LOSSES, FINDINGS, & REJOICING

Catholic Homily on the Sunday Liturgy (24th Sunday Year C)

All three readings today refer to one salient theme: God’s forgiveness. God is portrayed clearly for what He is – a compassionate Father, a God who is ready and willing to relent, for as long as sinful man repents and thinks better of his/her sins.

The first reading from Exodus reminds me of a carabao (Philippine water buffalo used as a beast of burden) that we had in our bucolic College-seminary in the first few years of my priesthood as a teacher and formator. The strong and self-willed carabao suffered from a torn nose right where the noose ought to have been --- all for one reason. He hemmed and hawed and protested continuously against his masters. At some point, the nose tissue that tethered him to the ground gave way. A gaping, open wound thus made it impossible to keep the animal on leash, making it impossible to further train him as a beast of burden to help us till the soil and plow the ground. He was literally a picture of that biblical metaphor of a “stiff-necked” people that the book of Exodus speaks of. Sadly, the seminary authorities had to dispose of the hapless beast, sold to interested parties who, we knew, would literally make minced meat out of him. It was the most natural and logical thing to do, as far as we were concerned then.

It sounds so counterintuitive, but this is what the biblical good news is all about. Like the stiff-necked carabao, sinful Israel (that is us) would have easily been given up by God as bad job. “I see how stiff-necked this people is. Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.” Sinful disobedience does have a price tag … “the wages of sin is death.”

But, thankfully, the story does not end in tragedy. The theme of sinfulness that juts out repeatedly in the whole of Scripture, is more than amply balanced by the theme of forgiveness. Let us take a quick look at what the readings tell us on this.

First, we see the figure of an intercessor, a mediator – Moses, who “implored the Lord” and begged Him to reconsider by an act of remembrance: “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self…” We know the story all too well … “The Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.”

Secondly, Paul, a self-confessed “blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant [man],” was “mercifully treated” on account of Christ Jesus who “came into the world to save sinners.” Paul was profuse with praise for this God, “the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God…” In this first and second instance, forgiveness comes to sinful men and women from God, but a forgiveness mediated and channeled through Christ and the man who foreshadowed him – Moses.

The Gospel takes the topic of divine forgiveness a notch higher, and clinches the nature and extent of this forgiveness from a loving, merciful God. The parable of the “prodigal father” shows us in no uncertain terms what the one, true mediator Jesus Christ has revealed His Father to be – a compassionate, loving, and forgiving God who, despite the protestations of an older brother who sensed some type of misplaced justice, declared: “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

Celebration … the readings seem to point to the not-so-obvious consequence of God’s forgiveness. Wherefore celebrate? The younger “sinful” but repentant son in the parable offers us a clue … “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Herein is the clincher. Our sins separate us from God, but it is the same God whom we have offended that draws us near to Him, in His Son, Jesus Christ. Through no merit of our own, save that of His Son, we have been deemed worthy of forgiveness. We celebrate the character of God – His loving kindness, His mercy, His unparalleled love for His wayward creatures. We celebrate the nature of Christ His Son, whose grace “has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” He “came into the world to save sinners.”

But celebration can only come after confession. Celebration can only happen after we realize just how far we have been from this loving, pursuing God, referred to by the poet Francis Thompson as the “hound of heaven,” whom we try so hard to evade, elude, and escape. But just like the proverbial hound, God in and through Christ, continues to search for us, to go after us, and to be solicitous for our welfare. Celebration follows confession. Just look at how we do liturgy … we begin with the Confiteor, the confessing of our sins at Mass. Only after that can we sing Glory to God. Only after the acknowledgment of our sins, can we sing the Alleluia, and be ready to break the bread of God’s Word and the bread of the Eucharist. St. Paul gives us a perfect example as he acknowledges: “Of these (sinners) I am the foremost.” The younger son could not have even dreamt of a party put up by his father until he sadly acknowledged before him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”

There is little celebration in the world everywhere. There is little trust between and among peoples. There is precious little harmony and love. In their stead, we see a whole lot of violence, terrorism, wars and everything that smacks of a culture of death. For many people, they take all this to mean that God does not care; that God is indifferent to what suffering humanity undergoes on a daily basis. People are prone to condemn God, and to lose faith in Him and in His love. If God really loves us, they say, how come He allows all these things to happen? Failures of men are attributed wrongly as failures of God.

Today’s readings take exception to such a worldview. Today’s readings unmask human sinfulness for what it really is – a form of slavery that God takes pains to deliver us from. Today’s liturgy takes us away from a culture of blame – a tendency to deflect responsibility onto others, including God. Instead, the readings lead us to claim, and tame that which we so easily heap onto others outside of ourselves in the form of blame – our own sins.

There is little celebration in the world for people who do not invest in confession. There is little love in the heart of one who does not open his/her heart enough to feel the onrush of God’s forgiving love. He who is forgiven much, loves much. He who is forgiven little, loves little. And forgiveness begins with claiming one’s sins as one’s very own.

The parables of the Lord that speak of losses and findings all end with a celebration … the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son of today’s gospel. Only those who acknowledge their loss in the first place are worthy of participating in the celebration. Only those who seek, find. And only those who acknowledge that they are lost, are found by God. Only those who repent can rejoice.

For once they were dead, but have come back to life again. Once they were lost and have been found. Losses, findings, and rejoicing … this is the story of God’s love in three short chapters. Man’s sinfulness … God’s searching … Mankind’s repentance … and great rejoicing in heaven.

Have you found enough reason to rejoice together with the Church today?

