24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes began complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and actually eats with them.” So Jesus addressed this parable to them.
“Who among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, doesn’t leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and search for the one lost until it is found? Then when it is found, you set it on your shoulders with great joy. Then upon arriving home you invite your neighbors in and say to them, ‘Rejoice with me! I found my lost sheep!’ I tell you in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.
“What householder having ten silver coins and losing one, doesn’t light a lamp and sweep the house in a careful search until she finds it? When she does find it, she calls in her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me! I found the silver coin I had lost.’ I tell you there will be rejoicing among God’s angels over one repentant sinner.”
The Jesus added, “A man had two sons. The younger of the two said to his father, ‘Give me my share of the estate.’ So the father divided his property between the two sons. Shortly afterwards, the younger son gathered up his belongings and set off to a distant land. Here he squandered all his money on loose living. After everything was spent, a great famine enveloped the land and he found himself in desperate circumstances. So he approached a landowner who sent him to a farm to take care of his pigs. The son was so hungry he could have eaten the food that was being given to the animals, but no one there offered to help him.
“Finally coming to his senses, the son thought,’“ How many hired hands at my father’s house have more than enough to eat, while here I am starving! I’ll quit here, go back home and say to my father, “I’ve sinned against God and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired hands.”’ With that decision made, the son set off for home.
“While the son was still a long ways away, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion. His father ran out to meet him, threw his arms around him – we call that a hug! – and he kissed him! His son said, ‘I’ve sinned against God and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father ordered his servants: ‘Quick, bring out the finest robe and put it on him, and a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Then take the calf and butcher it. Let’s celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now is found.’ Then the celebration began.”Homily for 12 September 2004
Fr. Frank Baiocchi
There’s an old Peanuts cartoon featuring Lucy with her arms wrapped around Snoopy the dog; both have contented smiles on their faces. The caption reads: “A hug is better than all the theology in the world.”
I grew up with two rather different theologies about God. These theologies – I call them “images” of God – were taught to me by nuns in school, by priests at my parish church, and professors at the seminary. The first image of God I can recall was that of a severely just God, Almighty and All-Knowing, One who sat around the heavens, hurling threats and warnings our way. Oh, we were told that God loves us, but that was never the headline news. Punishment was the headline. Punishments were everywhere! Life was like a heavily mined battlefield. There were countless commandments to obey, church rules to follow, canon laws to respect, seemingly impossibly high standards to live up to, way too many fun things were considered mortal sins. This image of God was not life-giving or joy-filled. It was dominated by fear. It was supported by horror stories from the Bible, and by vivid descriptions of hell fire and damnation from classrooms and pulpits.
The second theology about God I grew up with was a little easier to live with. God was no longer the vengeful God hell-bent on punishing wrongdoers. Rather, God was a keeper of the book of life, dutifully recording our credits and debits – all the good stuff and all the bad stuff we did – much like an accountant does. This kind of God, I thought, at least gives us a fighting chance. We might find a little wiggle room here; and if the books balanced out okay, we just might be okay too.
Yet if a vengeful God terrifies me, a bookkeeper God fails to inspire me. I need a better theology, an image of God that generates passion and enthusiasm! Well, I found it, right here in this Sunday’s Gospel, where Jesus replaces these earlier images of God with one that for me is unbelievably amazing! Jesus doesn’t teach theology directly, but He does tell stories; and from the stories he tells, we have much to learn. Jesus is telling us that the God he knows and loves is neither punisher nor bookkeeper. His God is a God of Love, Compassion, Forgiveness, Joy and Celebration.
In today’s parable of the father and his two sons, Jesus is telling us about God through the words and actions of the father. A vengeful God would never have forgiven his son’s insult, would never have accepted his son back into the family, would never have celebrated his son’s return. A bookkeeper God would have demanded some promises from the prodigal son about re-balancing the books, paying back the money that he had squandered on loose living. Neither the vengeful God nor the bookkeeper God appears in this story. But the “prodigal” God does! I looked in the dictionary to find the precise meaning of that word “prodigal.” It has two meanings: “exceedingly wasteful” – that’s how the younger son behaves, and “excessively generous” – that’s how his father behaves. It is God’s nature to be excessively generous!
Jesus invites us to dump the old theologies, the old images and adopt his very own image of God: “Abba!” which means “Daddy/Mommy” in Aramaic, revealing an intimacy that defies all human logic and wisdom. Did you notice that in all three of today’s Gospel stories, there is a call for joy and celebration because something lost, someone lost, is finally found. Coincidence? I think not!
You know, Lucy and Snoopy had it right all along. I didn’t. It’s taken me the better part of my life to get to this new theology, this new image, this really Good News about our Abba God. I think I’ve finally got it! “A hug is better than all the theology in the world.” I never knew that I could be most like God not by threatening or punishing people, not by keeping the book on what they’ve done right or wrong, but simply by hugging them! How do I know? The Bible tells me so…it’s all right here in today’s Gospel! Have you hugged anyone lately?