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Posted by on Sep 11, 2022

God’s Justice Is Extravagant Mercy

God’s Justice Is Extravagant Mercy

“I will rise and go to my father.” (Lk 15:18)

Have you ever had the experience of doing something that you know was wrong and were hoping no one would notice? Perhaps you were embarrassed about it. Perhaps you were afraid of punishment. Perhaps you feared that what you had done could never be forgiven. Maybe you were a child and hid in a closet or out in the back yard for as long as you could, rather than face the parent whose anger or disappointment you feared. Maybe you simply didn’t respond to the letter or phone calls of the friend whom you had hurt.

Rejoice. You’re not alone. I think we all have had this kind of experience at least once in our lives. The peoples of the Bible had these kinds of experiences too. You are not alone, and you don’t have to stay in that frightened, embarrassed place forever.

Moses and the Israelites

Shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses received the Law from the Lord on Mt. Sinai and presented it to his people. Then Moses was called again to the mountain of the Lord. The book of Exodus devotes many chapters to the encounters of Moses with the Lord and the reception of the Law. This time when he went up the mountain, he again disappeared into the cloud at the top and did not return for many, many days – forty days in all! The people waiting at the foot of the mountain became afraid. What had happened to their leader, the one who faced Pharaoh, the one who led them across the Red Sea and through the desert? Had he died? They believed that anyone who saw the face of the Lord would die. Who would be their leader now? Who would be their representative to God? They had welcomed the proclamation of the Law from Moses and offered sacrifice to confirm their agreement to it before he left again. Why was he gone so long? Maybe what they needed was a god they could see and touch, like the ones of the peoples among whom they lived.

Aaron, brother of Moses, was approached by a group of them, asking him to help them find a god whom they could worship and who would protect them. Not knowing what had happened to his brother, Aaron ordered them to bring gold jewelry and coins. He melted them down and formed a calf from the gold. Calves were worshiped by many of the surrounding peoples as representations of their gods. The people rejoiced and began to worship the golden calf.

Up on the mountain, the Lord noticed what was happening and was not amused. “Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved.” (Ex 32:7-11, 13-14) The Lord was angry and proposed to Moses that he would simply destroy them all, then make a new nation for himself from the descendants of Moses. This would have been the right and just thing for a monarch or a god to do, according to the experience and traditions of the nations at that time, so that is the response ascribed to the Lord in this account.

However, Moses boldly spoke up and presented a different option, imploring, “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people… Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” and the promise made to them. With this reminder, “the Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.”

Did that settle the issue forever? No. There was much more to the story, as Moses descended from the mountain, broke the tablets on which the Lord had written the Law, punished the people who had rebelled, and again returned to the mountain top for another forty days, so the tablets could again be inscribed with the Law. The relationship between the Israelites and God continued to be rocky through the centuries, but God always remained merciful. There were times when things went very badly for Israel and they interpreted the suffering that came to them as punishment for having offended God. But when once again peace returned and all was well, they rejoiced in the mercy of their God, who never left them.

The Psalms often speak of the loving mercy of God, asking God to wipe out our offenses, cleanse us of sin, and open our mouths to proclaim his praise. “A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” (Ps 51)

St. Paul’s Experience

St. Paul also experienced mercy from the Lord. Paul was the Roman name of a pharisee named Saul who grew up in Tarsus. Tarsus was a Roman city in an area northwest of Syria. Saul was a Roman citizen because of his birth in Tarsus, but he was also a Jew. He had studied in Jerusalem and was greatly distressed by the teachings of Jesus’ disciples after the resurrection. When the authorities began to arrest Christians, Saul was totally in favor of wiping out this new, heretical group. In fact, he was a witness to the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Those who were throwing the rocks at Stephen laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet for safekeeping as he looked on with approval.

Later, as the Christian community dispersed to other cities in the empire, Saul followed after them to Damascus, planning to arrest them, return them to Jerusalem, and witness their deaths. But the Lord had other plans for him.

On the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Saul. Saul was totally blown away by the appearance of Jesus. Jesus instructed him to continue his journey to Damascus. There he met members of the Christian community and became one of them. Thus began his long journey as a follower of Jesus and apostle to the Gentiles.

Many years after his conversion, Paul wrote to Timothy, one of the men who had been converted by Paul’s teachings and had become a companion on some of his missionary journeys. (1 Tim 1:12-17) Paul spoke of his experience of having received mercy from the Lord, despite his earlier attempts to wipe out Jesus’ followers. “I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.” It was through the mercy of God that Paul found a new meaning and way in life. A new kind of justice.

