Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in OT, Year C
September 12, 2004
Ex 32:7-11,13-14; 1Tim1:12-17; Lk 15:1-32
1) The most distinctive thing we can say about God’s love is that it is co-extensive with God’s mercy. Insofar as Jesus has called each one of us love others as he has loved us (Jn 15:12), then we need better to understand how we are called to love in this merciful way. Today’s readings — all of which focus on God’s mercy — will help us to do just that.
2) In the first reading from the Book of Exodus, we see the test and lesson God gave Moses about the extent of his mercy. While Moses had been atop Mount Sinai praying to God for 40 days, the Israelites at the foot of the mountain had lost trust in God, despite all the incredible miracles He had worked for them in the exodus. They made a golden calf and began to deify this image of money and of the satiation of their appetites. God threatened to destroy them who were destroying themselves by their infidelity and begin again with the one person who had remained faithful — Moses himself. “Now leave me alone,” God said, “so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and OF YOU I will make a great nation.”Moses had already struggled to keep the chronically-complaining people faithful to God and the offer, on one level, might have been quite tempting. He could focus only on His own relationship with God and no longer have responsibility for those of “stiff-necks” and “hardened hearts.” But Moses was thinking not just about himself, but about them, and Moses interceded with God to save them — which is exactly what God was hoping he would do out of the test. God then showed his mercy to them all. We’ll return to this later.
3) In the second reading, we have the beginning of St. Paul’s letter to Timothy, wherein St. Paul talks about God’s mercy in general and in particular. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost.” St. Paul had once been “ a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” He was a first century terrorist, going into Christian homes throughout ancient Palestine, ripping Christians from them and sending them to prison and even death (Acts 7:58; 8:3; 9:1). But St. Paul says that God extended to him his loving mercy and made him an model, “so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” The experience of his own forgiveness made him a credible missionary of God’s forgiveness throughout the whole gentile world. Preaching reconciliation was his mission. As he wrote to the Corinthians, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” He then comes to his dramatic, concluding appeal: “Therefore, we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:18-20). God did the same thing with St. Peter, whose first words to the Lord were, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8), but who then preaching and brought God’s forgiveness to countless lands. God did the same thing with St. Matthew, a notorious tax-collector, whom he called from his tables and sent him out, reconciled, with this same message.
In all of these examples, God revealed his wisdom. When I was young, there was a very well-done television commercial that today is far more relevant to me and to some of the men here than we would have thought a couple of decades ago. It was of the Hair Club for Men and it featured Sy Sperling, the President of the Company, who had a nice, natural, full head of hair . The unforgettable moment came at the end of the commercial, when Sy said, “I am not only the President of the Company, but I’m a former client,” and held up a photograph of the time when he was almost completely bald. He was credible, because he himself had received and benefitted from what he was pitching to others. In the same way, God, to preach his Gospel of mercy, did not just want send out any messengers, but those who themselves were able to proclaim that God’s mercy is all true and they were not just prophets, but recipients. We’ll return to this later.
4) In the Gospel, Jesus describes the depth of God’s mercy, which he incarnates. A few months ago, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, we encountered the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Today, we read that parable in its context with the two other shorter parables Jesus gives us Luke 15, that of the lost sheep and the lost coin. If we discover what is common to each of the three illustrations the Lord uses, we will understand better both the parables and God’s mercy which they highlight.
5) The first thing all three have in common is how Jesus views each sinner. He doesn’t describe the one who sins as a malicious person, as an evil man or woman. Instead he says the sinner is LOST, like the “lost sheep,” the “lost coin” and the son who was “lost and then found.” We are lost whenever we are not where we should be. We are lost whenever God is not in sight, whenever we wander out of the ear-shot of the voice of the Good Shepherd, whenever we treat the Father practically as if he is dead and leave his house. Sometimes, like the prodigal son, we can be lost even before we renounce our filial dignity and leave the Father’s house. Reconciliation is rediscovery — the rediscovery of the love of the Good Shepherd who leaves the other 99 behind to come for us, the reawareness of the Father’s love, who runs out to greet us and immediately restores us to our status as his beloved children, and the recognition, in this having been found, of who we really are.
