Ex 32:7-11,13-14; 1Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32
OTHER HOMILY SOURCES from e-priest
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
God’s True Opinion of Sinners
These parables teach us more about the heart of God than a whole library full of theological treatises.
- They show us vividly that God cares about each one of us: he will not rest if only one sheep is missing, or one coin is lost.
- They show us that he cares deeply enough to go out of his way to save us when we are lost: it was certainly an inconvenience to go bushwhacking after the foolish stray sheep, and to light the lamp and sweep the dirt-floored house trying to find the lost coin.
- They show that God rejoices when we return to him, as the shepherd rejoices upon retrieving his sheep, and as the woman rejoices upon recovering her coin – every sinner who returns to God causes a joyful celebration to break out in the halls of heaven and the heart of the Father.
This portrait of goodness is set in high relief by the contrary attitude of the Pharisees, whose self-righteous and judgmental comments provided the occasion for these parables.
- If the Pharisees had possessed Christ’s power and authority, they would have destroyed all “sinners.”
- But Christ uses all his power and authority to bring sinners back into communion with God.
- The Pharisees’ idea of God is off base.
- They see God as harsh and judgmental, when the truth is that God is a dedicated shepherd.
- God feels anxiousness in regards to sinners, not anger.
- He wants them back. He doesn’t want to condemn them.
The Pharisees can’t understand this, because they have painted their image of God in their own likeness.
- They enjoy condemning others for being less perfect than themselves, because it feeds their vanity, making them feel superior.
- But the Lord has no vanity, only love.
Moses Gets It Right (linked to First Reading)
This limitless and entirely selfless desire to save sinners was revealed most fully by Christ on the cross, but it is also the main theme behind every other episode in salvation history.
We just listened to one of those episodes.
- While Moses had been up on the mountain in prayer, receiving the Law from God’s own hands, the Israelites down in the valley had lost hope and abandoned their faith.
- Instead of continuing to trust in the God who had already done so many miracles to save them from slavery and lead them to safety, they gave up on God.
- They rebelled against him, turned their backs on him, and built an idol out of gold.
- From the Pharisees’ perspective, God should have simply destroyed them.
- That’s the natural view of things, which God seems to adopt in his conversation with Moses, when he says he is going to destroy these faithless, stiff-necked people.
But God doesn’t mean it. He is only testing Moses. And Moses passes the test.
- Moses has just spent weeks in prayer, in God’s presence.
- He has been faithful to God’s will through some very difficult times.
- And so, by this point in his life, Moses has come to understand the heart of God, a heart built for forgiveness.
- Knowing this, Moses doesn’t hesitate to pray for his people.
- He knows they deserve punishment, but he knows that God wants to give them another chance, and so he asks confidently for that, and God grants his prayer.
This is a rough, Old Testament sketch, of the God who was already planning to send his Son to take upon himself the punishment that sinners deserved.
- Our God doesn’t dish out his mercy drop by drop from an eye-dropper.
- Our God showers us with his patience, forgiveness, and love – like a waterfall.
St Paul’s Main Point (linked to Second Reading)
This is the lesson that St Paul tries to explain to Timothy in the Second Reading.
- He is telling his disciple, Timothy, about his own experience of Christ.
- And he emphasizes Christ’s patience and mercy.
- He actually sums up Christ’s entire mission with one short sentence:
- “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Paul knows this, because he recognizes that he himself is a “foremost” sinner, and yet God singled him out for a great mission, and gave him an abundant experience of his grace.
- Paul had been a violent persecutor of Christians.
- He had been intent on destroying Christians, on putting them to death for blasphemy. He had been a Pharisee.
- Now, having experienced Christ’s mercy and grace, he has become the apostle of forgiveness.
Portrait of a Good Shepherd
The good shepherd was one of the favorite figures in early Christian art.
It is an image that God uses to describe himself throughout the history of salvation, in the Old Testament as well as the New.
If we pause to let our imaginations explore it, it will help us appreciate this message of God’s tireless mercy.
Picture the scene:
- A shepherd counts his sheep after a long day of grazing, as the sun goes down.
- One is missing. He counts again. Yes, one sheep has wandered away from the flock.
