Opening reflection (taken from Magnificat magazine, www.magnificat.com): The Pharisees and scribes complain about Jesus, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Yet, if they had the decency to be the least bit mindful of their own history, they would have recalled how their ancestors at the base of Mount Sinai had “become depraved” and had turned aside from the way that God pointed out to them. God uses the experience of our being lost like the sheep, the coin and the son to demonstrate compellingly that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Christ welcomes sinners and eats with them because only that closeness with Christ's human presence changes sinners into saints. To this St. Paul attests: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated … The grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with faith and love.”
(This weekend's Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
First Reading: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14 (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the book of Exodus.
The LORD said to Moses, "Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" And the LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, `I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'" And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: Mercy and wrath: These qualities are on display in all three Gospel readings. But as we consider what God wishes to tell us, keep these two questions in mind: Whenever we read about or witness events that we think represent the “wrath of God,” how often is it the case that humans actually are doing it to themselves? And how often, in these cases, might God be actively seeking out the slightest reason to show His mercy?
In this first reading, the people of Israel are still camped before God at Mount Sinai. He had made His covenant with His “chosen people” in their presence and hearing and in all His terrifying glory. Moses has been atop the mountain for 40 days since that time, receiving God's instructions for Israel's daily living and the construction of His tabernacle as well as receiving the Ten Commandments (which God already had proclaimed directly to Israel) etched on two stone tablets. But had Israel remained faithful? No. It took them a mere six weeks to show God the greatest possible disrespect by making a golden calf and equating it with God Himself. He wished to be their most personal God; instead, they prostitute themselves before a cold molten idol!
Certainly God was justified in telling Moses He would wipe out Israel and start over by making Moses the new “father in faith” of a new Chosen People. But recall that Moses also was a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of whom he cited in pleading to God for his nation's life. God had also made a covenant with Abraham and renewed it with his son and grandson. Would God actually have broken His covenant with them had He made “a great nation” of Moses? Would He even have broken His covenant at Sinai if Moses' descendants became the new Israel?
No. God doesn't break covenants; we do that. When He warns us about the consequences of breaking His covenants, Old or New, He simply does what He would do over and over with Israel in the following centuries: He “gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels” (Psalm 81:12). We can only guess at what might have destroyed Israel had God withdrawn His protection from what might have happened naturally to them – perhaps a natural calamity or conquest by enemies such as the Amalekites (who already had attacked Israel in Exodus 17:8-16 and failed only because Moses, aided by Aaron and Hur, kept his arms stretched toward heaven as God had directed).
What was God really offering Moses? He certainly would have kept His word had Moses replied, “Do to my countrymen what You wish.” But would Moses then truly have been a man after God's own heart? Would such inaction have been motivated by a desire for personal glory, knowing that he would now be the father of a great nation? Instead, by pleading with God to spare them and invoking God's covenant with the patriarchs, He interceded for his people before his God and theirs. He filled the role that his brother Aaron and all the Israelite priests would later fulfill. And he foreshadowed the ongoing intercession before God of our greatest High Priest, God's only Son, with the once-for-all sacrifice of His own life upon the cross.
This story shows God giving Moses a chance to ask God to show His mercy. Moses may not have realized this in writing, from his human perspective, that God “repented” of His wrath. Did God truly change His mind? Or was it His will, in seeking to make all things turn out for good from Israel's grave sin, to show mercy as long as one of His Chosen People asked Him to do so?
Our God is a God of mercy. The remaining readings will offer further evidence of this.
Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy.
Beloved: I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: Sometimes, though, God chooses to show His mercy unbidden by us humans. As he looks back on his eventful life, Paul was only too aware that he had deserved God's wrath. Not only had he not recognized his Messiah while a young Pharisee, but he also had zealously persecuted the early Christians. He knew that the God who literally blinded him with His glory on the Damascus road could have destroyed him in an instant! Instead, Jesus directly called Saul of Tarsus to be “a chosen instrument of Mine” (Acts 9:15) to bring His Gospel to the Gentiles among whom Saul had been raised. He indeed recognized that Paul had acted “ignorantly in unbelief.” But our Lord could have chosen to convert Paul solely through His existing human ministers. Instead, He called Paul to be His apostle as personally and powerfully as He had called His beloved Twelve.
Paul never forgot about the nature and awesome circumstances of his call to ministry – and especially about his Lord's boundless mercy. He was a living of the saying he wished his beloved disciple Timothy and all the world to take to their hearts in faith: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Gospel: Luke 15:1-32
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to You, O Lord.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
"Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
And he said, "There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.' And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants."' And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, `Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!' And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'"
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: This series of meditations has commented often – most recently, a month ago – on the status of the Prodigal Son parable as a primary image of God in Catholic teaching. These thoughts therefore will focus on the far shorter parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, but most especially on the attitude of the hard-hearted Pharisees and scribes. (For the author's most recent thoughts on the Prodigal Son, see the meditation on the second reading at the following link: http://www.examiner.com/article/meditations-on-scriptures-21st-sunday-or...).
The Pharisees and scribes were supposed to be (respectively) the prime examples of Jewish piety and the keepers of the Scriptures and oral traditions of the Chosen People. How could it be that they were so ignorant (at best) or so disdainful (at worst) of their own people's history of infidelity to God's covenants and God's repeated and undeserved acts of mercy toward their ancestors? Yet they were eager to call down the wrath of God upon those deemed “unclean” by the Mosaic Law and to denounce any allegedly pious Jewish teacher who dared to associate with them.
It matters little whether the “tax collectors and sinners” in question here were repentant, though one can assume that most were seeking a better way by being in Jesus' presence. In this remarkable series of parables, capped by the greatest of them all, our Lord illustrates that mercy and limitless love – not wrath – motivate God's entire history with human beings. If the shepherd and the widow would go to such lengths to find a missing possession even though they had many more similar possessions, how much more amazing and merciful is our God for never giving up on those whom He made in His image and likeness but who insist on going their own way! God is perfect; we who are imperfect cannot look upon His undimmed glory and live due to our sins. So He came to us, to be one of us and restore us to Himself by paying the price for our sins. Through His Son, Jesus Christ, we who are lost sheep, lost coins and prodigal sons and daughters can be found and can be raised to life.
Let not the earthly critics persuade us that God is, or wishes to be, a God of wrath. Let us be drawn to His mercy, to His embrace, to our salvation and our incorporation into the very Body of Christ, who rightly says of Himself, “I AM THAT I AM … I AM love.”
Close with individual prayer, followed by Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be