September 16, 2001, 24th Sunday "C"
Cadey Abbey, Caldey Island, Wales
Ex 32, 7-11. 13-14: 1 Tm 1, 12-17: Lk 15, 1-32
H O M I L Y
The story of the dialogue between Moses and Yahweh (first reading) about the people who have committed the sin of idolatry ends with the mention that "the Lord relented". That text is not really about conversion, since nothing in it is said about conversion, at least up to this point; it is not essentially about prayer either, although it does teach us something important about prayer. It is essentially about God. It tells us who God is.
So is it with today's Gospel. Like all the other parables of Jesus, it tells us something about his Father and his Father's kingdom. It is only because of our incurable self‑centeredness that we try most of the time to find in these parables lessons about us an about an our own moral behaviour.
In last Sunday's Gospel Jesus laid down great demands on those who wanted to follow him. And right after that we see that tax collectors and sinners are gathering around him, to the great scandal of the Pharisees and the Scribes who reproach him for welcoming sinners and eating with them. In answer to this murmuring Jesus tells them -- not one parable but three parables that are, each one of them, about the joy in heaven when a sinner repents and returns to God. It is like the joy of a shepherd who has found a sheep he had lost or that of a woman who has found the piece of silver that was lost. Most of all it is like the joy of a father whose son returns home. This third parable is much more detailed than the two other ones.
"A man had two sons..." Those two sons correspond to all the persons in presence : the younger one, who asks for his share of the inheritance and leaves corresponds to the tax collectors and the sinners, while the older one, who stayed home, corresponds to the Pharisees and the Scribes.
The first son rejects his father or does as if his father were already dead : "give me my share of the estate that is coming to me", says he. It is only after he had squandered all that he had and after he had made himself the slave of someone else that he remembers his father and returns to him. The father never forgot him and never ceased to consider him as his son, always waiting for him and even running out to meet him when he sees him coming. To his son's confession: "Father I have sinned against God and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son..." the father does not answer with words, but only with acts: he throws his arms around his neck and kisses him, and organizes a banquet to celebrate his coming back.
The other son, who represents the Pharisees and the Scribes, has -- more than the other one -- ceased to be a son. He has made himself a servant or even a slave. He says : "For years now I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed one of your orders." He has forgotten that he was a son; and therefore he has no brother. He says to the father: "This son of yours..." But the father answers : "This brother of yours..."
In opposition to the stern god of the Pharisees, Jesus describes his Father as a dancing God. One sentence in the text always struck me. It is the reflection of the brother who returned from the fields and called one of the servants to ask him "the reason for the dancing and the music". Every time we return to God, after each one of our escapades, it is a time of dancing and music.
The interpretation of a parable is very similar to that of a dream. We are in some way each one of the characters. Each one of us is both the son who went astray and the one who stayed home but grumbles at the attention given to the first one when he returns. But must of all, in a parable we are always invited to identify with one of the characters. And the one we are asked in this case to identify with is the Father. Not so much in the sense that we must be welcoming others every time someone who has offended us humbly comes back to us ‑‑ acting like little gods, which we always like to do ‑‑ but rather in the sense that we are invited to rejoice with God every time someone who had gone away from Him returns to Him.
The Pharisees considered the publicans and sinners as a class of people with whom a decent person was not supposed to associate and were scandalized at Jesus for eating with them. By this parable Jesus is teaching them that what is really important is not what they are but what God is, since, in the end, we are all sinners. And this is also the lesson of the reading from Exodus about Moses. God listens to Moses not because he is holy and different from the rest of the people, but on the contrary, because he is and wants to remain part of the people; and nothing, not even a promise from God can break his solidarity with them.
Reading this Gospel a few days after the terrible events that hit New York on September 11, while praying for all the innocent victims of that tragedy and for their families, we must also pray that the teaching of Jesus about his Father will inspire those who will have to make political and military decisions in the days and weeks to come. Let us pray that they resist the temptation of continuing the spiral of violence by trying to crush violence with a greater violence and avenging thousands of deaths with more deaths and material destruction with more destruction. May all the sons of the heavenly Father learn how to defuse violence through the establishment of a just society where everyone is respected as a human being and has all his rights respected.