24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 11 September 2016

"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful"

Scripture Reading – Luke 15:1-32

The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. ‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he spoke this parable to them:

‘What man among you with a hundred sheep, losing one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the missing one till he found it? And when he found it, would he not joyfully take it on his shoulders and then, when he got home, call together his friends and neighbours? “Rejoice with me,” he would say “I have found my sheep that was lost.” In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous men who have no need of repentance.

‘Or again, what woman with ten drachmas would not, if she lost one, light a lamp and sweep out the house and search thoroughly till she found it? And then, when she had found it, call together her friends and neighbours? “Rejoice with me,” she would say “I have found the drachma I lost.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing among the angels of God over one repentant sinner.’

He also said, ‘A man had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.

‘When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating but no one offered him anything. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.” So he left the place and went back to his father.

‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.

‘Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.”

‘The father said, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”’

Gospel reading – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com

REFLECTION

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”

by Fr Arek Orzechowski

When we look at one of the pictures taken in Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, we can clearly see, that during the meeting with assassin Ali Agca, St. John Paul II smiles. Andre Frossard wrote about Pope’s behaviour: “he holds the arm of his interlocutor, as if he wanted him to hug each other. Hug and save.”

We can see a similar picture in today’s Gospel. Jesus teaches in parables about God the Father, who is looking for his children, and is delighted when he finds them. We can see the true and unconditional affection of God towards a man – and this is his mercy. It radiates from God’s fatherhood.

St. John Paul II wrote in one of his encyclicals, that God’s Mercy “is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and “restored to value.” The father first and foremost expresses to him his joy that he has been “found again” and that he has “returned to life. So mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man. Mercy is an especially creative proof of the love which does not allow itself to be “conquered by evil,” but overcomes “evil with good.

Each of us should learn from the father in the Jesus’ parable. We often pray “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those, who trespass against us…” …but we also have to remember about Jesus reminder:  “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”.

In the logic of God, mercy is not dependent on repentance and confession. These help us to receive God’s love. But God does not wait for our initiative to show us his forgiving love. God’s mercy is always unconditional and precedes our decisions. This is God’s love.

St. Mother Teresa said that “Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand”. It is up to us if we want to taste this fruit.

LECTIO DIVINA

by Fr Juan José Bartolomé SDB

Introduction to Lectio Divine

To the righteous people of the time it was unthinkable that Jesus should associate with sinners and eat with tax collectors. And they had good reasons for their way of thinking.  People who, because of their profession or disordered lifestyle, lived in “impure” situations, far from God, were not fit company for a man of God. To the scandal of the “good” people, Jesus not only did not avoid bad people, but he actually seemed to enjoy being with them. He must have had very good reasons to transgress the social rules and hurt the sensitivity of the more devout people. And indeed he had!  He clarified them at length in one of the finest discourses of the whole of the New Testament. In it he justified his strange behaviour by appealing to the will of God. While he defended himself from rebuke, he upset his accusers all the more by pointing out that in realty he was doing nothing different from the will of God. His way of acting is exactly the same as God’s way of acting. He spends time with the people that God wants to be with. He associates with the people that God would want to draw near to. The reason and inspiration for his way of dealing with sinners is God himself.

Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

Luke has created a scenario in which he puts together three parables grouped round one theme. The entire text is a literary masterpiece, which relates events in the lives of his listeners, rich in detail and with a single message: the joy that God finds when he forgives.

The context is stated briefly (Lk 15, 1-2). In it an episode from the ministry of Jesus, albeit one that was repeated often, is raised to the level of a habitual way of acting on the part of Jesus. Jesus spoke to people of ill repute and allowed them to accompany him.  This behaviour, obviously scandalized the ‘good’ people: “tell me your company and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Jesus’ response is not, strictly speaking, a direct reply. It is a long discourse built around parables. He defends his way of acting by telling three stories. Jesus wants to explain himself, but he does not justify himself. Instead, he speaks in a veiled manner about God and God’s preferences. Implicitly he is saying that by associating with sinners, Jesus is doing nothing other than what God wants, coming close to sinners if he can (but in one case this was not possible) and finding joy in forgiving them. The first two parables are symmetrical. They present two examples, from real life, of losing something – the shepherd who loses one of his hundred sheep (Lk 15, 3-7), and the woman who loses one of her ten coins (Lk 15,8-10). The loss leads to an anxious search.  Finding what was lost means much more than just restoring lost property. The finder is filled with joy at finding what was lost. This very human joy is a perfect example of the joy of God and of those who accompany him, the angels in heaven.

