The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Exodus 32:7-11,13-14 + 1 Timothy 1:12-17 + Luke 15:1-32
September 11, 2016
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Now that we’re past Labor Day, the school year is in full swing. Instead of their fond memories of summer play, students once again are having to focus on homework and the dreaded test. That reminds me of a story about an eight year-old girl who didn’t like school very much, and liked taking tests even less. One evening her mother was kneeling with the girl at her bedside as she offered her night prayers, one of which went like this: “Now I lay me down to rest. / I pray I pass tomorrow’s test. / If I should die before I wake, / That’s one less test I’ll have to take.”
We all have tests to take. Children sometimes look forward to the day they graduate from school, knowing that they’ll never have to take another test. But they don’t understand that adult life is full of tests: they just come in different shapes and sizes than the ones we got in school.
In fact, we could even think of our vocations in this world as a test, and that applies even to Jesus as it does to us. Jesus had a vocation during His own life on this planet. He was sent by God the Father into this world to fulfill His own vocation. His vocation was to redeem mankind from sin by means of His death. If Jesus had not accomplished that during His earthly life, He would have been a failure. He would have flunked His test.
Everything else that Jesus did down here was related to His death, like the spokes of a wheel radiate out from the center. Everything else that Jesus did was for the sake of accomplishing the supreme action of His earthly life: namely, to die in order to redeem mankind from sin and death.
But because Jesus was God, everything that Jesus did shone with an infinite beauty. Everything that Jesus did, He accomplished in the most perfect manner. This includes Jesus’ teaching. People can get side-tracked when they look at Jesus’ earthly life, and think of Jesus’ vocation as being that of a teacher.
Jesus taught throughout the three years of His public ministry. The four Gospel accounts are filled with one brilliant example after another of Jesus teaching His disciples (and even His enemies) about the Good News that He came into this world to proclaim. Today’s Gospel passage offers several beautiful examples.
But Jesus’ vocation in this world was not to be a teacher. He did teach, of course, and perfectly at that. But to teach is to lead the disciple towards a goal. A coach teaches his athletes so that they can real the goal of a state championship. A chef teaches her pupils so that they can prepare gourmet meals. A professor of engineering teaches his college students so that they can work on projects and solve technical problems for the good of society.
So what was the goal towards which Jesus was directing His disciples by His teaching? He was teaching them to make the journey to Calvary: that is, He was teaching them never to turn away from the Cross and all it demands from us.
Jesus’ vocation was to die on the Cross. Everything that Jesus taught was a means to that end. Everything that Jesus explained to others was for the purpose of opening their eyes to the beauty of His impending death. Everything that Jesus taught in His mesmerizing parables was to draw His disciples after Him to Calvary. So it is with the three parables we hear this Sunday.
Although the long version of today’s Gospel passage is very long, it includes one of the most profound examples of Jesus’ teaching ministry. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is just that kind of parable that tempts us to believe that Jesus’ vocation was to be a teacher. But we cannot finally unlock this parable until we recognize it as a means to the end of Calvary. The first two “mini-parables” help us see this, as they whet our appetite, so to speak, for the “entrée” of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
These two appetizers are served up to the Pharisees and scribes, not to the tax collectors and sinners. This tells us something important about what Jesus is cooking up. The Pharisees and scribes were complaining about Jesus, “saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” So Jesus begins to serve the Pharisees and scribes by helping them see why He is where He is: on the one hand, why He’s hanging around with tax collectors and sinners; but on the other hand, why He is in this world at all. God the Father sent His Son to serve just such people as these tax collectors and sinners, by dying for them on Calvary.
These two appetizers are very simple in their presentation. Each has just two key elements: the shepherd and his lost sheep; the woman and her lost coin. Within the brief drama of each parable, the focus of joy emerges: the joy of the shepherd and the joy of the woman. That is to say, the focus really isn’t on the found sheep or the found coin, but on those who find them. Both the shepherd who finds and the woman who finds symbolize the experience of Heaven. Jesus explains that the shepherd’s joy is like “the joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents”. The woman’s joy over finding her lost coin points our attention to the “rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents”.
