This upcoming Sunday marks one of only two times in the main Lectionary cycle that we hear the Parable of the Prodigal Son proclaimed (the other being the 4th Sunday of Lent [C]). The Readings are marked by the theme of repentance and forgiveness.
1. Our First Reading is Ex 32:7-11, 13-14:
The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved. They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, ‘This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’
“I see how stiff-necked this people is, ” continued the LORD to Moses. Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.”
The context of this First Reading is immediately after the “Golden Calf” incident. To recap, God had sent Moses to the Israelites as they were enslaved in Egypt, and through might miracles brought them out of Egypt and into the Sinai desert, to Mount Sinai itself, where he entered into a solemn covenant with them (Exod 19-24, esp. ch. 24). A covenant is the extension of kinship by oath, so God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai (Exod 24) formed Israel into God’s children, his family. A blood ritual solemnized the covenant, as Moses splashed blood on both God’s altar and the people, symbolizing that God and the people were now one blood. But the blood ceremony also had a more ominous symbolism: “if I break the covenant, may my blood be shed, like this shed blood now being splashed on me.”
Forty days later, while Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving instructions for the building of the Tabernacle, the people of Israel defected from the covenant and broke their whole relationship with God. They built themselves an idol of a bull calf, probably representing the Egyptian god Apis whom they had once worshiped along the banks of the Nile. By breaking the covenant, they triggered on themselves the curse-meaning of the blood of the covenant: “may my blood be shed if I break my commitment…” That is why God says, “Let me alone … that my wrath may … consume them.” It is not the loss of God’s temper. It is God enforcing the terms of the covenant, which He is bound in justice to do.
God tests Moses in this situation, creating the opportunity for Moses to intercede for the people, the opportunity for Moses to be like Christ. God says, “I will make of you a great nation.” This was the promise given to Abraham (Gen 12:2) so long ago. Thus, God is offering to “rewind” salvation history and start over with Moses as a new Abraham.
But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, “Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.’” So the LORD relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.
Moses rises to the opportunity to be a Christ-like intercessor for the people of God. Moses’ main argument is significant: “Remember your servant(s) Abraham … how you swore to them by your own self…” There is only one place earlier in Scripture where God explicitly swears by his own self, and that is Genesis 22:15-18, the great oath which God swears to Abraham after Abraham offers to God his “only begotten son” (RSVCE2). That is the great passage of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, called “the Aqedah” (“the Binding [of Isaac]”) in the Jewish tradition. It is the most important type or foreshadowing of Calvary in the Old Testament. One might just call it “the Calvary of the Old Testament.” It is crucial to recognize that at this pivotal moment in the history of God’s people, where they face deserved destruction for apostasy from God, Moses’ succeeds in his intercession by pleading Calvary, by appealing to the covenant that was re-affirmed after the willing sacrifice of the “only begotten son.” God affirms the validity of Moses’ appeal, and “relents” from punishment. God knew in his foreknowledge that he would do this, but he chose to include Moses in his plan of mercy for Israel, allowing Moses to take an active role in the administration of God’s forgiveness. He does this for us, too.
2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19:
R. (Lk 15:18) I will rise and go to my father. Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. R. I will rise and go to my father. A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me. R. I will rise and go to my father. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn. R. I will rise and go to my father.
Psalm 51 is THE great psalm of repentance in the entire psalter, used in the Lectionary and the Liturgy of the Hours at those times in the Church calendar that most call for acts of contrition. Psalm 51 is attributed to David, upon the occasion of his repentance after having been rebuked by Nathan the prophet for killing Uriah and taking Bathsheba as his wife by force.
