24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – September 15, 2019
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32
It is easy to hear these parables and think, “Oh yeah, God forgives our sins.” And yes, this is true, God forgives our sins. But this Gospel reveals a truth about the Lord, a profound truth about his love for us. It is easy to think of God’s love as a reward, or something that He gives to people that follow him, and love him. But that is just not true. That is exactly what these parables today point out. The Lord doesn’t love us because we are perfect, because we show him how love-able we are, no.
All three of these parables come from one simple complaint that the Pharisees and scribes make. Have you ever made one simple comment or complaint, and then someone just goes off on you? “Ugh, chicken and rice again?” And then your mom gives you a lecture about how some kids don’t even have food, how she works two jobs and then comes home to make food, and how you should be grateful…and then she pulls out the chancla. Anyone? Just me? Ok. It’s the same thing here. The Pharisees and scribes make one simple comment and Jesus just lets loose these three parables. They say, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That’s it: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
With this simple comment, the Pharisees and scribes are really saying, “Sinners aren’t worth it! Why would you waste your time with them? Look at all of the people that live a good life; they deserve the attention, they are the people you should be eating with!” In saying this, the Pharisees and scribes also reveal an attitude that sin is just breaking rules, that being a sinner is just breaking rules. “Here are all of these people that break the rules, they can’t even listen! Why bother with them? They’re just going to break the rules again.”
Sin is not breaking rules. As a sinner, you are not someone that broke a bunch of rules. Sometimes when we get ready for confession we think, “Ok, what rules did I break this time?” But that’s not it; sin is not just breaking rules. In Scripture, in the mind of Jesus and the Jewish people, sin is nothing more than “idolatry, worshiping and serving anything in place of the one true God” (Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 102). In other words, sin is when we give other things power over us, anything besides the one true God, the whole time thinking that we are in charge, that we are making our own decisions, that we are free! But look at your sin. Over and over, sin doesn’t leave us more free, more happy, more fulfilled. No, sin leaves us empty and defeated. The idols that we think we control actually begin to take over our lives.
And so with these parables, in responding to the Pharisees and scribes who say, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”—in response Jesus tells these parables. When we fall into sin, the Lord doesn’t look at us and ask, “Why would you do that?” The Lord doesn’t stand there judging us. No. The Lord is filled with compassion. He sees that we are caught under the power of something else. The Lord leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one, in search of you. The Lord sees us caught in the power of our sin, and runs out in search of us. “He doesn’t wonder what he’ll gain or lose by putting himself on the line. He simply puts himself out there on the off-chance that you will look back and give him that love in return. His love leaves the ninety-nine in order to find the one every time. And to many practical adults that’s a foolish concept, ‘But what if he loses the ninety-nine in finding the one?’ What if finding that one sheep is and always will be supremely important?” (Cory Ashbury).
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The Pharisees and scribes said this as a complaint, as a criticism of Jesus. But with these parables we discover that the Pharisees and scribes actually announce the news we have always needed to hear: “This man, Jesus from Nazareth—this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Do you believe that?
There is a strange “gospel” that we can sometimes believe in. And it is a “gospel” which says, “In order to be chosen, you have to be perfect. In order to be loved, you have to be lovable. In order for you to be worth someone’s time, you have to be whole, strong, healthy, special.” This is what the Pharisees and scribes expect the message to be! And so of course they’re upset when Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. But that’s not the Gospel. As we hear, that’s not the Gospel. The Gospel is, “In order to be redeemed by Jesus, you have to be broken. In order to be loved by God—it’s weird—you have to be (in some ways) un-lovable. In order to be redeemed by God, you have to be a sinner.” That’s it.
In our second reading, Paul couldn’t be any more blunt. He says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.” The Lord doesn’t choose us because we are perfect, he doesn’t love us because we are so lovable. It’s the opposite. We can be redeemed, we can be saved because we aren’t perfect, because we are broken, because we are sinners. If you wanted to sum up these parables, we could say that Jesus is saying, “I don’t love you because you are perfect. I love you because I want you, just you.” “He gives his heart so completely, so preposterously that if refused we would think it irreparably broken. Yet he gives himself away again, and again, and again. His love saw you when you hated him. And he said, ‘No, I don’t care what it costs me. I lay my life on the line as long as I get their hearts.’” (Cory Ashbury).
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Here in this Eucharist, here at the table of the Lord’s body and blood, this man welcomes sinners. The very first thing the priest says is this word of welcome, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” And who does he welcome? Us, those of us who acknowledge ourselves as sinners. God welcomes sinners to eat with him. Why do you think the first thing we do at mass is to confess our sinfulness? “Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” The Lord doesn’t receive everyone! He receives sinners. “I confess…that I have greatly sinned.” The fact that we are sinners isn’t a reason to despair, it is the reason to hope. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”