through the agency of Christ Jesus.  He is the classic example of the forgiven sinner.  In his repentance he is a model for us to imitate.  He is certainly one over whom the angels of heaven rejoice.

And what of us?  Will we join in the celebration?

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