6) The second thing all three have in common is the unbelievable joy God experiences upon such a reconciliation. After having found the lost sheep, the Shepherd cannot contain his joy, calls together his friends and neighbors and says, “REJOICE WITH ME, for I have found my sheep that was lost!” He wants others to share in the joy as well. In the parable of the woman with the lost coin, she also calls her friends and neighbors and says, “REJOICE WITH ME, for I have found the coin I had lost.” [Sometimes people can wonder how much sense this second parable makes. We’ve all lost things and found them again, and very seldom would we ever call anyone else to celebrate with us the rediscovery. But most scholars believe that the coin Jesus referred to was one of those that would hang from the woman’s wedding veil, which constituted her dowry. Not only was the coin precious in terms of its monetary value, but it was also priceless in terms of its meaning. It would as if a wife, today, lost her wedding ring. If she found it again, especially if she feared never finding it again, her joy would be immense.] Lastly, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father embraces his son, does three things to show that his Son will be treated as a Son and not a slave — puts a ring on his finger, a nice robe on his back, and sandals on his feet, symbolic that he was no longer a slave to sin but free to walk in the ways of the Lord — and has the fatted calf slaughtered for a huge celebration, full of singing and dancing. “We had to celebrate and rejoice,” the Father says, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
7) In that joyful expression of the Father, we learn other crucial element about sin, reconciliation with God, and the joy that results from it. Jesus compares the forgiveness of sin to RESURRECTION. Someone who is dead comes to life again. From this we can discover a few things things:
a) By means of the parable, Jesus tells us that sin kills us — which is why St. John, and the Church after him, refers to serious sin as “mortal” (1 John 5:16-17). But just as God raised Jesus from the dead — Jesus was killed because of all of our sins — so God wants to raise us from the dead, each time we’ve sinned, so that he might be able to raise us forever.
b) If every reconciliation is a resurrection, we can understand why “heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than for ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance,” for the “angels of God” rejoice over each such resurrection as they did on Easter Sunday.
c) We can also see why it is fitting that Jesus established the Sacrament of His Mercy on EASTER SUNDAY evening, because he wanted explicitly to associate the sacrament of forgiveness to his Resurrection. He walked through the closed doors of the Upper Room and said, “Just as the Father sent me” — and the Father had sent him to forgive and save sinners — “so I send you.” He was going to send them out with the same mission of reconciliation. Since they could not forgive sins for God without God’s power, Jesus breathed on them, said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and then gave them the instruction, “Those whose sins you forgiven, they are forgiven; those whose sins you retain, they are retained” (Jn 20:19-23). Jesus as Jesus uses priests as his instruments to give us his flesh and blood and allow us to share in Holy Thursday, so he uses those same priests as his instruments to give us his mercy and allow us to share personally, in this world, in his resurrection.
8 ) Faced with the realities Jesus describes to us in this parable, about the incredible joy God and all in heaven have upon the reconciliation of a son or daughter, what should our response be as his disciples? I think there are at least three questions we should ask ourselves:
a) Do we rejoice with God when someone is reconciled to Him? — Whenever a son or daughter is “found,” all of heaven erupts in joy, and God invites us, like the Shepherd, Woman and Father in the parables, to “rejoice with Him.” But do we? Or are we filled with resentment? The Scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospel today were filled with indignation that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They were scandalized by Jesus, who was called a “friend of sinners” (Mt 11:19). They thought the only reaction to sinners was to cut them off and resented when Jesus even strived to bring them back to God’s graces. We can bring the example closer to home. Imagine if after this Mass, you discovered that I went over to the local abortion doctor’s home to eat. Would your first reaction be that I’m living out my faith, or betraying it? How about if I went to visit a pedophile in prison or a local mafioso? How about if next week if, as you came to Mass early, you saw a group of obvious prostitutes and tranvestites in line for confession who then later came, with tears of joy in their eyes, to sit next to you for Mass? Would you rejoice with God and welcome them, or would you wonder if others, in seeing you in a pew with them, might make false judgments about you? Those who call themselves Jesus’ disciples often do not get very high marks in rejoicing with God over the reconciliation of others, perhaps because they are somewhat “lost” within the Father’s house. The elder brother — otherwise outwardly moral — resented his brother’s reconciliation in the parable. The disciples in Jerusalem were very reluctant to accept Saul’s conversion to Paul. Today when those we know have massive conversions, many others continue to judge them on the basis of their previous sinful deeds. Even sometimes when the glorious event of a death bed conversion happens — like that of the good thief — whispers can be heard saying that such people have “gotten off easy.” To all of these people, Jesus tells us this morning that we are called to REJOICE WITH HIM whenever those who are lost are found. Not only should heaven rejoice abundantly, but God’s church on should do the same!