The third parable is developed much more. The main character is a father who had two sons, who were certainly very different from each other (Lk 15, 11-32). The first impoverished his father, depriving him of his patrimony and of his company.  Far away from his father, he squandered his goods and his life. Hungry and fearful of death, he “came to himself” and regained his father, though still at a distance. He rehearsed to himself what he would say to his father when he met him. His father did not even let him speak. It was enough that he had found his lost son and he ordered a great feast (Lk 15, 11-24). The elder son had stayed at home, working for his father. But he never felt free, nor did he feel like a son. He worked like a servant. He could not tolerate the feast for his brother, nor could he understand his father’s reasons (Lk 15, 25-32).  We do not know, because the author does not tell us, if he ever went in to the feast, if he accepted the newly returned wrongdoer as his brother, or if he shared the father’s joy. It was not the younger son who abandoned his father, but the one who had always served him, because in the end he refused to take part in the life of the family and his father’s wish to hold a feast.

Meditate: apply what the text says to life

Jesus explains his way of acting, not with plain statements, but in parables. He does not avoid the company of wrongdoers because he desires their good. He wants to bring them forgiveness and joy. The shepherd, the woman and the father feel the loss of what was theirs and the joy of finding it again. The joy of God will be no less. It is curious that this God of Jesus can feel the loss of what belongs to him, can suffer anxiety as he searches for it and rejoices when he find what was lost. In the sinner who returns to him, God not only finds the son who had left him, but rediscovers the joy he had lost when he lost what belonged to him. When someone comes back home, he brings joy to the family, like the son who came back in search of an employer but found instead a father ready to show his love and celebrate a feast.

What a beautiful, stupendous way God has of rejoicing! Anyone who has left God or even just lost sight of him will find joy when he returns. Not only that, but anyone who, like Jesus, seeks to bring back to God those who were lost, contributes to God’s joy.  Knowing what God is like obliges Jesus – and us – to live as God wants, even if this might cause a bad impression on people who regard themselves as good. God’s joy is far more precious than any criticism.

It will be difficult for us to understand the response of Jesus if we, even today, do not share the misunderstanding of those good people of his time in regard to his way of acting. Certainly, seeing him in bad company was not exactly edifying. It is hard to understand why he allowed people of such ill repute to accompany him both in public and in private, on the streets and at table. Like the ‘good ‘ people of his time, we get upset by the fact that Jesus prefers people who are not as good as we are, and who do not live by our standards. Like the people who criticized Jesus, we find it painful to see that people of doubtful reputation obtain favours more easily than those who make an effort to be really good. How is it that God continues to act better, or so it seems, with sinners than with people who have always been good?

Jesus answers by telling parables. The shepherd that has lost one sheep out of a hundred, and the woman who has lost one of her ten coins, and the father who sees his younger son leaving home, are images of God. They behave like God, both in the search and when they find what was lost, with the same anxiety over what was lost and with the same joy when it is found. Everyone knows that when we lose something of value, we immediately go in search of it. But is it normal to attach more importance to what we have lost than to what we still have, as the shepherd, the woman and the father did? Is that really how God acts? The shepherd left his flock in a not altogether safe place, not a very prudent thing to do! The woman stopped taking care of the house, again not exactly a clever thing to do! The father lived as if the only son he had was the one who had left him, which was not quite fair to the one who had stayed with him.

And yet, as much as we may not like it, and with the risk that we may not understand very well, that is how our God acts, according to Jesus.  He is more interested in finding what was lost than in keeping what he has. He does not mind leaving the rest of his flock to go in search of the one that is lost. He is less concerned about what he has than about what he is missing. He works harder to restore what is lost than he does to hold on to what he has. We would never have thought that God would behave in such an unusual and irrational way, if Jesus himself had not revealed it to us. If Jesus allowed sinners to accompany him, it was not that he was unaware of their wrongdoing, or that he overlooked it or made excuses for them. It was because he wanted to offer them the possibility of becoming good.