- High on the mountainside pasture, the air is already getting cold as daylight fades. The flock huddles together.
- The shepherd leads them into a natural hollow under an overhanging cliff.
- He turns around and retraces his steps; he sets out to find the lost sheep.
- He stumbles over sharp rocks in the lengthening shadows. He has to climb off the path, pushing through brambles and thorns.
- He pulls his cloak tighter around him to keep out the chill. It starts to drizzle. Will the wolves come out in the rain?
- There is no moon tonight, and the clouds block out the stars. Maybe he should turn back while he can still find his way. He will come and search for the lost sheep in the morning…
- A wolf howls; the morning may be too late. He trudges on.
- The mud is slippery. The wind picks up. Water drips down the back of his neck. Soon he is soaked to the skin. The night crawls on.
- He will find his sheep. That’s what matters. He is a good shepherd.
This is what Jesus wants us to have in mind when we find ourselves lost, stuck in our sins, separated from him and from others. He wants us to see him as our Savior, not as our punisher.
The Right Spin on Confession
This message of God’s attitude towards sinners gives us the secret to the sacrament of confession.
Our fallen human nature, egged on by the devil’s temptations, tends to see confession as something unpleasant.
- We tend to avoid it, or not to look forward to it.
- But think about that for a minute. Have you ever gone to confession and felt worse afterwards than you did before?
- Of course not.
God didn’t invent the sacrament of confession in order to torture us. He invented it because he loves us.
It is not meant to be drudgery. Nor is it God being manipulative or coercive.
- Rather, confession is God’s way of making it as simple and direct as possible for us to come back into the flock after we have wandered off.
- It is the perfect way for us to let him take us back into his arms, back into his home after we have turned away from him,
- just as the father in the parable took back his prodigal son,
- and just as the woman searching for the coin rejoiced when she had it back in her possession.
God knows the devil will keep sowing doubts in our hearts about whether or not God really can forgive our sins, especially the particularly bad ones that we are most ashamed of.
God loves us too much to leave any room for that kind of nagging doubt. So he gives us the sacrament of confession to cut right through the devil’s deceptions.
If we aren’t using this great gift regularly, every month, for example, we probably need to examine our idea of God.
- Do we see him as our loving Father whose mercy and care are limitless?
- That’s how he wants to be seen – because that’s how he is.
Disciplining Our Thoughts
It is sometimes hard for our fallen human nature to see God’s mercy clearly.
- We tend to be judgmental, so we also tend to project that – wrongly – onto God.
- This wrong conception can be detrimental to our maturity and peace of mind.
- It puts a wall around our own hearts, so that God’s love can’t reach in and transform us.
- And it also puts a wall between us and other people. We become so fixated on their flaws that we become blind to their true value as God’s children.
There is no easy way to tear down these walls.
- We have to do it, with the help of God’s grace, one brick at a time.
- But the more bricks we take down, the easier it gets – the wall gets weaker as it loses bricks.
We can make progress in this area by doing two things.
First, by using frequently the sacrament of confession: the mercy and forgiveness we experience there helps us to be more merciful and understanding toward others
Second, by purifying our critical thoughts.
We actually have control over which thoughts we pay attention to.
- For example, when we notice the dedication of someone we work with and feel a sense of admiration, that’s a worthy thought. We should dwell on it, feed it, and draw strength from it.
- But when we catch ourselves looking down on someone, or when we start to feel dislike for someone because they do better than we do, those are unworthy thoughts, and we should turn away from them.
- This mental discipline is one of the most important factors in our spiritual growth.
This week, when critical and judgmental thoughts come knocking, let’s purposely send them away – even if they try to batter down the door to our mind.
And let’s welcome and entertain the good thoughts, the ones that reflect God’s own thoughts.
If we try, Christ will help us – after all, that’s what good shepherds do.
The Meaning of Life
Christ’s parables always teach us something about God, but they also teach us something about ourselves.
The parables we just listened to clearly highlight God’s mercy, his active love for sinners.
But they also give us an answer to the most difficult and urgent question that the human family has had to face in every generation: what is the meaning of our lives?
First, the parable of the lost sheep:
- When a sheep is lost and separated from the flock, it is helpless and vulnerable.