b) Do we ourselves give God joy by receiving the gift of his merciful love? — Jesus, who cannot lie, told us that heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than for 99 righteous people in no need of repentance. Insofar as there has only been one person in all of history who had no need of repentance because she had been preserved free from all stain of original sin from the first moment of her existence, Jesus implies that heaven receives more joy when one contritely comes to receive God’s mercy than in all the joy heaven received from the Blessed Mother’s fidelity. The reason for this is every reconciliation is like Easter Sunday. If this is the case, then we can ask ourselves when was the last time we gave God and those in heaven this type of joy. Pope John Paul II has been straining his aging vocal cords calling all Catholics back to the sacrament of reconciliation. In that sacrament, the entire Church exists for that penitent in the confessional, Jesus’ one “sheep” for whom he has given his life and whom he wants to carry back on his shoulders in great jubilation. In that sacrament, the Father runs out to greet his prodigal child and restores that son or daughter to full filial dignity, the dignity and purity of the day of baptism. If this is the reality of the sacrament from God’s perspective, why would one ever hesitate to approach him there? God waits for you there. Go to him!
c) Do we help to bring God and others joy by encouraging them to go to the sacrament of reconciliation? — If we really want to please God, then Jesus in these parables gives us the way. After we ourselves have received rebirth through reconciliation, the Lord calls us to go out with Him and for Him in search of all those in our day who are “lost” and in need of God’s merciful love. Like with Moses, God does not want us to focus solely on our own relationship with him, but to be instruments of the reconciliation of others. God wants us to be like St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Matthew, St. Augustine and so many others, calling others to God’s mercy by the contagious joy by which we live out our own reconciliation with God.
9) This weekend our nation marks a horrible third anniversary. Three years ago, we witnessed tremendous evil and tremendous heroism. Today’s readings speak in a particularly poignant manner about one way we should respond to that evil, and the heroic example of so many ordinary but valiant men and women sketches a proper baseline of what God calls us to do in this Gospel. Let’s take each in turn.
10) On September 11, 2001, the whole world saw the extent to which men with a false understanding of God and what pleases Him will go. The various terrorists actually thought that hijacking planes full of innocent people and driving them into buildings full of innocent people actually pleased God and gives Him glory. Such ideas are patently absurd, even to most Muslims. But the terrorists also had at least one isolated virtue that clearly we cannot miss: they were willing to DIE for the false image of God they mistakenly believe in. Imagine what would happen if we had these committed people on our side? In the first century, Saul terrorized the Christians. He presided over their executions. He was willing to do whatever he thought would please God. As he was leading the stoning of the deacon St. Stephen, however, Stephen prayed “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” God heard that prayer and a short time later, as Saul was preparing to inaugurate a similar reign of terror in Damascus, he was converted. St. Paul said he “had acted ignorantly in unbelief,” because he had acted without knowing the true nature of God. Jesus would have called such a person lost in this false understandings of what pleases God. Likewise each of us needs to pray for the terrorists, that they might similarly be converted. Jesus once told us, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” St. Stephen did so, and not only did it stop Saul’s reign of terror, but it inaugurated a whole new, glorious chapter in the proclamation of the Gospel. God calls us all to be Stephens of modern times, praying for the conversion of those who seek to kill us. That’s one very concrete way the Lord calls us to respond to the evil of terrorism that confronts us.
