15 September 2019
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
When I used to go on vacation I visited an Irish family who had 5 children aged between 25 and 35. The father was an army officer and at times his wife complained to me that she felt that he was too strict since he brought up his children as if they were in the army. The parents were very proud of 4 of their children who were married with young families and all had good jobs. The problem was the second youngest son, then 27. He seemed unable to hold down a job, got drunk frequently and spent some time in prison for stealing. The father could not accept this as he felt he is a disgrace to the family. He refused to meet the son whenever he visited home. On the other hand the mother was very gentle with her son even if not agreeing with his behaviour. This son, Paul, knew that his mother will always welcome him but certainly not his father.
This reminds me of today’s gospel. The first two verses are the most easy to neglect and yet perhaps the most important for a prayerful understanding of the text. Jesus tells the 3 parables that follow especially that of the Prodigal or wayward son to provoke a response from the Pharisees and scribes. These, in fact, are like the elder brother in the 3rd parable. They felt safe and secure in their religious practices and in a sense didn’t need God’s help as they felt by strictly keeping the Law they were just before God. The meant they were very severe and strict in their judgement of all those who did not exactly observe all the precepts of the Law, just like the army office father who judged his wayward son without any mercy.
The Pharisees saw Jesus as a lawbreaker – he was too liberal for them. He didn’t always observe the Sabbath. To welcome and eat with sinners was just not acceptable and certainly wouldn’t please God.
The chief purpose of the 3 parables is to give his listeners, the Pharisees, scribes, the tax collectors and sinners who sought his company sinners a true image of God. Is my image of God the same as that which Jesus reveals in these three parables? So who is God as revealed by Jesus?
The first parable is about the shepherd seeking the lost sheep. He leaves the other 99 in the wilderness with a good chance they will get lost whilst he is off searching for the lost one. Many would describe this shepherd as being irresponsible.
The second little parable is about a woman who loses a coin of little worth. Then she lights a lamp and sweeps out the house and searches thoroughly until she finds it. Remember she did not have a tiled or concrete floor but only an earthen one. One could say she was obsessive.
The third parable tells of the father of the prodigal son who asks for his inheritance. Now it is only when a person dies that we get our inheritance. So for this son the father is as good as dead. Besides what father knowing that his son was the kind of person who would waste all his inheritance on a life of loose living would give this to him? If he did most of us would call the father plain crazy.
This is precisely what Jesus reveals to us about God. When it comes to loving us, forgiving us, being gentle and understanding with us, God is like that. He is irresponsible like the shepherd, obsessive about us like the woman and crazy as St.Paul would say in his love and ways of dealing with us in spite of all our failings and sinfulness.
No wonder the Pharisees and scribes reacted to Jesus as they did. The image Jesus was giving us of God was so far from theirs that they were threatened and ultimately killed him. Does this image of God revealed by Jesus reflect my own or is it very different. Little wonder the tax collectors and sinners were all seeking his company to hear this Good News. We must remember that Jesus is also a challenging Messiah. In the light of God’s incredible love for us he expects us to follow his ways, to have his attitudes, be converted– not to gain God’s freely given love but to show our gratitude in action and to praise him.
So these three parables are raising some questions for us. How could one sheep equal a flock of 99, how can a single coin be as valuable as the other 9? How can a worthless son be so precious in the eyes of the father? Simply because God counts each one of us as totally irreplaceable, equally precious to him.
In the story of the Prodigal Son perhaps there is part of the younger son and the elder son in each of us. We sin; we wander far from God seeking happiness elsewhere. Are we like the elder son, very judgmental and critical of others, refusing to forgive, reconcile or be gentle with the failures and limitations of others?
The call of course, is to be like the Father who welcomes back the sinning younger son and having thrown a party to celebrate his return goes out to encourage the elder son to join the celebration. What did the elder son do? We have to finish the parable in our lives. Will we end up as the younger son who returned or as the elder son, or allow the attitudes and love of the father to take over more and more in our lives?
“Loving Father, help me to let go of all in my life that does not reflect your welcome and love for others. Amen”.
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA