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ACTA  LECTIONARY COMMENTARY

 

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Year C 

Year of Luke

Download: Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year C

 

READINGS

 

A reading from the book of Exodus                32:7-11. 13-14

 

Responsorial Psalm  

Psalm 51:3-4. 12-13. 17. 19.  R/. Luke 15:18 

 

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to Timothy   1:12-17 

 

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke

15:1-32    

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King David, if the evidence of our Bible is to be believed, lived about one thousand years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger.  One day when David looked down from his residence in Jerusalem he saw a woman bathing: “and the woman was very beautiful”. David sent messengers: “and he took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her”, knowing full well that she was the wife of Uriah, the Hittite.  Bathsheba’s husband was a loyal foreigner fighting in David’s army, for “it was the time of the year when kings go out to battle”. But David had stayed at home and engaged in adultery with the wife of an honourable man serving in the battlefield. David’s showed no repentance when Bathsheba sent an age-old message up the hill: “I’m pregnant”. David had Uriah murdered.  The whole sordid story is told in II Samuel, chapters 11 and 12.

    But the story did not end there, “for   the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (II Samuel 11:27).  The Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David.  Now it is not wise to go to a king and tell him he’s sleeping with the wrong woman, and certainly not to such a murderous character as David.  So Nathan told him a parable:

 

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” 

II Samuel 12:1-4

 

What happened next, for David wasn’t all bad, is this:

 

Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You’re the man! 

II Samuel 12:5-6

 

    A parable told a thousand years before the time of Jesus, and three thousand years old as I write this, has not lost its power to move.  The impact of the incisive story Nathan told to David might still be told to rulers today who behave much as David the King and Bathsheba did.  Parables do this: they stick in the craw, generation after generation, and expose truth to power. But not only that, they can, as Jesus well knew, expose the truth of God whenever and wherever and whenever they are told.

 

    Parables

 

Parables speak to our minds and our hearts.  They challenge the comfortable illusions. What we take for granted and the regular patterns of what we do are questioned by the quiet stories of parable makers.  Wisdom concealed in story is a deadly weapon, holding up every time and every place to the scrutiny of wisdom. Parables are timeless, examining, not only the conscience of the king, but even exposing the pious platitudes of the priest and the everyday certainties of our hallowed traditions.

     That is why, to stay with Luke’s Gospel, seventeen times Jesus turns to parables, not only to challenge the everyday platitudes of his time but also to question the religious certainties of every age.  

    The voice of Jesus not only challenged those who sat on hillsides in Galilee but in his parables he threatens the peaceful routine of every age.  Our question must not only be, “What did Jesus mean?” It must be “What does Jesus mean?” now in this time, in this place. The man from Nazareth, as Luke presents him, knows that the Way he offers is long, full of surprises, full, too, of torment and suffering.  His parables are a road map along the Way. They are a source of the kind of wisdom that stands the test of time and has the power to mark out alternative possibilities. The parables of Jesus are always a challenge to create an alternative future.

    Above all, parables are full of surprises.  Conventional wisdom, the way we have always done things, is forever under threat from the Jesus who spoke in parables.  Who would have thought that tax collectors and sinners would be closer to God’s heart that the average church-goer, the one who goes up to the Temple to pray?  Who would have thought that building bigger barns, storing up all that will make you safe, is not necessarily a great idea? Who would have thought that putting money into the safe depository we call a bank may not be the wisest choice?  Who would have thought that buying a farm, or a yoke of oxen, or even marrying a wife, might, if that is the be-all-and -end of your hopes and desires, keeps you out of God’s banquet? Who would have thought that the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, the people sleeping in the highways and byways and lying in the hedgerows, are to be seated in the great banquet? 

    The challenge that the parables of Jesus make to our many churches around the world and to the Church universal is not to be content to ask what Jesus meant.  It is to ask what Jesus means. How do we proclaim in our time and place what he proclaimed in his time and place. Just as Nathan the prophet spoke truth to power, so his parable speaks to all power in every age.  When Jesus tells of a woman who searches for a single lost coin, so he speaks to us that lost souls must be found. Only then may rejoicing be done. 



A reading from the book of Exodus                32:7-11. 13-14

 

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! ’” And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”

But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.

The word of the Lord.

 

The saved generation very nearly became the lost generation.  No sooner are they freed from the slavery of Pharaoh, no sooner have the waters parted and delivered them to safety, than they turn to making their own gods.   Their chief priest-to-be, Aaron, collects the gold earrings from wives and daughters and made for them “gods”. They built an altar, declared a feast-day, and made offerings to their new gods: “And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (Exodus 3:6)

    

A sensible conversation between the Lord and Moses saves the day.  What Moses asks God to do is to remember.