David’s words have resounded on the lips of repentant believers down through the centuries, unrivaled for bluntness and sincerity. David prays for “a clean heart” which God alone can “create” for him—it is not possible by human power. David had acted like Israel at the Golden Calf. Both David and Israel were recipients of covenants: Israel in Exodus 24, David in 2 Samuel 7. Both had the status of “sons of God” (Exod 4:22; PS 89:20-27). Both succumbed to sexual temptation (David with Bathsheba, 2 Sam 11; Israel when they “rose up to play,” a sexual euphemism Exod 32:6). Unlike Israel, David repents when rebuked. He returns to seek the LORD, whereas Israel would have continued astray had it not been for Moses. In this way, David represents an advance in spiritual understanding over against the behavior of Israel as a whole.
Beloved: I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry. I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life. To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
The Lectionary is marching through St. Paul’s letters to individuals right now, and last week we read from Philemon. This week we read from the beginning of his first letter to Timothy, and the selection could scarcely fit better the themes of this Sunday’s Mass. Here we are reminded that St. Paul himself—like David, like Israel—was a great offender against God, who received mercy. Paul calls himself “the foremost” of sinners. Truly the company of the saints is better thought of as the assembly of those who embraced mercy, rather than of those who never needed it.
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them he addressed this parable.
The Pharisees are offended that Jesus associates with “sinners,” not recognizing it to be a God-like trait, since God associated with sinners all through the Old Testament. In fact, Judah and his descendants included some of the worst of sinners.
“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Jesus prefaces his great parable of the “lost son” with two smaller, down-to-earth examples from everyday life about the joy of finding something that was lost. The phrase “there will be rejoicing among the angels of God” is actually a bit of a mistranslation. It is literally, “there will be rejoicing in the presence
of the angels of God.” It is not the angels who are rejoicing, per se
. Someone else is rejoicing in front of the angels. Who is that? God Himself. But in keeping with Jewish piety, Jesus using circumlocutions to speak of the divine rejoicing.
Then he said, “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns, who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”
This parable may be read in two ways. On the basic level, it is a story of forgiveness and reconciliation that teaches us about the character of God and his love for sinners. On a secondary level, it is a parable about the history of Israel. Israel divided into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of “Ephraim” (the adopted youngest son of Jacob) and the southern kingdom of “Judah” (the son of Jacob who inherited the rights of the oldest son). Ephraim went astray and was taken into exile by Assyria (a far country). Judah, however, was only exiled for 70 years and then returned to stay by God’s “side” in the land of Israel. However, in the end it is “Ephraim” who returns to embrace God, while “Judah” resents God’s mercy.
This fits a theme through Luke-Acts, in which Luke shows that Samaritans (direct descendants of the northern kingdom “Ephraim”) and Gentiles (among whom other northern Israelites had assimilated) respond to the offer of God’s forgiveness in the Gospel, whereas the “Judeans”, descendants of southern Judah, resist the Gospel out of pride, and resent the Christian offer of a the “new covenant” to Samaritan and Gentile “sinners.”
Today’s Gospel speaks to us in two practical ways, depending on which “son” we are. Some of us at Mass this Sunday are the younger son, who have been going astray rather self-consciously. We “younger sons” need to be reassured of God’s forgivness. We need to pick up and leave the pig slop we’ve been wallowing in (whether that be substance abuse, porn, financial corruption, promiscuity, manipulation, etc.) and return to God, who is waiting to embrace us.
[Let us notice that the Father does not run after the son to the far country and pull him out of the muck. There is an act of repentance and renunciation that we must undertake before we can return to the Father. We do have to leave the pig sty.]
Others of us at Mass are the older brother. We think we are good, not in need of forgiveness, and God owes us something. We resent riff-raff hanging around, and in particular don’t want them in our churches or other places where we hang out.
We older brothers have no joy in our lives, because we really aren’t motivated by love, and don’t understand the God of love and joy. We need conversion as much as the younger son. We need to recognize “younger sons” as siblings, as family members, and share God’s joy at their repentance and reconciliation. God is not a businessman rewarding service in a tit-for-tat or quid-pro-quo manner. God is a father, who wants all his sons to share his love and joy.