By: Fr. James Gross
Fifteen years ago today, the tranquility of a late summer weekday was shattered, not only in New York, DC, and Pennsylvania, but all through the country. The 2001 terrorist attacks left us stunned and grieving. Air and train traffic was brought to a halt, along with many other events. And sadly, the past fifteen years have visited sorrow and violence upon many other parts of the world. The number of people who refuse to learn from and grow out of the lust for conquest and bloodshed is a scandal for us as Christians and all those of good will. Our observance of the Jubilee Year of Mercy reminds us that only divine mercy will improve the world. May the Hearts of Jesus and Mary pierce through the hardness of heart of all who deny and reject mercy, and lead us to a new era of peace.
In today’s readings we receive some powerful images of God’s mercy. I feel like my homily should stand to the side and let these images shine through. So I will briefly shed light on some of the pertinent details from these scriptures that we ought not to miss.
Hindsight helps us to see the magnitude of the Israelites’ sin in today’s first reading. After all the miraculous works they had witnessed, all it took was Moses’ prolonged absence atop Mt. Sinai for the people to panic and revert to idolatry. The very picture of worshiping a golden calf fashioned out of the molten metal of the people’s jewelry strikes us as pathetic and absurd.
The author presents this dialogue between God and Moses as though God had changed His mind. Actually, God does not and cannot change, but over time we come to see how God has always been that merciful and understanding. To meet them in their wretchedness, to refuse to wipe them out, was the greater display of God’s power, because it enabled the Hebrews to return to a more profound faith than before.
The three parables we hear in today’s Gospel are among Jesus’ masterpieces. The first two point to our intrinsic value simply for who we are as God’s children, and that God always regards us as such. Upon finding his lost sheep, the shepherd doesn’t cruelly strike him and force him to run the whole way home. Rather, he carries the sheep on his shoulders and gently returns it to the flock.
Moreover, when one of the woman’s coins is missing, she doesn’t act as though it doesn’t matter. She searches high and low, and broadcasts the good news once she has found it. What a consolation it is to know that the Holy Trinity, our Blessed Mother Mary, my patron saint, and my guardian angel—just to name a few—care every bit as much as that for me. Whereas the world is inclined not to care much about a single sheep or coin, God never casts us off like that.
We have three well-defined characters in this final parable: the Prodigal Son, his older brother, and their father. As we listen closely to the story, we find ourselves identifying with one character more than the other. What amazes me is how that has changed in different stages of my pilgrimage of life.
For example, frequently in my younger years I would focus on the elder brother. He happens to be a carbon copy of those Pharisees who complained that the Lord welcomed sinners and ate with them. I can trot out a sob story just like the elder brother did. I entered the seminary out of high school. All these years I’ve walked the straight and narrow. I haven’t betrayed my vows. Will I come to know and trust the Father’s love for me? Or will that love apply to me only if I cross every “T,” dot every “I,” and follow every last rule? Only God can make forgiveness real. Only God can break through the armor of all the world’s angry siblings who don’t allow God to touch and heal their wounds.
I take solace in the repentant son who owns up to his sinfulness and comes home. We don’t have to hit rock-bottom in some dramatic way in order to relate to him. What we need to do is to remove the blinders of pride, see our true hunger and poverty, and ask the Lord to fill us in our emptiness. All the younger son dared to hope for was the status of a hired man on his dad’s farm. How much more the father had in store for him and provided for him!
St. Paul could speak from experience on this topic, and it is fortunate that we get an autobiographical account from him in today’s second reading. It is hard to think of someone who had more to answer for than Saul of Tarsus—a man who not only opposed Christianity, but sought to apprehend and imprison those who practiced the faith! His conversion was so drastic that at first the faithful had a hard time believing that he was genuine. But patiently and consistently, Paul submitted himself to the compassion of our miracle-working God, becoming as he called it an “earthen vessel” whose strength came from Christ and not himself.
As I grow older, I find that I naturally identify more with the dad in this parable. My heart will get broken, but God will spur me on to continue loving, hoping, and praying. The fact that the father sees and recognizes his son, although he’s a long way off, indicates that the father never stopped looking for him. The father could angrily have declared, “I was as good as dead in your eyes. Guess what; forever you’ll be dead to me!” But he refused.
Instead, he runs to his son. In this culture it was disgraceful and very unbecoming for an older man to run. One would expect the father to stay put, and for the son to take every last step to him out of deference. That’s not what unfolded. The father is emotional, extravagant, even foolish: the one who loves cannot do too much for his beloved. Don’t we all long for the Father’s love for us to be just like that? Praise God that it is.