Gospel for the Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (15 September 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:1-10 – NRSV. The parable of the prodigal son – Luke 15:11-32 – may also be read. See below.)
Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’
So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’. So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
The whole of chapter 15 in Luke’s Gospel brings into clear focus HIS emphasis on Jesus’ familial association with the marginalized in contrast with his continuing conflict with the religious authorities. Earlier in his Gospel – see 5:30 – we have already been told that “the Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”. And again in 7:29: “All the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves”. In reference to the phrase, “all the people”, one commentator sums up: “(That phrase) is of considerable thematic importance, for it distinguishes the response by the tax-agents and sinners from that of Pharisees and lawyers” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 123).
The “tax agents and sinners” listen and hear, the religious authorities refuse to listen and hear.
Matthew 18:12-14 has a comparable parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep, though he omits the detail of the shepherd carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders. But Matthew does not have the parables of the lost coin or the lost son (the prodigal).
listen: The verb used is akouō and it can mean “hear”, “listen” or “obey”. In the biblical world, listening and hearing are profoundly significant. The phrase, ‘Thus says the Lord,’ recurs again and again. Yahweh has a conversation with his servants Moses – see Exodus 3:1-15; Moses is the one with whom ‘the Lord used to speak face to face’ (Exodus 33:11) – and Isaiah – see Isaiah 6:1-13. They listen, hear and go forth. In the prophetic writings the prophet must both see and hear in order to interpret visions – see for example Amos 7-9 and Jeremiah 1:11-19. The response of young Samuel epitomises the absolute fidelity called for by the Covenant: ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’ (1 Samuel 3:10). And because the very Covenantal life involves an ongoing conversation, God too is expected to listen and hear – see for example Psalm 4:1; 39:12; 69:16; 102:1. In fact, what distinguishes Yahweh from the false gods is precisely that Yahweh is willing and able to be party to the conversation that the Covenant demands and the false gods are completely incapable of such a conversation. Thus in Psalm 94:9 we read: ‘He who planted the ear, shall he not hear?’ and in Psalm 115:6: ‘(The idols) have mouths but say nothing, have eyes but see nothing, have ears but hear nothing, have noses but smell nothing’. Listen also to the beautiful little line in Isaiah 1:18: ‘Come let us talk this over ...’.
Thus one commentator writes: “The Greek verb akouō and the noun akoē, as used in the NT have both meanings (ie physical hearing and the apprehension of something with the mind) though originally these words denoted only the former. Various compounds are used to denote apprehension with the mind. Eisakouō and epakouō stress attentive listening, while the emphatic forms hypakouō and hypakoē (literally hear beneath) mean ‘to obey’ and ‘obedience’. The linguistic and conceptual relationship between akouō and hypakouō recurs in Old and Middle English in the use of the same word for both hear and obey. It can still be traced in some modern languages, eg German hören and gehorchen. The former includes the latter, and in some contexts can be substituted for it. Conversely, parakouō and parakoē (literally hear beside) denote inattentive hearing, missing, not hearing, and thus disobedience” (Colin Brown, The International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 2, The Paternoster Press, 1976, 172).
sinner who repents: The English verb “repent” translates the Greek verb metanoeō. The noun is metanoia. “Repent” and “repentance” probably do not do justice to the Greek words. The words imply a change of disposition towards the world. Perhaps “change of heart” is nearer the meaning. However we translate it, the theme of conversion of heart is crucial to all the Gospels – particularly Luke. Such inner change makes us available to forgiveness – something Jesus brings to all those who recognize their need. “‘Forgiveness of sins’ as a result of conversion fulfills Gabriel’s prediction concerning John (1:77), and is for Luke a constant element of the good news (see 24:47; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 11:18; 13:38; 26:18)” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 64). This is the gift the religious authorities are closing themselves to in their unwillingness to listen to and hear Jesus. They do not recognize that they are lost. What can “being found” (ie redeemed) possibly mean if you do not experience “being lost”?
In Jesus – his life, death, resurrection and teaching – we have the primary revelation of God. In him we have the ultimate response to the question: What sort of God is this? His very being, his every word, his every action, especially his dying a brutal death on the Cross, response to the question: What sort of God is this?
When Moses asked, “Who are you?”, he got the enigmatic response: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Implicitly or explicitly, for better or for worse, we all have developed our own responses to that question. Should we ponder the question for the rest of our days, we could not come to the end of wondering. Today’s Gospel – Luke 15:1-32 – with its presentation of three parables of losing and finding and rejoicing, helps us to reflect again on the question. Having heard each parable, think for a moment: What questions does it raise for you? More particularly, listen for the question that awaits us in the heart of the stories: What sort of God is this?
The opening sentences of the chapter give us a clue as to the intent of these parables: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’”.
Each of the parables has a focus on something or someone being lost. Then the lost thing or person is found. This is reason for rejoicing and people are gathered to celebrate and share the joy. Let the three experiences play together in your imagination – being lost, being found and rejoicing together. What do you see and hear and feel?
In each parable, the story is told from the point of view of the one who cherishes that which is now lost – the shepherd, the woman and the father. We are asked to experience, first of all, their grief and anxiety. This is especially so with the shepherd who has lost the sheep, but most especially so with the father who has lost his son. Their care and concern is not for themselves but for the one that is lost. The image of the shepherd placing the sheep on his shoulder and bringing that sheep home is an image of great tenderness. The image of the father scanning the horizon, waiting for his son to come home, being moved with compassion, rushing to him and embracing him, is beyond words. Both images radiate joy and relief. We are left in silent awe.
There is no hint of reproach. Instead, there is a spontaneous inclination to celebrate and rejoice. It is hard not to feel uneasy about that. Would it not be appropriate for the father to make the returning son merit his reinstatement? Is there not some kind of debt owing? Does he not have to prove himself? What would I do? Do I perhaps feel more than a little sympathy for the elder son?
What sort of God is this?