"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

24th SUNDAY -C- September15, 2019

Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14; Psalm 51; I Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-32

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Sometimes less is more. Today’s gospel has three significant parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost, or Prodigal Son. It is a long reading so I have opted to begin my preparations focusing on the shorter version offered in the Lectionary, which consists of the first two parables (15: 1-10). Perhaps next time I come to this Sunday, I will focus on the Prodigal Son. On the other hand, those who proclaim the gospel today might like to include all three parables for the clear message of divine mercy that emerges.

The setting for Jesus’ telling the parables is dramatic and fraught with tension. Luke tells us that the outsiders were, "all drawing near to listen to Jesus." Not just a few, mind you, but ALL. Those who would normally be excluded from a religious setting and the company of the devout, are universally attracted to Jesus and what he has to tell them about God. Those who object to Jesus’ whole ministry complain, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." If Jesus had just collected food to give to them, that would have been called charity. Then the Pharisees and scribes would have called him a kind and good person. Similarly, charitable deeds can be a way of keeping us detached from those we are trying to serve. But Jesus hosted tax collectors and sinners, up close. They drew near and he did not back away for fear of being contaminated by them. This holy man would even sit and eat with those others considered unholy people!

If we were to describe God, what words would we choose? When the Bible describes God it uses "word pictures." Not a definition, not some abstract theological language that only a few specialists might understand – but word pictures that even a child can get. That’s what Jesus did when he wanted to reveal to us who God is and what God is like. He used word pictures, or stories – we call them parables.

The stories we hear today were told to self-righteous religious people who thought they knew about God and how God acts. They were shocked that Jesus drew to himself "tax collectors," those disloyal Jewish men who collected money for the Roman occupiers – and made a tidy profit for themselves. And "sinners" – people who had bad reputations, well known to their neighbors, were also drawn to him. So, Jesus’ company shocked his critics, who considered themselves God’s favorites. Why, Jesus even ate with these disreputable people! The righteous who saw this were shocked. What kind of good man could Jesus be if he were in such company? Remember what your parents taught you, "You will be known by the company you keep"?

For these disgruntled people Jesus painted two pictures of God – he likens God to a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to go searching for just one until he finds it; and a woman who loses a coin and searches her house thoroughly until she finds it.

Did you notice a word that appears in both stories… a little word you might have missed, but it is packed with meaning? The word is "until." Both the shepherd and the woman search "until" they find what they were looking for. In the shepherd’s case the search seems reckless to us. When Jesus asked which one of his listeners would leave the 99 sheep in the desert to go looking for the lost one, you can presume the response he got would be the one we would give… "No prudent shepherd would do such a foolish thing." And when he asks the question about the one lost coin, any of us who have lost something, which wasn’t extremely precious, or "one-of-a-kind," might have responded to Jesus, "Well, after a good search, I would have other things to do and would just give up looking."

But that is not the word picture Jesus is painting about God – remember the little word, "until"? Jesus is describing no mere glance around the local desert area to see if the lost sheep is visible; no general search around the house to see if the coin is nearby, under the table, or on the floor near the door. No, we’re not talking human logic and ordinary practicalities; we’re talking about a search that doesn’t end "until" the lost object is found. We catch what Jesus is doing. His parable is painting a word picture of God for us, of a God who refuses to give up on us. We are much too valuable to God. God’s ways might seem foolish to us, too risky, too generous to a fault. Jesus’ portrait might not be how we would paint a picture of God; how we think God operates. Can we trust that Jesus has firsthand knowledge of God and knows exactly how God is?

We may not be feeling lost, exactly. Though some of us might. Perhaps we have done some things we feel have cut us off from God. Perhaps we’re not sure how to work our way back. The stories Jesus tells us about God are comforting for us today. They reassure us that God has not turned away from us, but is out looking for us and will not give up on us "until" we are back in God’s arms. The very fact that we are gathered for worship today tells us that God has already found us! That’s a reason to have a thankful heart at this Eucharist, isn’t it?

How would we describe God? Well, Jesus has helped us. We have help from the one who knows. God is foolish and takes risks on our behalf. God is generous to a fault in forgiving us and welcomes us home when we are found. And wants to have a feast to celebrate because, though we were lost, we were priceless in God’s eyes and when we are found God and God’s friends want to celebrate. Isn’t that what Eucharist is for us? God’s friends, all the forgiven, gathered together around this table to celebrate and feast from a meal prepared by a welcoming and gracious God.

How will the world come to know that God is merciful and compassionate? How will our children come to believe and experience God’s free gift of love and kindness, unless they experience it in our lives? We who have taken Jesus’ word pictures to heart, believe them and try to put them into practice.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/091519.cfm