24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: SHARING IN THE EXTRAVAGANT MERCY OF GOD

extravagant mercy of God

Once in a while, we rejoice and celebrate extravagantly. We throw out a party and provide abundant food and drinks. Some people think that these parties and celebrations are excessive and senseless. Think, for example, of a poor family who would extravagantly prepare a banquet during fiesta and feed the whole barrio when throughout the whole year they would just be eating mostly rice and dried fish.

When was the last time you celebrated extravagantly? Perhaps it was on a special event like wedding or birthdays, or when you got promoted or closed a business deal, or when you achieved a major milestone in your profession or when you found something of great value, which you have lost for a long time.

In the gospel for today’s 24th Sunday in ordinary time we hear about God’s extravagant rejoicing and celebration. We hear of God’s extravagance from Jesus in not just one but three parable stories–indeed, an extravagant way to teach about God’s extravagance.

In the first story, the parable of The Lost Sheep, the shepherd leaves behind the 99 sheep to search for the 1 lost sheep. When he finds it, the shepherd rejoices with friends and neighbors. The second story, about a poor woman who will not stop searching until she finds her lost coin. And when she find it she calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. In both stories, Jesus ends with the punch line:

I tell you, in just the same way
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who have no need of repentance.

there will be rejoicing among the angels of God
over one sinner who repents.”

Finally, the third parable story, the longest and most memorable parable in the Gospels, the story we have come to know as The Prodigal Son. Just as in The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin, this story (found only in Luke) is really about the seeker. The loving father is at the center of this parable. Even though his second son runs off with his father’s inheritance and squanders the money, the father waits for him, hoping for his return. Upon his son’s return, the father, “full of compassion,” runs out to embrace and forgive him before the son can utter one word of repentance. He orders the slaughtering of the fattened calf and celebrate with a feast.

Jesus portrays God’s extravagance in all three parables as God’s finding and celebrating the return of repentant sinners who are of greatest value to God. God’s joy is the return of the lost who have found or re-found their treasure in God.

In short, we can describe the extravagance of God in one word – mercy! Jesus’ portrayal of God’s extravagant mercy in all three parables was in response to the heaps of criticism he received from the Pharisees who saw him welcoming and eating with “tax collectors (social outcasts) and sinners”.  But God’s mercy goes against common sense. God is merciful to the extent that God would “foolishly” leave behind the 99 good ones to seek out the 1 lost and rebellious one. The “foolishness” of God represented by each of the main actors in the parables reflects in some way the supreme “foolishness” of God’s love demonstrated in the Cross (cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25).

Heaven is the ultimate expression of God’s extravagance. God’s celebration of “these lost ones being being “found” or “re-found” by God is nothing other than a reflection on earth of a much greater celebration going on in heaven (v. 7; v.10; vv. 23-24; v. 32). Heavenly joy is the gathering and sharing in the banquet of God of all sinners, deserters and reckless ones who have rediscovered their original goodness and returned to the source of their goodness–God. Heaven is not the place for perfect people but for the crooked, transgressors and weaklings perfected by God’s grace.

The Second Reading is a narration of a personal experience about this “foolish” mercy of God. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, explains that he once was a persecutor of God’s people. He doesn’t gloss over his own evil then or make himself a moral idiot. But Paul says that he obtained mercy from God anyway, because God could see the man that Paul could become. For the sake of the man Paul could be in the future, God had mercy on him.

Today’s readings invites us to rejoice with God and share in his extravagant mercy and acceptance for the lost and sinners. This could begin with ourselves. The lost and repentant sinner could be you and me.  By experiencing God’s extravagant mercy we can be extravagantly merciful to our fellow sinners and lost ones.

 

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4TH SUNDAY OF LENT: LENT AS HOMECOMING

1-return-of-the-prodigal-son-rembrandt
The Return of the Prodigal Son, a Painting by Rembrandt

In today’s 4th Sunday of Lent we continue to dig deeper into the meaning of the Lenten discipline. For several Sundays now we have pointed out that repentance is a central challenge of the Lenten discipline. In today’s readings we shall come to understand repentance as homecoming.

In the First Reading, the Israelites have finally arrived from Exodus to their homeland–the land flowing with milk and honey, the land that God promised to give them. The sign that the Exodus was over was when they eat the parched grain from the produce of the land and no longer the manna that God provided for them during their journey in the wilderness. The parched grain was the beginning of life in the promised land, where the Israelites found a home. The consoling sweetness of manna came out of the harshness of the conditions of the Exodus. Out of the sorrow of trading manna for parched grain there came the consolation of home.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul implores the Corinthians to return to God, “We implore you, in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God.” To return home to God is to reconcile with God which implies forgiveness, restoring harmony, rectifying the wrong deeds and reunion. 

The Gospel narrates the popular parable of the prodigal son. Luke reminds us that the parable of the prodigal was told to Pharisees who complained about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. The parable of the two lost sons (Lk 15:11-32) is Jesus’ self justification for “hosting” sinners at table fellowship (Lk 15:1-2).

For a long time, the focus of the parable, as suggested by its title, is on the younger son who was the prodigal son. He squandered all his inheritance on riotous living in a far away country. The younger son was lost and veered so far away from his home with the Father.  Listening to the whole parable, however, we realize that the younger son is not the only one lost who veered far away from his father. The elder son too was lost. Even if the elder son never left his Father’s home, his heart could not identify with the Father’s compassion for the wretched younger son. Indeed, the parable is about two lost sons in the face of the father’s prodigal love for both of them. 

Applying these readings to Lent, we can say that Lent is a call to return to home. Home is where our Father is. The first step to returning home is the realization of the darkness of our lives. Lent is the blessed season to examine and confront the dark side of our lives. It is to enter into the bottom of whatever hellish pit we have made of our  lives. In this darkness and hellish pit we realized how we veered away from our true home with God, from our fellowship with others and ultimately from our true selves. Like the younger son in the parable, we are prodigal children. We live prodigal lives. We have in many ways squandered our Father’s inheritance. We have wasted many opportunities in pursuit of our own glory. We have abused the love and trust of many people. We have destroyed the abundant and wonderful world God gave us to live in. We poison its air, we pollute its water, we erode its topsoil.

In the midst of the darkness and the bottomness of our pit,  we regain what we have forgotten–who we truly are, and whose we are. We realized once again that we are a redeemed people; we are loved unconditionally by God. This profound remembrance inspires us to do what the younger son did: “I will break away and return to my father, and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against you.’”

Repentance is not just, however, returning to the Father.  Repentance is not just between me and God. It has social implications. This is what the elder son found it hard to understand. We are called not only to be reconciled with God but to embrace God’s inclusive love for everyone especially the sinners and the rejects. We are called to be compassionate and forgiving just as the Father is compassionate and forgiving.

Thus, Lent as homecoming calls us to a ministry of reconciliation in the world. We live in a world where there is still so much division, brokenness and hatred. Wherever there is injustice in the world something is not reconciled. Lent is a time to ‘pass over,’ to pass from the world of injustice we have created over to a world of reconciliation. It is a time to “turn hatred to love, conflict to peace, death to eternal life.”

The ending of parable is rather abrupt. We are left with many questions. What did the elder son do? Did he join the party to celebrate the homecoming of his wretched brother or did he remain in his own regret that the Father could still love his younger brother after everything he has done? Did the younger son also sought the forgiveness of his elder brother? These are the questions the Pharisees and scribes (see Lk 15:2) and the contemporary believer must answer in their own accord.

What would you do?