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24th SUNDAY of Year (c). September 11th 2016

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Searching for the lost sheep and the prodigal son today

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Exodus 32:7-11 13-14). The Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. This passage is chosen for today’s liturgy to go with the Gospel reading with the parables of the search for the lost sheep and of the prodigal son. The passage speaks of God’s concern not to destroy his people, even after their sin of idolatry and practical apostasy. It is well to set this reading in its larger biblical context. After the exodus from Egypt God made a covenant with Israel and through Moses gave them his law and the commandments. The first of these commandments was profession of faith in the Lord God of Israel alone as God, an invisible God with a complete ban on any graven image or likeness of god in any form. Then Moses spent forty days and forty nights with the Lord on Mount Sinai, with a few chosen persons, while the people waited at the foot of the mountain, with Aaron, Moses’ brother. Monotheism, worship of an unseen god, with or without images, is not easy at any time. It was much more difficult in the polytheistic setting of Moses’ day. The people grew impatient at Moses’ absence and asked Aaron to make them a god, or gods, who would go before them, that is visible symbols of the divine presence as in pagan idolatry, with which they would have been familiar. Aaron made them a molten golden calf, more precisely a young male calf or young bull, which was a fertility symbol in the nature religions of the ancient Near East. The Northern Kingdom of Israel would later erect such statues, as symbols of the God of Israel at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12:28). God threatened to destroy Israel for their apostasy, but relented due to Moses’ plea and intercession on their behalf.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 50[51]). I will leave this place and go to my father.

Second Reading (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. For the next seven Sundays the second readings with be from the First and Second Letters to Timothy. These, with the Letter to Titus, are known as the Pastoral Letters, and this because they address matters of general pastoral care. In this, and in many other ways, they differ from the other Pauline letters. They differ in vocabulary, in style, in theology and in matters of Church governance. They seem to reflect a situation in Church life representing a generation after the apostolic age, and are probably from a disciple of Paul rather from the apostle himself. They represent the heritage of Paul, the continuation of Paul’s spirit and are written in his name, as if he himself were still speaking and addressing his message to the Church in new situations. In the verse immediately preceding the present reading Paul speaks of the “glorious gospel of the blessed God” with which he has been entrusted. He thanks God for this and for the strength he has given him for his ministry, and for the vocation as apostle despite his early life as persecutor of the Church. The grace of God filled him with faith, and with love for God and the Church. Timothy and the early church would have been well aware of all this already. Paul then introduces a statement he wishes to stress by a phrase which occurs four other times in the Pastoral Letters and nowhere else (1 Timothy 3:1; 4:9; 2 Timothy 2:11; Titus 3:8): “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance”, generally, but not always used before a dogmatic statement. The statement in question here is that Christ came into the world to save sinners. To this Paul adds that he himself is the greatest of these sinners. He can be taken as a model for all generations of the sinner pardoned generously by God. Jesus Christ had intended Paul the pardoned sinner to serve for all future believers as the greatest evidence of God’s inexhaustible patience. This reflection leads Paul to a liturgical–type of prayer giving honour and glory to God.

The Gospel (Luke 15:1-32). There will be rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner. The introductory verse gives the setting for these three parables. Jesus was known for his kindness to the marginalized, and for this reason his company was sought out by the tax collectors (or more exactly toll collectors) and sinners. The sinners in question were most probably lapsed Jews, who paid little or no heed to the attitudes and regulations believed to be required for proper observance of the covenant requirements. The tax or toll collectors were marginalized for a twofold reason, presumed dishonesty in exacting over the required amount for the own benefit, and cooperation in tax collection for a foreign power. These came to hear Jesus teach and preach. It was also widely known that he dined willingly with them. Dining at meals was an accepted way of manifesting union among the guests, and was for Jews a foretaste of the great expected messianic feast. The guardians of presumed covenant values in particular were the Pharisees and the scribes (learned in, and teachers of, the Jewish law). Their concern about, or objection to, Jesus’ practice from one point of view is understandable. Not from that of the heavenly Father or of Jesus, who in three parables makes the clear point that the heavenly Father’s immense love and understanding goes far beyond their limited concerns. It was not a question that the heavenly Father’s love for the lost and prodigal meant that as a remedy “anything goes”. All his concern was to restore to full communion with himself, through ultimate repentance. The fact of being found, and the returning, were in themselves repentance.

            The parables are the finding, first of one out of a hundred, then one out of ten, and the return of one out of two. The parables are in good part self-explanatory. The drachma was equivalent to the denarius, a workman’s daily wage. The parable of the two sons, the lost (prodigal) and the dutiful mirrors the position of those to whom the parable is addressed: the lost (prodigal) the “sinners” of the parable, who neglected the Jewish law and the narrow tradition of the scribes and Pharisees; the dutiful son, who always obeyed his father mirroring the scribes and Pharisees in their attention to the observance of the Law. The parable has as background a rather affluent farming family. The understanding father acquiesced to the foolish request or demand of the younger son and gave him his portion of the estate. The younger, prodigal, son squandered his money on debauchery, and apparently also abandoned his Jewish religion, as he ended up penurious in pagan territory feeding pigs, animals forbidden to Jews. The changed situation brought him to his senses, and to a recognition that the inheritance with his father which he had abandoned was preferable the situation he had drawn on himself. He would say to his father that he had sinned “against heaven”, a popular religious Jewish way of saying “against God”, omitting direct mention of the divine name. Stress is laid on the loving concern of the father, who ignores all accepted niceties and protocol to welcome his lost son home, in this mirroring the love of the heavenly Father. The reaction of the older son to these elaborate celebrations for his fugitive brother’s return is quite understandable, and is so recognized by the father of them both. The father’s explanation mirrors that of the heavenly Father, recognizing his elder son’s faithful service while noting that there are occasions indicating that one should go beyond such legitimate considerations. The joy of the earthly father on the return of the lost son reflects the joy in heaven, the joy of God and of the angels, over the return of a single repentant person, a return to their true inheritance from a lost existence.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Searching for the lost sheep and the prodigal son today

It was once easy to identify “lost sheep” and have a ministry to them. They were lapsed, or non-practising, Catholics. Certain zealous members of some Catholic organizations might seek them out and attempt to bring them back to the practice of there faith. They might also be visited by preachers during parish missions. Matters are notably different in our own day. Many Catholics give up the practice of their religion at an early date. Some are just “lapsed” and go no further, remaining believers to a greater or lesser degree. But together with these there is now a growing denial of belief in God, and a tendency to make this denial public, as if such belief were incompatible with a truly human life. And with this goes denial of belief in any afterlife. This explicit denial can be pronounced among the literati and learned class. It is not new, and has in history tended to accompany high points in physics and literature. We have a good example of it in the biblical Book of Wisdom (2:2-3), composed about 30 B.C., where the ungodly are made to say: “the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is kindled by the beating of our hearts. When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air”. For believers, the loving Father in heaven continues to address his saving message to all these, and it will be for believers to make this message known as befits each occasion. Rejection, real or apparent, of the Church among the young can come about from a variety of causes. With these in mind, it is good to pay attention to surveys done on the attitude of the young towards the Catholic faith. Some of their difficulties arise from an incorrect understanding of certain points of doctrine, such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or in consecrated hosts. The task of bringing the message of God’s loving concern to the many groups in our own day is a daunting one, but not one to despair of, since the chief agent at work will be none other than God, the loving Father and Jesus Christ present in our world in a variety of ways.