24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached September 15, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
During the course of history and in the world today we meet with two widespread, distorted images of God: the image of the angry god and the image of the doting grandmother god.
The angry god is ever ready to punish the least of our sins, indeed he appears to lie in wait for us to snatch us away from life and damn us to hell the moment we might slip into a mortal sin.
The doting grandmother god, smothers us with kisses and is continually telling us how much she loves us and how good we are; she showers us with gifts and never contradicts us in the least way; she is very fearful lest she offend us. The doting grandmother god would never condemn anyone to hell, but we might not be too fond of the Christmas sweaters she gives us.
The worshippers of the angry god walk in fear and dread at every moment. The worshippers of the doting grandmother god generally don’t pay much attention to her, unless they crave her cuddling comfort or her many goodies.
In truth, neither the angry god or the doting grandmother god is the living God, creator of heaven and earth; they are rather both of them idols of the human imagination, inspired by the devil.
Some people, listening to today’s first reading, hearing about God’s blazing wrath, and Moses’ intercession, might think of the ‘angry god’. Others, listening to today’s Gospel, hearing about the merciful father who rushes out to receive the prodigal son on his return home, might think of the ‘doting grandmother god’. Some people might even set the evil god of the Old Testament, the angry god, in opposition to the good god of the New Testament, the doting grandmother god. That indeed is an ancient Christian heresy that dates back at least to the 2nd century.
If we consider the word of God in its entirety, Old Testament and New, we might get some glimpse of the reality of the living God, a God who is truly worthy of our love, our gratitude, and our worship.
In today’s 1st reading, if we consider well the severe words of the Lord to Moses we might notice that rather than expression of uncontrolled passion, they contain at objective statement of the gravity of Israel’s sin and the threat of punishment. God’s ‘wrath’ is nothing other than punishing the people as they deserve.
God proposes the punishment to Moses precisely because he wants Moses to intercede for his people. He wants his merciful action to come as a response to prayer and intercession; he invites his faithful to collaboration in his work of mercy.
In his prayer, Moses appeals to God on account of the promises he had made to the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In effect this is an appeal to the covenant that God established with his people as the sort of foundation and promise of all his works of mercy on their behalf. The covenant reveals that God’s mercy is the deeper reality. The covenant with the Patriarchs and its promises in turn pointed forward to the new and eternal covenant in Jesus Christ, the great covenant of mercy and the forgiveness of sins.
In this light, if we consider God’s mercy and his wrath throughout the Old Testament, we will see that God’s wrath expressed in the just punishment of sin is always ordered to the deeper reality of his mercy, granted unconditionally in the covenant.
We can see how this is summed up through the prophet Ezekiel. In many ways, Ezekiel appears as a great prophet of God’s wrath. He pronounces great and severe judgments in the name of the Lord, judgments that came to pass: the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of the Temple that had been built by Solomon, and the exile of the people to Babylon.
Yet, through the prophet the Lord also makes the following declaration, backed by his immovable oath: As I live, says the Lord God, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather that wicked man turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! Why should you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11)
With the words of Ezekiel in mind we can now turn to today’s 2nd reading. St. Paul writes of his own conversion saying: 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.
What exactly was St. Paul’s sin before his conversion? He was not an adulterer, nor was he a thief, nor was he a liar. Indeed, he always strove to live faithfully according to the law of God, with all of its demands. He was not a murderer either, except that he did consent to the death of the innocent St. Stephen and was responsible for other Christians being put to death, but he was acting ignorantly, thinking himself an agent of God’s justice.
There we begin to see the truth. St. Paul wanted God to punish and destroy the wicked. Had St. Paul, before his conversion, been put into the position of Moses in today’s 1st reading he would have responded to God’s announcement of Israel’s sin: “Go ahead, Lord, destroy them as they deserve.”
This wickedness of the unconverted St. Paul is by no means rare. There are many people, religious or not, who think that the problems of the world would be solved if we just got rid of all the bad people – a group that somehow never involves the person who is thinking or saying such things.
After his conversion, St. Paul professes his faith in Jesus Christ who came into the world to save sinners. What does the salvation of sinners mean? It means that they cease to be sinners; that they are inwardly transformed from sinners to men who are holy and righteous. God created something out of nothing, that was easy for him because nothing offers no resistance; his greater work consist in making the sinner into a saint. After his own conversion, after the transformation has begun in his own life, after he has begun to taste the gift of God, St. Paul wants that same gift for others. So like God, St. Paul does not want the death of the sinner, but his conversion and life.
So now we come to today’s Gospel, the famous parable of the Prodigal Son and the Merciful Father, together with the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Jesus could hardly be more emphatic in telling us about God’s intense joy in the conversion of the sinner.
Further, we need to emphasize over and over that there is no sin, no matter how great, that God will not forgive, so long as the person sincerely repents of all his sins. Indeed, we have right up to the moment of our dying breath for that repentance. Nevertheless repentance is not something that we should postpone because the deeper a person gets into sin, the harder it is to repent.
There is something else we need to consider here.
Let us ask why the Prodigal Son chose to leave the Father’s house in the first place. The key might be found in the complaint of the older son. Life in the Father’s house involved a rather strict discipline. The older son did not like it, but stayed. The prodigal left.
To both the older and the younger sons, the Father emphasizes the simple fact, privilege and importance of being a son. He celebrates the restoration of his younger son’s belonging and sonship, while he urges the older son to recognize the gift of being a son.
Let us recall what we heard just a few Sundays ago: Whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Even the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, was not exempt. Indeed he took that discipline on himself, becoming obedient even to death on a Cross in order to encourage us by his example, give us hope, and give us the strength of his grace to follow him. He teaches us that all the suffering is indeed worthwhile, even if we cannot see that now.
God wants us truly to become his sons and daughters. Yes, we received this gift in baptism, but God does not sons in name only, like the older son in the parable, who complains of the discipline. He wants sons who are worthy of the Father, who like Jesus, rejoice to do his will, who seek always what pleases him. Sons who know that all that the Father has belongs to us and that all that we are belongs to him.
St. Paul puts it this way: All things belong to you … and you to Christ, and Christ to God. (1 Cor 3:22)
We need the discipline because that is what will purify us of our pride and make us worthy to enter fully into our inheritance as children of God, the inheritance of eternal life, the inheritance of the Father’s house in heaven.
Again, St. Paul tells us: The Spirit bears witness that you are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Rm 8:16-17)
That glory will be God’s great joy in us and our great joy in God. That will be the eternal celebration in the Father’s house, when the lost will have been found and the dead restored to life, when every tear shall be wiped away and God shall make all things new. (cf. Rev 21:4,5)