- It needs the flock and the shepherd to protect and guide it.
- Just so, every human person is created to find meaning and fulfillment in communion with God and others – thus the two great commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor.
- We were not created to be isolated, self-sufficient islands; we are meant to depend on God and others as we pursue happiness.
Second, the parable of the lost coin:
- The lost coin is completely without value unless it is possessed by its owner, unless it is part of the household’s economy.
- Even if it had been a gold piece worth 1000 day’s wages, it would be completely worthless if it stayed buried in the dust under the sofa – it would be of absolutely no use to anyone.
- Likewise, our actions and efforts in life only have real value when they are connected to the mission of the Church, the mission of building up Christ’s Kingdom.
- Outside of the Kingdom we can do things and have adventures that appear exciting, but they lack the eternal value that they are meant to have, just like the coin that was lost.
Both parables reiterate the same lesson: our lives can only find meaning and fulfillment through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ.
The Advantage of Knowing Life’s Purpose
It’s easy for us to forget how privileged we are to know life’s true meaning.
Any Catholic who has received the gift of faith and studied the Catechism knows
- where we came from, why we are here,
- why life is at times so difficult,
- where we are going,
- and how to get there.
Christ has given us the answers to these questions through his revelation and through the teaching of the Church.
Those who have no faith, or those who have abandoned their faith in Christ, have no solid answers to these questions. That is not a happy position to be in.
- For example, H. G. Wells, famous historian and philosopher, said at age 61: “I have no peace. All life is at the end of the tether.”
- The great nineteenth-century poet, adored and emulated by generations of scholars and artists, Byron said, “My days are in yellow leaf, the flowers and fruits of life are gone, the worm and the canker, and the grief are mine alone.”
- The American literary genius Thoreau pointed out, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”
- Ralph Barton, one of the top cartoonists of the nation, left this note pinned to his pillow before taking his own life: “I have had few difficulties, many friends, great successes; I have gone from wife to wife, from house to house, visited great countries of the world, but I am fed up with inventing devices to fill up twenty-four hours of the day.”
Christ came to earth precisely to make sure that we don’t have to “kill time” in life. Precisely to make sure that we never have to fall into the confusion, frustration, and despair of those who don’t know what life is all about.
[Quotations found at http://www.bible.org]
Polishing Up Our Priorities
Now that we have been reminded of the true meaning of our lives, we should be able to polish up our priorities for the week.
What enables us to mature as human beings and as Christians is staying close to the shepherd.
- That means having a healthy prayer life and being true to the voice of conscience, which is one of our shepherd’s favorite ways to guide us.
- Maybe some of us have been slacking off in our prayer life or ignoring our conscience.
- Today, let’s ask our Lord’s forgiveness and make a fresh start.
- [You may want to recommend a good book on prayer or your favorite prayer book and remind them of the confession schedule.]
And what enables us to fulfill our mission in life is staying plugged into the Church’s mission.
That means knowing what the Church teaches, appreciating what the Church offers her children.
- Maybe some of us have slacked off in this area.
- Maybe we haven’t picked up a Catholic book in months, or years.
- Maybe we don’t even know that Pope Benedict published a book on Jesus Christ.
- Maybe we never really studied our Catechism and have a lot of vague ideas about our faith.
- It is our responsibility not to let ourselves get lost under the sofa again, now that Christ has searched us out.
- [Here you can mention the parish programs that will be starting in the fall and encourage parishioners to sign up. Or you could simply recommend that parishioners make a stop at a good Catholic website every time they are on the World Wide Web. We recommend http://www.ncregister.com and http://www.catholic.net ]
After we pray the Creed in just a few seconds, when we make our offerings to God, let’s put in the basket more than just dollars and cents.
- Let’s also put in that basket a promise to renew our effort in living life the way Christ wants us to live it.
- If we make the decision, Christ himself will help us follow through with it. After all, that’s what good shepherds do.
Being Good Shepherds
Christ is our good shepherd. He has searched us out and brought us back home many times.
But he doesn’t want to do everything by himself. He wants us to be good shepherds too.
In fact, that’s his favorite way of finding lost sheep and gathering lost coins: by sending us out to bring them in.
