24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, 15 September 2019
First reading: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Psalm: 50(51):3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
Second reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Gospel: Luke 15:1-32
Part of the Gospel for today, at least in its longer form, Luke 15:1-32, we have heard already this year on the 5th Sunday of Lent. The three parables involved (the Parables of the Lost) are so central to Christian understanding that it is no harm that people should hear and reflect on them more than once a year. All three cohere around a central theme: the character of God in the face of human moral failure.
CLASSIC HUMAN FAILURE
The First Reading, from Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14, describes a classic instance of human failure in the Old Testament: Israel’s apostasy and rebellion in the incident of the Golden Calf. To be more precise, it describes the interaction between God and Moses in view of that behaviour.
Faced with God’s intent to destroy the people Moses “reminds” God of the act of deliverance of the people from Egypt and the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to make their descendants as many as the stars of heaven. What emerges from the passage is a sense that the character of God as a God of righteous wrath yields to that of a God of boundless generosity, mercy, and faithfulness to promise. The latter is Israel’s fundamental sense of God.
The Second Reading, from 1 Timothy 1:12-17, has Paul reflecting on his own personal experience and the knowledge of God he came to acquire through that. Conscious of his past history as a persecutor of the followers of Jesus and of the immensity of the turnaround in his life when the grace of Christ took hold of him, Paul portrays himself as a model or paradigm of God’s entire outreach to a sinful humanity. He has been made “the greatest evidence of God’s inexhaustible patience for all who would come to believe in him for eternal life”. Paul’s whole mission is energised by this personal discovery of the nature of God.
The parables making up the Gospel for today, then come as the crowning representation of this revelation of God. They are rightly described as the “Parables of the Lost” because in each case the focus falls on a person who loses something precious and responds in a way that is at once foolish and extravagant.
The owner of the sheep leaves 90 of them to fend for themselves while he goes after the one sheep that is lost; the woman turns her house upside down to find a small coin. In each case, there follows a summons to communal celebration. In the third parable, the father, a middle-aged man with a large household, runs out to welcome home, with great display of affection, a son who has coldly demanded his share of the family fortune and then gone on to ruin and disgrace the family. Once again, a celebration must follow – this time on a grand scale, involving the slaughter of the calf specially fattened for just such an occasion.
RECOVERY OF HUMAN LIVES
This sense of celebration addresses the context in which Jesus tells all three parables. He tells them as a defence against the criticism he is receiving for the welcome he is giving to “tax collectors (social outcasts) and sinners” and his “eating with them”. His celebration of the “these lost ones being being “found” or “re-found” by God is nothing other than a reflection on earth of a much greater celebration going on in heaven (v. 7; v.10; vv. 23-24; v. 32).
In each case, then, the behaviour, response and attitude of the person who loses something precious images the behaviour, response, and attitude of God towards human beings “lost” through sin. Taken together, the parables show that the chief issue at stake is not so much sin and its forgiveness but the loss and recovery of human beings, who are so precious in God’s sight. The whole mission of Jesus is to reclaim human lives for God and to show people how much God values them by publicly celebrating that reclamation. The “foolishness” of each of the main actors in the parables images in some way the supreme “foolishness” of God’s love displayed, for that same purpose, in the Cross (cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25).
The third parable (the “Lost Son”) introduces a further character: the older brother, who reacts so angrily to his father’s reinstatement of his brother to full status as son. His attitude shows the difficulty human beings have in coming to terms with such a vision of God. Conver-sion is not just a matter of turning from overt acts of sin. It can also – perhaps even more radically – mean confronting one’s own anger and resentment at God’s unbounded generosity to others. The older brother did not think his younger sibling deserved to be treated so indulgently. But what human beings might or might not “deserve” does not control the action of God.