Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

Sunday 11 September 2022

We are presented in today’s Gospel with an overwhelming picture of God. It is a picture that we could never have guessed at ourselves and, in spite of Jesus’ words, it is a picture than many of us still find difficult to accept in its fullness.

We might feel more comfortable with the God depicted in the First Reading, which is from the book of Exodus. This is a God that is more like ourselves. We see a God bent on taking vengeance on his idolatrous, treacherous and stiff-necked people. It is only by a kind of blackmail on Moses’ part that God is moved. How can God, asks Moses, wipe out a people who, in the presence of the Gentiles, he has so dramatically liberated? How can God go back on his solemn promise that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be “as many as the stars of heaven”? So the Lord, reluctantly it seems, holds back the arm of his justified anger. Yes, we can identify with such behaviour. In our more generous moments, we might feel capable of rising to the same level.

In the long version of the Gospel, we are given a threefold picture of how God looks on the sinful person and on a sinful people. The three stories hammer home the same theme: God will go to any length to bring the sinner back to a loving relationship with himself.

There is the story of the sheep, no doubt a rebellious maverick, which has wandered far from the flock. The shepherd does not rest till he has found it and brought it back. There is no punishment but rather an invitation to the neighbours to join in celebrating the reunion. There is the woman, presumably poor, who loses a coin she can ill afford to be without. Again, the emphasis is on the joy shared with the neighbours on finding what had been lost.

And of course, is the marvellous story we usually call the “Prodigal Son”. But, as has often been pointed out, it is rather the story of the Prodigally Generous Father. It is the father who is the central figure. He gives generously of his own belongings to his younger son. The son fritters it all away on debauching pleasures. Through it all, the father waits and watches. He is never angry and he never condemns. It is a very different image from the First Reading. When the son finally “comes to his senses”, and shamefully makes his way home, he is overwhelmed by his father’s love and affection. Nothing is too good to be brought out to celebrate the return of the boy who “was dead and has come to life again”.

This is a picture of love and forgiveness we might find difficult to imitate. Imagine if one of your family were to squander all the family wealth in such a way, say, by reckless gambling or indulging in drugs. What kind of a welcome could he expect on his return?

It is likely that most of us can identify much more easily with the elder son. He was a “good boy”, dutifully serving his father without thought of personal reward. Naturally, he feels strong resentment at the extraordinary treatment his “black sheep” of a brother gets. How can the father act like this? It is simply not fair!

It is important for us to remember the context in which these stories were spoken. The passage opens by saying, ”The tax collectors and sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say.” The passage seems to be speaking on two inter-related levels. The first is the contrast between the behaviour of the religiously self-righteous and those who were seen as moral outsiders by them. The second is between Jesus’ own people (represented by the elder son who scrupulously followed the rules of his father’s house) and the “pagans” seen as both amoral and immoral (represented by the younger son indulging in all kinds of depraved behaviours).

There are two key words here: they are “seek” and “hear”. Anyone – no matter what their past or present behaviour may be – who is genuinely “seeking” Jesus and wants to “hear” what he has to say cannot be all sinner. The definition of a sinner is one who has ceased seeking Jesus and has stopped listening to him. Jesus can see in these people gathered round him people in search, people eager to learn and to change.

The Pharisees and the scribes, however, can only see stereotypes, people carrying the label “sinner”. So they complain in great righteousness. “This man [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them [horror of horrors!].” In their eyes, as a rabbi, Jesus was defiling himself by eating together with such people. Jesus does not deal with such criticism by giving long theological explanations. He tells a story. In this case, he tells three stories. Their message is abundantly clear: God loves everyone and wishes them to turn to him. If they do, there is a huge welcome for them.

However, there is a danger that we could go to an extreme of tolerance, which is not contained in Jesus’ teaching. It would be a false reading to conclude that no matter what we do God is forgiving us.

There are two elements in our relationship with God which need to be distinguished. The first element is the love of God. That love is absolutely unconditional. No matter what kind of person I may be, no matter what I have done against God, against others, or against myself, God’s outreaching love for me is absolutely unchanging.

He does not love me more if I am a saint or love me less because I am a sinner. God is all love, and so his whole self goes out in love, be it to a saint or to the most vicious dictator or criminal. If anything, God seems to be more biased towards the sinner. “People who are well do not need a doctor but only those who are sick,” he said once.

However, God’s forgiveness is something else. That is not unconditional. It is clear from the story of the Prodigal Son. The father deeply loves the younger son and bears no ill will towards him. This is clearly indicated by his father seeing him “while he was still a long way off”. But there can be no forgiveness in the full sense until the son makes that crucial about turn, that “conversion”, that metanoia experience. There can be no real forgiveness in the full sense until there is reconciliation. The wound of division needs to be healed.

In our way of thinking, we tend to look on forgiveness as a one-sided thing. “I have been deeply offended by X but I forgive him/her.” X may not know that and his/her feelings have not changed. In confession, too, we can think of God one-sidedly forgiving us our sins. But it is not just for novelty that we now refer to ‘confession’ as the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That is what takes place in the parable between the father and the wayward son, who expresses his deep sorrow, passionately embraces his father and returns to where he belongs. This is what needs to take place when I confess my sins to God or when I wish to heal a broken relationship in life.

What is true, however, in our reconciliation with God is that once, like the son, I take that initial step, I can be absolutely sure that I will be received back. There will be no “ifs” or “buts”, no conditions, no reservations, no punishment, no compensation to be made.

This is eloquently put by Paul in the Second Reading. He acknowledges that he was a sinner, “the greatest of them”, in doing all he could to wipe out the followers of Christ. But he discovered Christ and the mercy of God. “Here is a saying that you can rely on and nobody should doubt: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And he regards that he is the greatest of them. But he came to experience the “inexhaustible patience” of Christ his Lord. He more than made up for that and in another context will call himself the greatest, the hardest working of the apostles. But he knows the source of his zeal: it is Christ his Lord working in him.

At the same time, all that we say about the way God receives us back must clearly be carried out in our relationships with other people. “Forgive us our sins,” we pray constantly in the Lord’s Prayer, “in the same way we forgive (i.e. we wish to be reconciled with) those who sin against us.”

“Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” that is, love all unconditionally just as God loves me and be ready to forgive and be reconciled with every single person just as he does.

And that is where perfection lies. Not, as the Pharisees thought, in the perfect observance of rules and law but:

in loving others unconditionally and not on the basis of their behaviour or the attitudes they have towards us;

in making sure that our forgiveness concludes in full reconciliation with the person we believe has been unjust to us.

This is not easy, it is a challenge, but it is also by no means impossible. Would you prefer the opposite – to be a consistently hating, unforgiving, vengeful, bitter person? And guess who suffers most – the one hated or the one hating? Nearly always it is the hater. If we have any sense, we will follow the Way of Jesus, not just because he tells us in the name of God but simply because it is the better way to go. The Prodigal Son learnt that lesson the hard way. We are meant to learn from him.