The readings today focus on God’s forgiveness and thus call for us to reach out in forgivness. That is seen as a reason for rejoicing.
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
This story is a crisis point in the Hebrews journey from slavery in Egypt to the promised land. Moses is on the top of Mount Sinai where he has received the revelation of the Law the Jews are to observe. The first commandment of which calls upon them to worship only the Lord and not to make idols and worship other gods and that proves a test for the people waiting for Moses to come down. The have grown fearful while wondering if Moses return, and think perhaps they need a a different kind of god. They persuade his brother Aaron to make a golden calf; in the pagan religions around them, this would be thought of as a throne on which the gods could descend. Our reading begins as God speaks to Moses threatening to abandon the people who have abandoned him. Rather continue with these chosen people, descendants of Abraham, God says he will start over with Moses as the foundation of a great people. Moses intercedes for the people and God ‘relents’.
How are we to take this scene? In his commentary on the book, Robert Alter sees two possibilities: either God is imagined in ‘frankly human terms’ as really angry, or it is a kind of test for Moses. It could also be the way of a story-teller to explain something about God’s view of sin, along with showing the power of intercession. In the overall view of the Old Testament, our God is one of forgiveness, shown shortly after this scene, God reveals Himself to Moses, as
‘… a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness… forgiving faults and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty…’ [Exodus 34:6-7]
Psalm 50/51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
The psalm is a prayer of one who is conscious of sinfulness, fervent in calling on God, but also expressing trust in God as one who does not reject the contrite sinner.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
We will be hearing from the two Letters addressed to Timothy for several weeks. Most scholars believe these were not written by St Paul himself, but a follower of his teaching. The reasons for this take several pages of detailed analysis. J. L. Houlden sums it up as ‘style and content’ are different compared to the main body of Paul’s letters. Writing in the name of a famous person was a common practice of the time in the Greek-Roman world, and would not be considered ‘forgery’. As Robert A. Wild, S.J. explains, such a writer ‘sought to extend the thought of his or her intellectual master to the problems of a later day.’ Timothy as the recipient of this Letter would be a fiction also, chosen as a known companion and teacher with Paul. The emphasis in both letters is on guidance for leaders and advice for teaching sound doctrine and practice.
In the beginning of today’s selection, the writer retells the story of Paul’s conversion (for Luke’s account of this, see chapters 8-9 in Acts.) This is one sign of the literary convention, for this would not have been necessary between the historical Paul and Timothy. It serves, however, to stress how God can forgive even those who fight against him, and leads to the statement that ‘all can trust’: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,’ and so leads right into the Gospel.
Luke 15:1-32, or 15:1-10
Luke as so often the ‘gospel of mercy’ tells three parables on the theme of ‘lost and found’. The opening words of the reading give us the context: the most fervent religious leaders of the time were the Pharisees and the ‘scribes’, those who were interpreters of the Law. In their efforts to live a life fully observant of the more than 600 restrictions they numbered in the Law, they kept apart from those less careful, whom they considered ‘sinners’ to be shunned. The tax collectors were regarded as traitors supporting Roman oppression. The Pharisees think for Jesus to associate with such people was to make himself unacceptable as well. Jesus attacks their view by showing such an attitude is not what God is like.
As so often, Jesus takes up a comparison based on the world around him, where the loss of a sheep meant a loss of property that could be essential to family support. Luke. unlike the other gospels makes a pair of parables by telling one of a man and then a woman. This woman has lost part of her savings– the amount is about a day’s wages, but she must be poor and it was important to her. It is a good observation of human nature to see more fuss made over the lost recovered, and Jesus compares the rejoicing of the heavenly court to that. Subtly, he is telling the Pharisees that if they shared the viewpoint of God, they would be more concerned to see the sinners be ‘found’ or saved than over holding on to their self-regard as the righteous ones.
This theme will be further developed in the second half of the reading, one of the most famous of Luke’s parables, usually titled ‘The Prodigal Son’ but it is more the story of two sons. The parable is first of all directed to the complaints of the scribes and Pharisees. But parables are often open-ended, and may have more than one application.
In contrast to the previous short comparisons, this is a mini-drama, with characters that come alive, and suspense to the very end. The first action in the story comes from the younger of two sons, who is restive and wants to leave home, already drawn towards the self-indulgence we hear of later. To ask for his estate is the same as saying his father is as dead for him. By the Law, the older brother would get a double portion, but this father has enough to give the younger a good portion. He chooses to sell out and leave home. Nothing is said here of the elder; but clearly he and the father continue on their remaining property together.
Next a lively account of the adventures of the younger son first in seeking out pleasures, then followed by utter poverty. Since Jews were forbidden by the dietary laws to eat pork, there is a special degradation in herding pigs. There well may be self-seeking in the son’s repentance, but he does recognize that he has sinned not only against his father but God.
The father sees him from a long way off, a hint that he was always looking for his return. He does even listen to the son’s apology, nor think of treating him as a servant, or asking for proof of change. Instead the son will be treated as the most honoured of guests. By butchering a calf, rather than a smaller kid or lamb, the father is preparing a large feast to celebrate. Just as in the previous short parables of the shepherd and housewife, he wants his friends to rejoice with him.
Next Jesus turns to the older son. He seems suspicious from the start when he hears a celebration, and does not even go into the house. The father going out to him is a humble reversal of their positions, but the son does not respond to the invitation to join in the party. Instead he complains, and it is telling that he calls his working for his father as ‘slavery’ – he sees no joy in having lived long so closely with his father. He has obeyed but seemingly without love. He does not even address his father by name and cannot bring himself to call the younger one his brother, but distances him as ‘this son of yours’. The father reminds him that all he has is also for the older brother, and there should have been a privilege in ‘always being with me’, but still the repentance of the lost is something both should be able to rejoice in. ‘All I have is yours’ hints at what riches Jesus longs to give his followers.
The story ends without telling how the older brother responded. Nor does Jesus spell out whom the characters represent, and it is up to the listeners to realised the loving and forgiving father tells us something about God. The parable has been spoken to the Pharisees: will you rejoice when God forgives the people you judge as sinners? Jesus seems to wait for an answer, but we do not hear what is their response. The story also has challenges for all who hear it. Where do we stand in the narrative? Do we repent or resent, forgive or condemn? Rejoice or pout?