11) With regard to the heroism we noticed on that day, the Lord would doubtless want that we notice in the deeds of those gallant men and women what human beings are capable of. At the same time that tens of thousands of people were fleeing from the burning towers in lower Manhattan, hundreds of others were running into them. These were ordinary, salt-of-the-earth firemen, policemen, paramedics, joe citizens, even priests. Jesus had once said, “No one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13), and these people were ready to lay down their lives for people whom they had never even met. And so many of them did lay down those lives so that others might live. The spiritual lesson that we learn in terms of today’s Gospel is precisely this: If these courageous men and women were willing to risk so much to save people from the flaming towers, how much should we be willing to risk to save people from the flames of hell (cf. Mt 3:10-12; Luke 16:24)? Jesus had once said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). Yet if so many people were willing to give so much to save from the towers those who would one day die in some other way, how much are we willing to do to save people from eternal death so that they might receive everlasting life? The danger is real. Just like so many of us ignored the threat of terrorism before September 11, in the same way many of us today ignore the real danger of sin and what it leads to, eternal death. The devil is worse than 1000 Bin Ladens. We are called to be God’s firemen, to go after those who are perishing, and lead them to the safety of the Father’s embrace. God is asking each of us to do that. Will we take up this mission or will we, as so many others do, try to “call in sick,” cowardly leaving the hard and dangerous work to others?
12) The allegorical application of the heroism from Flight 93 to our own spiritual lives and mission is equally compelling. None of the ordinary people on that plane woke up that morning thinking that that would be the last day of their earthly lives. None of those normal Americans thought that they would be called to great heroism that morning. In fact, almost half of the 42 passengers and crew on that plane shouldn’t have been on that plane at all, if their flights hadn’t been rearranged coming out of New Jersey. But God’s ways are not our ways. After had the terrorists had taken over the cockpit, announced they had a bomb, and grouped the passengers back into rows 30-34, the passengers began to use the special air-phones to call their loved ones and alert people on the ground. Several discovered then for the first time that two planes had destroyed the twin towers and another had been flown into the Pentagon. They began to suspect they themselves were now on an aerial bomb intended to destroy a landmark and kill many innocent people on the ground. They started to talk about trying to take over the plane. Even if they might die, at least they would be able to save those on the ground. Like Moses on Mt. Sinai, they were thinking of others. Some consulted their spouses on the airphones. Another, 32-year old Todd Beamer, asked a telephone operator to pray the Our Father with him and then Psalm 23, in which he reminded himself, “The Lord is my Shepherd. This is nothing I lack.” Then he turned to the other men who were around him and who had just finished taking a vote to try to take the plane back and said those words that will never be forgotten: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.”
13) Once Todd Beamer’s shepherd had said, “I am the good shepherd.… I lay down my life for my sheep.… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn 10:11, 14, 18). Jesus never looked at himself as a victim. He was not just going to have his live TAKEN from him, but he was going to GIVE IT, actively, out of love. The men on Flight 93 were doing the same thing. They were not victims. They were not going to stay in their seats cowering about what might happen to them. If they were going to die, they were at least going to die trying to save others from death. They gave their lives actively out of love. They got out of their seats, and rushed 110 feet to the cockpit for the sake of the rest of us. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, after he had prayed three times “Father, take this cup away from me; but not my will but yours be done,” (Lk 22:42) — for he didn’t want to die, but was willing to die if that’s what it took — he went to his three apostles, Peter, James and John, and said, as he saw his betrayer and the guards close at hand, “Get up. Let’s go” (Mk 14:42). Pope John Paul II has just written a book of autobiographical reflections by that title. He said Jesus didn’t want to face the evil alone. He wanted to face it together with his Church. Neither did the men on that plane want to die. But when they realized that they had to drink the cup, they drank it to the dregs. They responded to the Lord’s call, “Get up. Let’s go” and confronted the evil with Him.
14) Jesus turns to each of us today and says, “Get up. Let’s go.” He reminds us that we have only one life to give, and doesn’t want us to allow anyone to take it from us, but to freely lay it down out of love. He has given us the mission of helping him to save the world, so that one day, God-willing, we and as many of his other prodigal children as possible, might have the chance to be reunited in joy in the Father’s house. But for that happy ending, we can’t call in sick, we can’t just stay in rows 30-34 as people’s eternal lives are threatened, as people’s earthly lives are threatened. Jesus who has given us the mission to be co-redeemer with him will give us all the help we need to fulfill that mission. Through the intercession of the heroes of September 11, doubtless many of whom are now with the Lord in that Father’s house, we pray that the Lord may give us the courage he gave them, so that we may respond as they did. The Lord Jesus himself turns to us this morning and says, “Are YOU GUYS ready?”