[Dundalk, MD Sept.12, 2004]

PASSION, CLARITY, & COMPASSION

Today’s readings are a collective story that speaks of passion. God is portrayed as one so passionate about his love for his people as to be passionately involved with and affected on account of their sin of infidelity: “Go down at once to your people … for they have become depraved” (1st Reading). But the same story speaks of a corresponding compassion that the same involvement in the lives of God’s people leads Him to relent: “So the Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.”

The same passion is discernible in the letter of Paul to Timothy. He makes a bold statement about God’s mercy to sinners. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost” (2nd Reading). This passionate attachment to Christ that arose out of God’s overwhelming compassion in and through Christ, leads Paul to pour out his heart in thanksgiving: “I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry.”

The Gospel passage from Luke is a set of stories that collectively speak of both passion and compassion. First, we are presented with a passionate shepherd, solicitous enough to be worried, and to go out in search of one sheep among a hundred that happens to stray. Passion gives way to celebration. What is lost – but found after a passionate search, becomes reason enough to celebrate. Second, the parable of the Lord would have us see a passionate woman who loses one coin out of the ten she had, and sets out on a passionate search. Again, passion blooms into celebration, when the object of her search is found. Both characters are presented as individuals whose passion is matched by a corresponding compassion that makes them both capable of rejoicing and celebrating, of being grateful for having found what was lost.

But the real clincher comes from the third vignette that the Lord recounts in today’s gospel – the parable of the prodigal son. From any angle, the younger son did wrong. There is no way the story could be manipulated to make it sound like what the younger son did was really inconsequential. He walked out, not only from his father’s household, but also – and worse – from his father’s life. It was the exact equivalent of the idolatrous and depraved act the Israelites did by worshiping a molten calf instead of God. But the more prodigal father, ever so passionately concerned and solicitous for his son’s welfare showed full and total compassion. After his dramatic homecoming, after passionately pleading to his father to take him back in, even as a paid worker, the Father did the unexpected. He did not just welcome him back. He reinstated him to his former status as a son who deserves to have all that the father and his other older son enjoyed, plus more!

Passion, coupled with compassion, that bloomed in total forgiveness, became compelling reasons for a grand celebration.

But hold on a second. This sounds like a fairy tale with a “they-lived-happily-ever-after” ending. Lest we romantically interpret these vignettes as a simply a matter of shallow passion cum compassion, we need to take a second look to all three readings.

I would like to suggest a third common element that juts out ever so subtly in all three readings. I suggest that we need to take a close look at what eventually made it possible for passion to become healthy compassion. I have it on the authority of Peter Kreeft that we need both passion and compassion. The first reading shows us how the two values shone out in an exemplary manner in God whose tender love for his people made him “relent” and forgive the people’s depravity. We see the two values in perfect balance, too, in Paul whose passionate love for God was rewarded with the grace of forgiveness that, in turn, became the foundation for his utter gratefulness. The same passionate love of the father for his younger son, led him to show absolute compassion despite the infidelity of his prodigal son.

But let’s look a little more closely again at the stories. I would like to suggest that mere passion and compassion do not explain it all. I suggest a third element – clarity. Clarity means acceptance and acknowledgment. Clarity means knowing and confessing to one’s infidelity. Moses had clarity. He acknowledged the sins of his people. But his clarity led him to beseech the God of compassion. He implored God saying, “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand?”

Paul, too, had crystal-clear clarity. He entertained no illusions about himself: “I was once a blasphemer and persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.” Clarity is what led him to passionately claim the compassion of God!

The younger son, also had to pass through a moment of clarity. Before he could resolve to turn back to his father’s warm embrace, he had to clearly acknowledge what he was guilty of. He came to his senses. He realized what he had done. And his realization brought him to action. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.” For the prodigal son, compassion and passion did not come free. There was a price to pay for it, and that was the way of clarity. The Father, too, did not just have one-sided compassion. Compassion alone would have been maudlin sentimentalism. Passion alone would have been cold and calculating retribution and payback time. But the Father had an intense clarity, coupled with passion and compassion. Such is the love of a father. Such is the love of God, who, like a father, would love intensely and passionately, a love that spills over into total compassion, but a love that is founded on pristine clarity. It is a love that demands a corresponding clarity from the younger son. And the younger son proved he had clarity when he acknowledged the gravity of his sin.

But, unfortunately, not everyone manifests that important element of clarity. The older son failed to see clearly. He was so focused on what he missed, so intent on licking his perceived wounds, that he missed seeing the bigger picture of a father who, after all, loved both his sons passionately. Lacking in clarity, the older son failed to show compassion. What one does not see clearly, one does not readily give away. What one does not understand, one cannot stand. He could not stand what appeared to him as an act of injustice. In his lack of understanding, he missed the more important reality that stared him in the face – the utmost passion and compassion from a father who, in his clarity, saw beyond the younger son’s failings and failures, and saw promise and possibility. In the older son’s blindness, he could not see the reason for rejoicing.

We Christians are called to be a community of the compassionate. But compassion can only be learned in the school of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. In the learning process that is called life, one essential element that we need to cultivate is what Kreeft calls aptly, the “hermeneutics of the heart.” It refers to clarity. It refers to having, not only conceptual knowledge, but, more importantly, evaluative knowledge – knowledge that grows out of a heart that sees, more than out of a mind that knows.

The prodigal father had clarity. He knew from the heart. And he loved passionately and dealt with his erring son compassionately – like God himself deals with us. And we all are prodigal children, many times over in our lifetimes.

I end with a good watchword to repeat often during this coming week: “I will rise and go to my father” (Responsorial Psalm).

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, Philippines
September 10, 2007 6:10 pm



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