By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; Response: Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Gospel: Luke 15:1-32
The story of the infamous and iconic golden calf is the background of today’s first reading. Moses had been on Mt. Sinai 40 days and 40 nights hobnobbing with the Lord. There was a lot to do up there — receiving the Torah (revelation), which Moses was to convey to the Israelites. Then, there was the carving of the commandments into stone — a sign of permanence. Was it just the Big Ten or all 613 commandments of the Torah? Down on the plain, the old adage asserted itself, “When the cat is away, the mice will play.” Moses was gone too long. A delegation comes to his brother Aaron. “We don’t know what happened to this Moses. Make us a god to lead us.” Aaron asked for everyone’s golden earrings. Even the boys were wearing them. “Bring them to me!” He threw them into a furnace to melt the gold. Later he will say to his brother Moses, “And out comes this calf!” Such was their new god. The Lord’s majesty was not pleased. He was burning with anger. “Get thee on down the mountain, Moses, and stay out of my way! The people you brought out of Egypt (putting the blame on Moses seems a bit unfair) have made themselves a molten calf, sacrificing it, and crying out, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.’”
They broke the very first of the Big Ten commandments. (Moses, burning with righteous anger, was about to break all of them!) The Lord threatens to destroy the whole people. But he offers a major consolation to Moses, “I will make of you a great nation.” Moses turns tables on the Lord, and says, “You brought these people out of Egypt. If you destroy them, here is what the Egyptians will say, ‘He brought them out to kill them in the mountains.’” Moses got to the Lord’s heart with that statement. He knew how jealously the Lord guarded his own reputation. Moses also reminded the Lord how he swore to the ancestors of the Israelites that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars. He knew that the Lord did not want to be known as an oath breaker. Bad for one’s reputation. Besides the promise of numbers, the Lord had also promised them a patch of land, and that promise was not yet fulfilled. At the end of our reading, the Lord relents of the massacre he was about to inflict. This is how the story tellers of ages ago spoke in human ways about God, depicting the Lord as temperamental and careful of his reputation. All the while, the Holy Spirit used their human words to convey revelation — God’s compassion for his creatures. Moses comes across as a great politician, a leader whose concern is not for his own glorification, but to serve his people. God’s compassion in this story corresponds to his compassion in today’s gospel.
God’s compassion, though somewhat belated in our first reading, determined the selection of Psalm 51 as a response. The psalmist pleads, “Have mercy on me, O God. In the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Wash me from my guilt. Cleanse me from my sin.” Instead of offering animal sacrifices in atonement, “My sacrifice is a contrite heart. A humble heart you will not spurn.” The people’s response from today’s gospel: “I will rise and go to my father.”
The second reading is a letter of Paul to his young ward and protégé Timothy (See Acts 16:1-3 for Paul’s acquisition of Timothy as a co-worker). Paul recalls his own former life as a persecutor of Christians, “a blasphemer . . . and arrogant.” Despite that history, he was granted God’s mercy, even made worthy of God’s trust in appointing him to the ministry. Paul calls himself the “foremost of sinners.” God used him as an example, so that Christ Jesus would be seen as patient with sinners. Thus, an encouragement to believers who hope for eternal life.
This Sunday’s gospel is all of Luke’s 15th chapter. It can be called the “Lost and Found Chapter.” The headline is important because its sets the stage for the three parables Luke collected into this catechesis. “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus.” Jesus’ critics observe, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke’s gospel is the Gospel of the outcast. Chief among them were the tax collectors. They were fellow-Jews who needed to make a living, so they took a job with the occupying power of the Holy Land — the Roman Empire. To many of Jesus’ contemporaries, this made them traitors to their own people. Who besides tax collectors were the “sinners” in the opinions of the scribes? The list could be long, but here are some of them: sex workers, murderers, robbers, thieves, shepherds, merchants and physicians. The last two were included because they had to deal with women in their work – therefore, always under suspicion. Another species of sinners: all who did not or could not adhere to the traditions the scribes developed out of their study of the Torah, plus all Gentiles (non-Jews). This kind of snobbery did not die out after the first century. It lives among some Christians in their exclusion of salvation for anyone not agreeing with their constipated idea of Christianity.
What is Luke’s counter, which is also that of Jesus? Three parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Lost Son. A shepherd owning 100 sheep notices one is missing. It is lost. He leaves the 99 in the wilderness – which no sane shepherd would do – to look for his lost sheep. When he finds it, he hoists it to his shoulder, brings it home, and hosts a huge party. Second parable: a woman has 10 coins, loses one, sweeps the house, (checks under the sofa cushions?), until she finds it. She also throws a huge party, which she could not afford. The lesson of the parable: there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over all those who did not need repentance. The third parable is well-known. It is usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but should be called “the Lost Son.” The word “prodigal” means free-spending. In the story there were two sons. The younger son is restless, wants to leave home, and asks for his inheritance. The father complies. The young man blows it all on loose living. Now, he is starving. He repents, returns to his father and, with a huge party, is restored to son-ship. Unrealistic? Yes, but it demonstrates how crazy in love God is with us sinners, ready to welcome us back into his family.