- Making us co-shepherds is not Christ’s way of punishing or burdening us. Rather, it’s his way of making us share more fully in the joy of his Kingdom.
- The common denominator of these parables is the joy felt once whatever was lost has once again been found.
- The friends of the woman who found her coin are joyful, and they celebrate with her. But the woman herself is indescribably more joyful.
- When Jesus works through us to bring our friends, family members, colleagues, and acquaintances closer to him, he is giving us a chance to experience that kind of joy more intensely.
Jesus came all the way from heaven to earth in order to rescue his lost sheep.
When he asks us to go a little bit out of our way in order to encourage or serve our neighbor,
- to visit the sick,
- to share our faith with someone who is searching for life’s meaning,
- he is giving us a chance to participate in his very own mission.
This is the only mission that makes our actions on earth reverberate into eternity.
Maybe some of us can think of some specific sheep who are wandering. Let’s promise Christ that this week we will do our best to bring them back.
For the rest of us, let’s ask Christ to make use of us this week to find a lost coin or rescue a lost sheep.
If we ask sincerely, there’s no way he’ll be able to say no.
The Danger of a Superficial Faith
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is like a kaleidoscope: it offers countless beautiful insights into what it means to follow Christ.
One of the insights we often overlook has to do with the greatest danger we face as so-called “practicing Catholics”: the danger of living our faith only on the surface, of not letting it penetrate the depths of our hearts.
This parable teaches us that it is possible to live “in the Father’s house” without really getting to know the Father.
- The younger son didn’t really know his father.
- He didn’t know how much his father loved him and how eagerly his father wanted to bequeath him prosperity and joy.
- As a result, he paid his father a colossal insult by demanding his share of the inheritance while his father was still alive.
- It was a way of saying that his father would be of more use to him dead than alive.
- The older son was no better.
- On the surface he seemed to do everything right, but he had no idea about how much his father cared for him, and so he resented the celebration at this brother’s return.
Although they had lived their entire lives under the same roof, the two brothers had never opened their hearts to their father; they had closed themselves into the petty little world of their egoism.
We can easily do the same:
- spend our whole lives as “practicing” Catholics,
- going through all the right motions and looking great on the outside,
- but not opening our hearts to God, not getting to know him on a personal, intimate level.
That’s a risky way to live our faith:
- we could easily end up separated from the Father for good,
- eating corn husks and missing out on the joyful celebration of the Father’s love.
Too Busy for Christ
This summer (July, 2007) a group of Christian sociologists published the results of a study that they had been conducting over a five-year period called, “The Obstacles to Growth Survey.”
- It was conducted on 20,009 Christians with ages ranging from 15 to 88 – the majority of whom came from the United States.
- The survey found that on average, more than 4 in 10 Christians around the world say they “often” or “always” rush from task to task.
- About 6 in 10 Christians say that it’s “often” or “always” true that “the busy-ness of life gets in the way of developing my relationship with God.”
- According to the study, professionals whose busy-ness interferes with developing their relationship with God include lawyers (72 percent), managers (67 percent), nurses (66 percent), pastors (65 percent), teachers (64 percent), salespeople (61 percent), business owners (61 percent), and housewives (57 percent).
The authors of the study concluded that the accelerated pace and activity level of the modern day is distracting us from God.
Here was their line of reasoning:
- Christians are assimilating to a culture of busyness, hurry and overload, which leads to
- God becoming more marginalized in Christians’ lives, which leads to
- a deteriorating relationship with God, which leads to
- Christians becoming even more vulnerable to adopting secular assumptions about how to live, which leads to
- more conformity to a culture of busyness, hurry and overload. And then the cycle begins again.
It is possible to ascribe too much weight to sociological studies, but this one certainly harmonizes with the experience of the two sons in the parable.
- Something made them so self-centered and distracted that they were never able to get to know their father. Maybe it was busyness, maybe it was something else.
- If nothing else, the survey gives us food for thought.
[Information from an article in the Christian Post Reporter, July 30, 2007]
The Problem of the “Lapsi”
One of the saints whose memory the Church celebrates today (September 16) is St Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop from North Africa who died in 258.
He was bishop during one of the worst crises to hit the Church under Roman rule.