Remembering is a key concept in Bible-speak.  “Remembering” words occur 265 times in the Bible.   On every Jewish gravestone you will see the Hebrew word zakar (remember), a call to God to remember the bones within and to call one day and reassemble them.

    So Moses reminds God that remembering is what the Lord is supposed to do:

 

And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.

 

Remembering is at the heart of the God we worship.  Everyday we remember, too, to do what Jesus taught us.  As Luke reminds us,

 

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Luke 22:19

 

It is not that God forgets.  But in reminding God to remember, we remind ourselves to remember.  Our remembering is to assume responsibility for who we are, for what we are, and a reminder to what work we are called.  Remembering is a way of acknowledging our identity. We remember that he took a cup; we remember that he took bread. So we remember that we are sustained to live what we are called to be and in the strength of that sustenance to go and to do, even if the going has a taste of Calvary about it. 

 

Responsorial Psalm  

Psalm 51:3-4. 12-13. 17. 19.  R/. Luke 15:18 

 

R/.  I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you”.

 

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

 blot out my transgressions.

 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

                     and cleanse me from my sin.            R/.

 

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

 Cast me not away from your presence,

and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

           and uphold me with a willing spirit.          R/.

 

O Lord, open my lips,

and my mouth will declare your praise.

 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, 

O God, 

you will not despise.

 

R/.  I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you”.

 

While the notes introducing many psalms are not authentic, that is, they are not guaranteed to be genuine; they are in many cases interesting and suggestive.  The inscription heading Psalm 51 is especially headline grabbing:

 

To the Choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had come into Bathsheba.

 

The pun of “come into” is particularly suggestive and it casts a very personal aurora over the prayer.  It turns it into a prayer of confession and an act of contrition for sleeping with Bathsheba and disposing of her husband.  But the psalm was written long after the sordid events of the pair of them are alleged to have occurred. The clue is in the last verse when God is called upon to repair the walls of Jerusalem and its Temple in order that sacrifices may be offered on its altar.  Since the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., nigh on 500 years after the time of David (when the Temple had yet to be built by his son Solomon), it is not the prayer that David badly needed to pray.

    Be that as it may, the psalm has entered into the ancient liturgy of the Jewish people and into the confessional prayer of Christian worship.  It is part of the introductory prayer in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement and it is one of the Seven Penitential Psalms. 

   Today’s Responsorial Psalm is meant to stand for the repentance of the young son when he comes back to his father. The parable gives much less space to the prayer which that young man composed as a way into his father’s heart, and even less to the appeal he tries to make when he meets his doting parent. However, to underline the repentance of the son is to skewer the parable in a particular direction that is not of the essence of the parable, as we shall see.   

        

 

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to Timothy

1:12-17

 

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen

The word of the Lord. 

 

Whether St Paul wrote this letter or whether it came from the pen of a disciple of the great apostle is a matter of dispute.  I tend to the latter position. Somebody wrote for the generation after the death of Paul but sought to apply Paul’s teaching to a new time and a new place.  This unknown writer imagines that Paul his teaching his young friend and companion and advising him on matters pertinent to new and challenging condition.

   To start with, he reminds everyone of where Paul came from.  From blasphemer to believer in Christ Jesus. From persecutor of Christians to apostle of the Lord Jesus.  From insolent opponent to dedicated worshipper. This amazing conversion was God’s doing; the mercy of God showered the grace of our Lord Jesus on us; Christ created faith and love where there had been hate and contempt. 

    The obvious conclusion of Paul’s transformation is this: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And Paul was transformed, not for his own sake, but so that he could become the apostle God intended him to be.  That is what God’s mercy does. It is not a quick fix. It is always transformational. It is always vocational, calling, not only to leave sin behind, to be inspired by love, to be made resolute by faith, and to meet the future with hope. 

     In Paul’s case the transformational grace was a thing of beauty:

 

But I received mercy for this reason:

that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 

 

The message is clear: if God that do it with Paul, God can do it with me.  And if that miracle were to happen, there will be only one appropriate response: thankful praise:

 

To the King of ages,

immortal, invisible,

the only God,

be honour and glory,

forever and ever.

AMEN.

 

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke

15:1-32

 

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

  So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. ’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

  And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me. ’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

        “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. ’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. ’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound. ’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him! ’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.

The Gospel of the Lord.  

 

The first and essential thing to notice is that which has gone before.  We have just had three parables:

 

The Parable of the Wedding Feast (Luke 14:7-11)

The Parable of the Great Banquet (Like 14:12-24)

The Parable of the Bigger Barns (Luke 14:25-34)

 

 The parables concern human behaviour, about how humans being must behave if they are to mirror the God at the heart of all that Jesus does and says.  We must have ears to hear. We must align ourselves with by aligning ourselves to the demands God makes upon us if we are to be women and men after God’s own heart, or, if you prefer, people who are, as they are made, in the image of God.  The challenge is this: if the world is to see God it must see God in the very being of the Church, in the very life of every parish. 

