A Reflection on the Reading for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 11, 2022
Reading I: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Responsorial Psalm: 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
Reading II: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Gospel: Luke 15:1-32
The “golden thread” of this week’s readings is pretty evident and doesn’t require much commentary. That thread is God’s mercy to sinners and the joy that God feels when sinners repent. But our first reading from Exodus 32 is unique in that it is one of only two examples that I can remember in the Old Testament where someone (Moses in this case) convinces God to change his mind concerning the punishment he has determined to inflict on sinners. Exodus 32 is the “Golden Calf” incident where Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God and the people thought he had died on the mountain so Aaron, Moses’ brother, fashioned the golden calf and declared it to be their God. That, of course, prompts God’s anger and his response to that anger is in our reading today. He will destroy the people he led from Egypt and start over by making a great nation of the descendants of Moses. But Moses interceded with God on behalf of the people, and God relented of the punishment he intended.
On the surface, Moses’ intercession here could be understood as a sort of arguing with God and convincing God to change his mind. But it is better to see this as intercessory prayer, pointing out to us that God will hear our prayers on behalf of others and may respond to our intercession. The other example of this type of intercessory prayer that comes to mind is in Genesis 18, where Abraham interceded with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God relented.
When we read the Old Testament, particularly the books of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), we may be led to believe we are reading a documentary; that we are presented with incidents exactly as they happened. These books contain many different stories, written by many different people over many years of time and then edited by others before they reached the form as we have it today in the Bible. The actual Exodus probably took place in the 13th century B.C., but the books of the Pentateuch probably didn’t reach the form we have today until the 6th century B.C. So it is important for us to remember that the Bible is a book of faith, not a book of history. There is much historical data in the Bible but it is not the intention of the authors to relate actual history to us; it is to relate the history of the Israelite people in relation to God, in relation to the law given them by God through Moses, and in relation to the nations around them. And all of their history relates to when they were either faithful to those relationships and were rewarded by God for that fidelity or were unfaithful in those relationships and were punished by God. So we are always reading a theological interpretation of Israel’s history, not factual history.
So the message of our first reading this week is that, even in the face of apostasy; denying God and worshipping something other than God such as a golden calf, money, prestige, power, etc., God can be merciful, especially if sinners repent or others intercede with God on their behalf.
Our second reading from 1st Timothy also reflects the message of God’s mercy. Timothy was converted to Christianity by Paul and was eventually made the administrator (i.e., bishop) of Ephesus. Paul writes to him to admonish him to stay in Ephesus and continue to preach the gospel. And in this passage, Paul reflects on how he was treated with such mercy when he was a persecutor of the church out of ignorance in his unbelief, and he refers to himself as the “foremost” of sinners. But Paul was treated with extreme mercy as an example to those who would come to believe through Paul. In other words, if Paul can receive God’s mercy after trying to eliminate the church, you and I can hope for the same mercy if we repent and change our ways.
Our gospel reading carries the same message, whether we hear the long or short version. Jesus conveys that message through parables. The lost sheep and the lost coin are symbols that are to be understood as representing repentant sinners and “there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” And the parable of the prodigal son is even more poignant. The sinful son demands his inheritance while his father is still living. He is essentially telling his father: I wish you were dead. After squandering his inheritance, he finds himself tending swine. There could be nothing more demeaning for a Jew than to have to tend and feed swine as pigs were considered “unclean.” That should point out to us the depths of sin that the prodigal son had fallen into. Yet, the sinful son repents of his sinfulness and the father (God) welcomes him back. The son who did not squander the father’s money is, of course, upset. But the father responds: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” The message is clear: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.”
The “golden thread” this week may be God’s mercy to sinners who repent, but we should also see in the parables Jesus uses the joy that God feels when a sinner repents. The shepherd who lost a sheep and the woman who lost a coin are so overjoyed at finding what was lost that they throw a great party. The father of the prodigal son is so overjoyed at his son’s return that he does the same. God rejoices when we repent of our sins and return to him.
But there is also a warning in our gospel concerning the older son: Are we ever jealous or indignant when someone we know to be a serious sinner claims to repent and receives the sacraments of the church? Do we doubt the sincerity of repentance? We should take a lesson from the shepherd, the woman, and the father of the prodigal son; rejoice in the return of the sinner who was lost, and let God be the judge of the sincerity of the repentance.
Reference: Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2d/Rembrandt_-_The_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_%28detail%29_-_WGA19135.jpg
Author: Ric Cross