Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday 24C: The Prodigal Father

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year "C") - September 12, 2010, THE JOY OF BEING FOUND [Texts: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; [Psalm 51]; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32]

A famous sculpture by Michelangelo depicts a seated Moses holding in his hands the tablets of the covenant. Interpreters suggest that the artist wished to depict the key moment when Moses discovered the rebellion of God's people (the golden calf episode) but was not yet certain what to do. White-hot anger and deep wells of compassion mingled in his breast and it was not yet clear which response would predominate.

Today's reading from Exodus boldly suggests that such a struggle was also waging in God's heart. Attributing human emotions to God, the sacred author tried to suggest that the behaviour of the chosen people merited their obliteration. It were as if God wanted to start over, beginning again with Moses ("of you I will make a great nation"). Moses learned compassion from his encounters with God and, after Moses and God consulted together, the earlier plan went forward.

That human compassion can help people understand the depths of God's affection and care for lost sinners is the message of the parable of the prodigal son and his brother. Some have suggested that the parable might be better entitled "the Prodigal Father," for he lavishly wanted to pour out riches and compassion on both his sons.

In trying to understand the parable of the father and his sons, it is important to realize how Jesus' audience would have thought about the father's behaviour towards his sons. In the Mediterranean culture of the time, the father disregarded a pivotal value of his era, his honour. By his solicitude for his sons and his attempts to win them to reconciliation and joy, he shamed himself in the eyes of those who heard Jesus speak the parable.

If we are meant to take the father of the parable as an example of how God acts in favour of the sinner, we must conclude that God's action is surprising. God even risks the shame of going beyond expected human categories in order to draw His sons and daughters into the fullness of divine family life. All of this was so that they might know of the new life bering offered to those on the verge of perishing.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591–1666), known as Guercino, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1619)

Underlying the whole parable's message is the notion of joy at "being found". This links the parable of the father and his boys with the two earlier parables of the lost sheep and lost silver coin.

The shepherd who found his sheep and the woman who found her silver coin--after diligent searching--shared their joy with friends and neighbours.

These social expressions of joy model the joy found in heaven on the conversion of sinners ("more joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents").

The parable of the shepherd looking for his lost sheep (the basis of Jesus' own mission) added a provocative comparison. For Jesus said, "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance".

This does not at all mean that God has no interest in the righteous. Only that God wants all to share life in the Kingdom. When a sinner returns to God, heaven feels a party is in order. In fact, this hoped-for joy in the conversion of sinners kept Jesus interacting with sinners.

We are not given any psychological insight into the sinner's joy in "being found". But all the external manifestations of the son's acceptance by his father (robe, ring, sandals and the family celebration with fatted calf and music) suggest a joy that permeated his whole appearance, status and being.

The dignity that the father put off, his son puts on. The only unanswered question at the end is whether the elder son would share in the joy of his brother's homecoming. It is a question the hearers of the parable might ask themselves: Would I join in the feasting if I were in his place?

The second reading from First Timothy describes the joy of the Apostle Paul at being found by Christ Jesus on the road to Damascus. Boldly he could say, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" and that, in his own eyes, "I am the foremost."