 

    THE MEANING

 

In chapter 15 we have three parables about God.  This is the God who acts. This is how God acts. This is the God who makes sure the lost are found.  This is the God who is heart scalded if even one human being manages to escape the embrace of God’s love. This is the God who comes to us in the guise of a shepherd, in the person of a distracted woman, and in the broken father in search of two lost sons.   

 

THE CONTEXT

 

To understand the three parables set before us today it is 

essential to be aware of the immediate context:

 

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them”.

Luke 15:1-2

 

On the one hand, the tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus.  Notice the word “all”. It wasn’t a few; it was the many, a whole creation full of tax collectors and sinners.    Every last tax collector, every last sinner, was drawing near to Jesus and listening to his every word. 

    On the other hand, the Pharisees and the scribes were, as usual, grumbling.  This, of course, is not your ordinary grumble. This grumbling has a long and never-to-be-forgotten history.

    Making their way through the desert to freedom, the former slaves began to long for the pots of meat and the loaves of bread and to grumble that they were brought into the desert to be killed by hunger. The Lord, patient as ever, said to Moses,

 

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against the Lord. For what are we, that you grumble against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you in the evening meat to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the Lord has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him—what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.

 

It is very important to grasp the profundity of the grumbling as the setting for the three parables that follow.  We will find the same grumbling when we come to the Zacchaeus story (Luke 19:1-10). What Luke is doing is presenting the Pharisees and scribes as persistently opposed, not only to the “laxity” of Jesus, but by so doing, opposed to the very will of God.  In other words, what Jesus is doing is what God wants done. To oppose him is to oppose God. 

   Notice, too, that Jesus welcomes all tax collectors and all sinners and “eats with them”, the ultimate sign of total acceptance.  Communion around the table of Jesus was always made up of tax collectors, sinners, and such riff-raff, the kind of people that the Pharisees and scribes would not break bread with. 

 

        The lost sheep

 

The story is simple.  A sheep escapes from the fold and gets lost.  The shepherd searches, finds it, and carries it safely home.  Even heaven joins in the celebrations. Now here is a question:  Should the shepherd mend the hole in the fence through which the sheep escaped?

    

The lost coin

 

The distracted woman searches diligently, every drawer, every cupboard, every nook and cranny, until there it is in her purse all the time.  Again, for her every coin is priceless. There is a party, which “the angels of God” are delighted to attend and spread their heavenly joy. And again, a question lurks: what should she do with the coin?

  

    The lost sons

 

This is the longest story of the three and the one that is known far beyond the confines of those who read the Bible or listen to it read. There is no need to rehearse the story.  The younger son comes home, the fatted calf is killed, and there is music and dancing, loud enough to be heard out in the field. The whole story is given a memorable and enduring title: The Prodigal Son.

   But actually, in my reading of it, the real challenge in the story is this: what’s to be done about the elder son?  God cannot leave him out in the field. Getting the younger son to the party is easy-peasy. But how does God overcome to certainties of the righteous?  Luke’s parable is really a challenge to those in our communities who resist the love of God because they do not approve of God’s extravagant outreach to those who are broken by sin or by what the righteous insist, ought to earn God’s condemnation, and not God’s mercy.  The story of the two sons and the loving father, the longest parable in our Gospels, is a challenge to our Church, not to the sinners without but to the righteous within. How must we change in order that everyone is dressed in the best robe, everyone has a ring put on a finger, and shoes on feet?  Jesus has, it seems to me, left the ending open and it is incumbent on us who follow Jesus to create blessed endings. The elder son is the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost soul. His trouble is that, in his eyes, not he, but everyone else is a sinner, and he alone may come to the table of rejoicing.  The problem Jesus sets is this: can the Father reach the hearts of the self-righteous? 

 

That is the parable for our times.

 

Joseph O’Hanlon

P.S.   

I was once lecturing on Luke’s Gospel, part of a six-month sabbatical programme, and I suggested that the parable of the Prodigal Son was not finished by Jesus.  We are left with the elder son out in the field, resisting the pleas of the father to join in celebrations for the brother who was dead, the brother who was lost, and is now come to life again.  Surely it cannot end there with the elder son unreconciled? So I asked the participants to suggest what happened next.

   A Dutch priest wrote 2½ A4 pages of extremely interesting theological perspectives on the mercy of God.

   A Nigerian nun was there, a nursing sister in her fifties, with a limp as a result of childhood polio. She looked very tired.  I supposed she was on a sabbatical more for a rest than anything else. She wrote five words,

 

Then his mother went out …

 

That was for me a moment of grace.




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