24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 1. Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14
Reading II. 1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Gospel. Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 (The Prodigal Son).
All three readings today deal with those who have strayed away from the true path to happiness. In the first reading from the Book of Exodus, the whole people of Israel have lost faith in their God who had rescued them from captivity in Egypt, that land where they had become shamefully depraved.
The most famous story in the Bible is the parable of the Prodigal Son. This story is so moving and powerful that the Church returns to it over and over again. We have already heard it this year in the 4th Sunday of Lent, at the onset of Springtime. Now we have it as the Liturgical year is drawing to a close.
It is hard to mistake the meaning of this parable. The Scribes and Pharisees had been complaining that Jesus, "welcomes sinners and eats with them." Before giving us the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke gives us two other short stories. Jesus asked his critics which of them would not behave like a man who left his flock in search of one lost sheep out of a hundred. "When he has found it, he lays it upon his shoulders rejoicing." He calls his friends to rejoice with him "because I have found my sheep that was lost." In the same way, He asks, "what woman, having ten drachmas, if she loses one drachma, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?" The lesson is clear. "There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance."
Only after these stories does our Lord relate the story of the man and his two sons that we heard today. The story is so familiar that I would just like to make two points. First, the compassion of a father or mother toward a child is a reflection of the love that God has for all of us. Like God's love it never fails even after the child has grown and become independent. Secondly, the road home begins when the son who had squandered his inheritance accepts responsibility for his actions and places the blame squarely upon himself. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son."
Many of us will find it difficult to accept the message of this parable. Is it possible to live in a family and not regard your siblings as rivals for your parents love and affection? How often are the parents' efforts directed toward the child who causes the most trouble? Who can't sympathize with the other son in today's story?
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,
to him you slaughter the fatted calf."
Our Lord knows what goes on in our own families. He even knows how when we are angry or hurt we will say "your son" and not "my brother." Notice the father's answer. He says, "we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life."
Today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to Timothy tells of another who strayed. It is Paul himself. "I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant." Paul never tires of calling himself the least of the Apostles.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Of these I am the foremost.
Paul believes that his own life is an example of the way God acts as a loving parent who is always ready to welcome us home.
God is Love. We can turn our backs on Him and go astray but He can never turn His back on us. Too often we think of God as an angry old dictator ready to zap us whenever we step out of line. Today's reading from the Book of Exodus gives us the image of such an angry God but there is also a hint that even in those early days Moses believed in a God of mercy and forgiveness. Certainly, we can never think of God as an angry patriarch after reading our Lord's parable of the Prodigal Son.
The real sin of the Prodigal Son was that he squandered his inheritance in a foreign land. Rather than converting the foreigners, he was led astray and converted by them. Isn't this tragic story true today? How many of our children have squandered their spiritual inheritance upon leaving home. Isn't it sad that so many will discontinue their religious education once they go to High school? Many will cease attending Mass right after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation. By the time they graduate from college, so many will be confirmed agnostics or atheists. As someone once said, "When people cease to believe in God, they will believe in anything." They have given up the beauty, the wisdom, and the inheritance of 2000 years.
We can only hope and pray that when they come to their senses in some foreign land, we will be ready to receive them back without bitterness or rancor, and with open arms.