Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time 11 Sept. 2022

Ex 32:7-11,13-14; / 1 Tim 1:12-17 / Luke 15:1-32;

Today Luke puts before us the theme of God’s love and mercy for sinful human beings. The three parables, excluding the first (15:3-7), are included nowhere else in the gospels. Jesus sets out these parables because of the Pharisees and scribes in his audience who object to His regular and intimate association with so-called “sinners and tax collectors.” With the “tax collectors and sinners” we have on one side of Jesus those most in need of love and mercy, they want to hear more, and on the other side the “pharisees and scribes,” who likewise need love and mercy. The stage for the parables that follow is set by an offhand comment by Jesus. How we hear what Jesus says in response to this comment depends upon which side we find ourselves. The challenge of listening to the Word is to sit on both sides – to hear as though we are the tax collector, the sinner, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, as well as to listen from the perspective of the pharisee, the scribe, the 99 sheep, the 9 coins, the older brother, and at the same time keep ourselves focused upon the shepherd, the woman, the waiting father – upon Jesus?

The lost sheep is a risky parable. Is it a rhetorical question posed by Jesus? Would a shepherd really leave the rest of the flock? The modern concept of “triage” demands of prioritisation of needs. You can’t save everybody, otherwise nobody is saved. A shepherd risks losing everything unless, of course, there is a very good sheep dog or another shepherd to remain behind. In this image do we have a picture of Israel, as one of the ninety-nine, whom God has been “going after” since its formation in the wilderness? Here the shepherd does all the work – seeking, finding, carrying, rejoicing, and creating a community of joy. What did the sheep do, besides wander off? Place this in tension with the theme of repentance that follows. There is “joy in heaven” over the “one sinner who repents.” One wonders, as the story closes, if the “ninety-nine righteous persons” really “need no repentance.”

The challenge in the case of the second parable is not in the seeking after the lost coin, but in identifying with the one who seeks – a woman. Certainly, if God is connected with the shepherd, then what about with this poor Woman? Here the woman does all the work – lighting up, sweeping, searching carefully, finding, and creating a community of joy. Again, the element of repentance is included. An inanimate object – the coin does not turn toward the one who searches for it. But sinners can.

The Prodigal Son, The Two Brothers, or the story of “The Waiting Father” whatever we call it, all apply, for we can see ourselves in both sons. Furthermore, we catch a glimpse of God in the father. Here, as opposed to the preceding parables, the one who “lost” the son to a distant country did not leave behind the ninety-nine and go out to find the him. No, he remained at home, but his eyes never left the horizon, and when he saw his son in the distance, he raced out and met him half-way. Here the tension between seeking and repentance culminate. However, the father pays no attention to the “words” of contrition. It’s the act of turning that brings joy. If anything, the father later seeks out and finds the older brother who, it must be said is lost in his own far away country. Unlike the prodigal son our Lord did not demand his inheritance from God’s unfathomable bounty of love and forgiveness, but still he left for a ‘far country’. There he lived and died as a servant (Phil 2:5-11)

The parable shines the spotlight on what motivates each one of us. It is a parable that examines our greed and self-interest. It examines our capacity to exploit and reject others, even those closest to us. It demonstrates God’s unlimited love and forgiveness for those who come to realize the folly of their human ambitions and actions. The self-indulgent son shows what true repentance can achieve as he turns around and follows the road that will bring him home. The words and actions of the elder brother show the path that Christ does not want us to follow in this life. Jesus is showing us how unconditional God’s love is for each one of us, and consequently how unconditional our love should be for our fellow human beings. This message of love and forgiveness runs throughout the gospel narrative. Let us pray that we may set aside our sense of human ‘justice’ and become more Christ-like in our love, recognition and acceptance of others. The lives and actions of those ‘lost’ in our global neighbour-hood impact on all of us. We cannot live in isolation, and unless we open our eyes to the interconnectedness of all humankind economically, spiritually, socially and physically, we will likely work less diligently for a quality of life, justice, and love for others.

The challenge of a familiar story is to listen for something new each time we read or hear it. Of course, in a post-modern/post-Christian? age, we cannot assume all have heard it. The stage is set above with an offhand comment: Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” How one hears these words, depends upon whether one sits with the tax collectors and sinners, or the pharisees and scribes. Don’t be quick to associate people with one camp or the other. It may be so, but Jesus tends to flip stories around on us, turning our world upside down. At its end, we are left wondering what will happen now. That’s precisely where we enter the picture – how will we, prodigal or faithful, continue to respond to God’s love and mercy?


Mairead Morrissey, OP


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