Jesus knew well that God’s greatest joy is the conversion of a sinner. Like the shepherd who rejoiced when he found the lost sheep, and went to share his joy with his friends; like the woman who could not hide her joy when she found the lost coin, and called her neighbours to rejoice with her; and like the father who, when the prodigal son returned home, filled the house with music and feasting, in the same way God rejoices for the return of any sinner. However unjustified it may seem to us, his fidelity to the people who have never left him does not stop him rejoicing at the return of someone who had strayed. When God finds one who was lost, he finds joy. When someone comes back to God, he is merely restoring to God what is his due, and God’s joy is so great that he cannot keep it to himself. Like the shepherd, the woman and the father, it is God who is the winner when he finds what was lost. He rediscovers his lost property and his joy.

This might seem an exaggeration, but it is so true!  If we believe the words of Jesus, like the father who welcomes back his lost son, God is happy when he is able to offer a home and all the good things that go with it, to one who had left home and squandered his property, and now acknowledges that he or she is unworthy of God. The sheep that strayed was not punished by its owner when he found it. And the lost coin when it was found immediately became part of the woman’s money again. When the prodigal son came back home, he was met by the Father’s love and his decision to hold a feast to celebrate. Even more surprising is this desire for a feast on the part of God, when even one sinner is converted. And it is more surprising still that good people who have no need to return to God because they have never left him, do not cause him the same joy as the sinner who returns.

It might seem that God repays fidelity with sadness and sin with joy, but that is not really the case. One who has never been lost has never caused God pain or worry and so there is no joy at his or her being found. But we cannot avoid the conclusion that, according to Jesus, the joy that God feels when even one sinner returns, is always greater than the sorrow he experienced on losing him or her. The just do not cause as much joy, or do not cause any joy to God, because they had caused him no sorrow. But the sinner, like the son who had broken his father’s heart when he left him, is capable of bringing joy to God. There is no sin so grave, and no failure so shameful, that it can stop us from returning to God to restore his joy. If we bring joy to God, when we return to him, whatever the cause of our abandoning him was, why have we not already gone back? Will God not thank us when we give him a moment of joy? Could we who have sinned even dream of being a cause of joy to God? Whether it seems just or not, one who has never gone away from God cannot restore to him a joy he has never lost. The God of Jesus, like the shepherd, the woman and the father of two sons, rediscovers the joy of living when he finds what was lost. Is this not a wonderful reason to devote one’s whole life to giving God joy by bringing back his lost sons and daughters?

Jesus, who knew what God is like, and how to make him happy, went in search of all who had lost God to bring them back and so make God happy. The joy that God feels when he finds someone who was lost is reason enough for anyone who knows God to seek out the company of those whom God has lost and not yet found. God feels their loss but never gives up on finding them. He suffers in their absence but never forgets them. God is the one who gains when he pardons the sinner. He recovers what was lost and he finds joy. Precisely because Jesus knew the joy that sinners bring to God when they return, he did everything possible to bring about their conversion. If any of us consider ourselves good, and cannot give God the joy that God finds in the return of one who was lost, we can devote ourselves, as Jesus did, to encouraging sinners we know to return to God and give him the joy of pardoning them. It would be a meritorious exercise, even if it meant causing scandal.

And one last brief but important thing to note: the story Jesus told does not have a good ending. We will never know if the elder son went into the house to share his father’s joy. We don’t know, if, in the end, the father lost the son who had not gone away. People who think they are “good” run the risk of serving God always as faithful servants, and never knowing the joy of being with him in his home, not recognising as a brother the son of the same father. And if they do not accept the joy of finding their brother, they end up by robbing God of his joy and his fatherhood. At the end of the story, it depends on the “good” son whether or not the Father will have two sons.

PRAYER

Look upon us, Lord, creator and ruler of the whole world:
give us grace to serve you with all our heart
that we may come to know the power of your forgiveness and love.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

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