And it was a crisis caused by the kind of superficial Christian living that our Lord is warning us about today.
- St Cyprian became a bishop during a long period of peace in between official Roman persecutions of Christians.
- During those easy days, many Christians fell into routine, and many converts were embracing Christian camaraderie more than Christ.
- When the next horrible wave persecution erupted under the Roman Emperor Decian “[DEH-chee-uhn], hundreds, even thousands, of these superficial Christians collapsed under the threat of torture, banishment, and execution.
- They sometimes publicly renounced their faith in order to save their skin.
- Other times they simply purchased forged certificates claiming that they had renounced their faith.
- In both cases, these Christians were giving up their friendship with Christ in order to avoid suffering for Christ.
When that wave of persecution finally subsided, the Church was faced with a huge problem.
- The thousands of “lapsi” (those who had “lapsed” under duress) wanted to come back into the Church.
- But many Christians who hadn’t lapsed, and many bishops, said that lapsing was an unforgivable sin.
- Divisions arose, heresies ignited, and by the time St Cyprian and Pope St Cornelius had been able to calm things down, entire communities of Christians had broken away from the Catholic Church.
- Some historians even say that the divisions that arose as a result of those weak Christians contributed later to the easy spread of Islam by isolating many of the Christian communities.
God’s mercy is limitless, true, but that doesn’t mean that we are exempt from doing our part to become mature, authentic Christians.
Two Antidotes to Hypocrisy
It is frightening to think about the two brothers from this parable.
- Both of them thought that they knew their father.
- They didn’t realize that they were blinded by self-centeredness.
- [Here you can refer back to the illustration you used, e.g., just like the Christians in the survey – they certainly didn’t want their relationship with God to deteriorate, but it was doing so anyway, right under their noses.]
How can we avoid falling into the same tragic situation, of living in the Father’s house without really letting the Father’s grace touch our hearts?
First of all, we need to humbly ask God to help us recognize our faults, so that we can work to overcome them.
- One simple way to do this is to live our weekly celebration of the Eucharist consciously, to make a concerted effort to mean the words that we say during the Mass, and to mean the words that the priest says.
- The words of the liturgy are full of the mystery of God.
- They are a template for a deep relationship with the Father.
- If we make a conscious effort to listen to them and to mean them, they become a source of enlightenment and renewal, not just a routine.
- One way to help ourselves make that effort is to arrive a few minutes before Mass, so as to let the noise of life’s busy-ness die down before the sacred celebration begins.
Secondly, if we truly want both to live in the Father’s house and get to know the Father’s heart, there is no better means to do so than regular and frequent confession.
- This is the constant and undeniable experience of the saints.
- Confession forces us to exercise the virtue of humility, the unbreakable shield against superficiality and hypocrisy.
- [You may want to remind your parishioners of the confession schedule/availability in the parish.]
When we receive Christ today in Holy Communion, let’s ask for the grace to stay always close to his heart, and let’s promise him that we will do our best to make that grace take root.
The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
There is one simple way we can be sure to avoid living in the Father’s house without really knowing the Father: communicating to others what we know about God.
Pope John Paul II used to say that there is no better way to grow in our faith than by giving it away.
- Well, our faith tells us that God our Father loves each one of us with an everlasting love.
- It tells us that he loved each one of us so much that he sent his only begotten Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
- It tells us that God is always watching over us, especially when we stray from the flock or get lost in a dark corner.
- Our faith tells us that God never gives up on us.
If the brothers of the parable had formed strong convictions about these qualities of their father, they would never have fallen into their joyless and fruitless rebellions.
- We have an opportunity to learn from their mistake.
- If we make a conscious effort to tell others about this God who is pure goodness, untiring mercy, and all-powerful wisdom, we will be sure to deepen our own knowledge of him.
- And the devil won’t have a chance to plant lies in our minds, because our minds will be constantly full of the truth that we are trying to communicate.
Strengthened with the grace we will receive during this Mass, let’s promise Christ today that this week we will take advantage of every opportunity he gives us to share with others what God has told us about himself.
If we do, we will be sure to stay not only safe in the Father’s house, but eternally safe in the Father’s heart.
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