THE BEAUTY OF FORGIVENESS
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
My dear encountered couples:
How can God be so forgiving? People use him, take advantage of him, make promises to him that they break; they are often found loving things more than they love him. When they get in trouble, they turn to him for help. And after he helps them, then back on the shelf they put him to receive little more than token attention until the next time their world falls apart.
Today’s readings all have to do with the untiring love and forgiveness of God for his erring and sinful people. After God through Moses delivered the Jews from four hundred years of unimaginable slavery under the Egyptians, instead of giving him the credit he deserves, they build for themselves some ridiculous cow to worship as their lord and savior. What does God do? Forgives them and gives them another chance. If you read the Old Testament, that wasn’t the only time God forgave them and gave them another chance. He kept doing it over and over and over.
In the letter of Paul to Timothy, Paul admits what a mean, contemptible man he had been. And he was right. He was an unholy terror, a nightmare for every Christian during those early days of the Church. “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant,” Paul told Timothy, “but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief...Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am foremost …”
As if God’s treatment of the Jewish people and Jesus’ treatment of Paul isn’t enough to convince us of their love and forgiveness for each and every one of us, Jesus tells three stories. One is about a man with a hundred sheep who loses one and searches till he finds it, then calls in all his friends to rejoice. The second is about a woman who loses one of her ten coins and sweeps the house until she finds it, then calls her friends to come and rejoice with her. The point of both stories Jesus puts into one sentence.
“In just the same way there will be rejoicing in heaven among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
God, like the shepherd who lost the sheep and the woman who lost the coin, will never give up seeking sinners and forgiving them. He never stops trying to woo our hearts into accepting his forgive-ness so he can take us home with him to heaven. Let us not forget the third story. It is the one most of us can identify with.
The son asks for his inheritance, leaves his father, and goes off to have fun. Who of us, at some time or other, has not asked good things of God, then turned away from him while we go off to misuse them?
Human beings are the most gifted of all God’s creatures. We are not only favored above all the sea and land creatures of the world, there are things we can do that even the angels can’t do.
What angel is able to sit down and savor the taste of a chocolate sundae? Or a big Mac and fries?
What angel have you ever heard of that can roller skate, bowl, or play golf? God has given us not only life and this world to live it in, but the ability to enjoy it, improve it, and become greater people while doing it.
Then reward us in the end with an out of this world mansion in heaven. No one, nothing has ever been treated any better by God than the human race. And what do we do? Turn our hearts to cows!
Before we let ourselves criticize the Jews at Mount Sinai for kneeling down to a golden calf and crying out, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” I suggest we take a good look at ourselves. We worship all sorts of things that we make number one in our lives in place of God.
Our cars, our televisions, our computers, our sports often take center stage in our lives. Wall Street, politics, fame, fortune, drugs, sex we allow to push God out of the picture. The younger son took his father’s money, turned his attention to fun and games until the money ran out, then went crawling back home for any other crumbs he might be able to wangle out of his father. He really knew how to work the old man, didn’t he? I wonder how long he hung around home. Did he learn his lesson and settle down? How many of us learn the lessons our excursions from God teach us?
God is loving and forgiving of each and every one of our golden calf involvements. When he loses us to fame and fortune, drugs and sex, and whatever else we substitute for him, he comes looking for us so he is there when our world comes crashing down. He keeps his eyes on the road in hopes we someday come to our senses and return to him.
And when we do, he calls for all in heaven to rejoice. But how long is it before we go wandering down that road again? In the days when many Catholics went to confession every Saturday, I wonder how many hours passed before they needed to go again. Maybe confession should have been scheduled for Sunday mornings. Then we might have spent more than just a few hours with God before dumping him for something else.
The point of our readings is that God loves us so much that he will do all in his power, without forcing us, to get us back into his arms. No matter how bad we’ve been, no matter how terrible our sins, no matter we haven’t prayed or confessed or gone to church in years, God is by us waiting for us to notice him and accept his embrace. What the Pharisees and scribes thought of Jesus, and the elder brother of the prodigal thought of their father, just might be put into one word. “SUCKER!”
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” “When your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” Is God being a sucker when he welcomes sinners back, knowing we will probably run off again? Or are we the suckers when we allow ourselves to be taken in by things that are not God and bring us grief - like golden calves?