These opening parables, then, call us out of ourselves. We are not the focus of these parables. Although we’re clearly meant to identify our own selves with the lost sheep, and then with the lost coin, the focus of the parable is the “joy in Heaven”, “among the angels of God”, that results from your being found: which is to say, rescued from sin and death.
That joy motivates us, because it makes us realize how precious we are, how valuable we are in God’s sight. Many a Christian, frankly, does not believe that she or he is precious in God’s eyes. But in fact, every moment of your life, God looks upon you and wants you to draw closer to Him. Today’s parables hammer home that it’s especially when you have sinned that God desires even more for you to turn to Him. Especially when you leave the confessional after receiving God’s absolution, you should be aware of the rejoicing that’s taking place in Heaven on your behalf.
So with those two brief parables as appetizers, Jesus presents a lengthy parable for our spiritual feasting. As we dig in to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we should be mindful that what was true of the mini-parables is true here also. The very title that modern editors have given this parable is distracting, because when a child begins to hear Bible stories—when Grandma says to Jimmy, “This morning I want to tell you the Parable of the Prodigal Son”—Jimmy naturally thinks that the prodigal son is the focus of the story.
But when the New Testament came to us from the apostles, there were no chapter or verse numbers. None of the parables have titles in the original Greek manuscripts. All of those things are modern tools inserted into the Bible to make it easier to understand. And regarding this masterful parable, it’s certainly not false to call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it is distracting. To call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son distracts us from the joy of the father.
Although the father is more the focus of the parable than the son, the character of the son deepens our understanding of the father. But this prodigal son is—to put it mildly—an an unflattering and unattractive character. The younger son says, “‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’” In other words, this son is saying, “All you’re good for, Dad, is your money. I don’t want to wait until you die to get your money. Give it to me now, so that I can move on with my life: without you.” This attitude towards his father is itself far worse than the son’s following choices, by which he wastes all that his father gave him. Nonetheless, the insensitivity and baseness of this son highlight the sensitivity and depth of his father, which shine forth in the second half of the parable.
The second half of the parable shows us why we ought to call it the Parable of the Prodigal Father. If the younger son is prodigal, so is the father, though of course in a different way. The word “prodigal” means “lavish” or “extravagant”. The son is extravagant in giving away money that is not his own, but the father is extravagant in giving away mercy from the wellsprings of his heart.
The joy of this father is the focus of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why he tells this parable to His disciples, including you and me. Yes, of course the prodigal son is a key figure in the parable. The parable wouldn’t make sense without him, just as the mini-parables wouldn’t make sense without the sheep or the coin. But the focus here is not the sins of the son, but rather on the joy of the father.
When you transpose this parable to your own life, then, you need to recognize that God the Father’s joy is infinitely greater than your sins. A lot of Christians get caught up on this. Many Christians stay away from God because they do not believe that He is just as loving as the prodigal father. This may be due to the example set by their earthly fathers. This may be due to having committed a mortal sin of such depth that they don’t believe it possible for God to forgive them. Whatever the reason, they and we need to turn to the Father whom Jesus describes through this master parable.
Jesus is teaching us today about His Father. Jesus wants us to know and believe that God the Father’s love and joy is so powerful that it can conquer—and has, through Jesus’ death at Calvary, already conquered—all our sins. The forgiveness that you and I need is already welling up in the bosom of God the Father. We as Christians should never be presumptuous and sin because we know the Father is always ready to forgive us.
We need first to have the honesty of the prodigal son. We need, both in our nightly examination of conscience, and before our monthly confession, to say from our hearts, “‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’” But even more than needing to make the honest admission of our sins, we need to know who God the Father is. We need to listen with faith in order to hear God our Father say from His heart, “‘let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again’”. In this joy, the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins, and the mercy of God the Father is offered us in the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of the Father’s Son.