Jesus’ Stories of Forgiveness

Jesus embodied God’s approach to sinners. Sinners were anyone who did not live by Jewish Law and customs. As in any society, there are always folks who skirt the rules or refuse to follow them. Most people avoided contact with public sinners – tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, and so forth. But Jesus went out of his way to speak with them. This brought constant criticism from the religious authorities. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Eating with someone who was a sinner, who was ritually unclean, made a person also ritually unclean. It was a big deal.

In response to the criticism, Jesus told three stories. (Lk 15:1-32) The first was about a shepherd who had one hundred sheep. One of them got lost. The shepherd left the ninety-nine and went in search of the missing one. When he found it, he returned to the rest of the flock and called his friends to celebrate with him because he had found the missing sheep. Jesus told his audience that in heaven, there will be much greater joy over the repentance of a sinner than over those who have always lived righteously. Like his listeners, we might wonder about the wisdom of leaving ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves. In practical terms, unless others were watching out for the flock, the rest of the sheep would probably be gone by the time the shepherd returned with the stray. But Jesus takes it for granted that a true shepherd would care about the missing one too.

Another example of God’s extravagance is that of the woman who had ten coins. When she lost one, she lit a lamp and cleaned the house carefully, looking for the coin. When she found it, she called her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her because the coin had been found. Having recently found a coin that I had dropped and been unable to find for several days, I can appreciate her delight. For me the coin was not a huge issue, but I had been wondering where it had managed to hide when I dropped it. For her, the coin was much more important. Important enough to burn expensive oil in the effort to find it. Jesus explained again that the angels rejoice when each sinner repents. The cost doesn’t matter to God and the angels rejoice.

The final story is one we often know as that of the Prodigal Son. It might also be called the story of the Extravagantly Merciful, Welcoming Father. A son requests his share of the family wealth, takes the money and spends it all on wild living. Then he finds himself without resources in a foreign land as drought and famine rage. Eventually he comes to his senses and declares, “I will rise and go to my father…” The son intends to ask for a job as a servant in the household, but his father, seeing him coming down the road, runs out to welcome him. He treats him as a much-loved son and restores his position in the household. A great celebration then begins, with no expense spared, to welcome the son back to the family.

The brother who had remained with his father is very hurt and angry at the way his father treats the one who had gone away and wasted the family resources. He refuses to enter the house and join the celebration, considering his father’s actions to be unfair. But the father of both young men explains, “now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again.”

Like the Extravagantly Merciful, Welcoming Father in the story, we are loved and welcomed by our God, who is a parent to us. Sometimes we really make wrong choices. Sometimes we deliberately do what we know is wrong. Sometimes we don’t do what we know we should do. Like the Israelites in the desert, or Saul on the road to Damascus, or the young man who went off and spent his share of the family money, our actions can be very wrong. Yet God does not punish us. God doesn’t interfere with our free choice to turn away. But God always wants us to return, not to be afraid to come back. The circle of love is always open to receive us again. We just have to turn back and accept the big hug that God wants to give us. The justice of God is not something to be feared. The justice of God is extravagant mercy and love. Today, tomorrow, and always.

Thanks be to God!

Find the readings for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C

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Posted by on Sep 26, 2021

What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?

What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?

On this Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear of prophecy, healing, and inclusion. We also hear words of warning, some quite harsh.

Moses, in the Book of Numbers, has his hands full trying to lead the people and deal with their complaints and concerns (Nm 11:25-29). The burden of leadership has rested heavily on his shoulders, and he is tired of carrying it by himself. He complains to the Lord, who promises to spread the burden around a bit, and to provide more meat for the people (addressing their chief complaint). Moses is to select a group of elders who will help him govern the people. They are to gather at the meeting tent. All but two of those chosen are present at the tent when the Lord takes some of the spirit shared with Moses and bestows it on the chosen elders. These men begin to speak the Lord’s word when the spirit comes upon them – to prophesy. It is a strong confirmation of their new role in the community.

While this is happening at the meeting tent, the two men who were late getting there also experience the coming of the spirit upon them. They also begin to prophesy, right there in the camp. A young man runs to Moses with the news. Joshua urges Moses to stop the men from prophesying, since they have not received this gift at the tent with the others. Moses declines to do so, asking Joshua if he is jealous for the sake of himself (Moses).

Moses declares a different vision than that of limitation of access to divine inspiration and exclusion of those not present when the Lord acts in a religious or other formal setting. He declares, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, the spirit of the Lord is the Lord’s very life breath! When the Lord shares his spirit with people, he is sharing of his own life. Moses wishes this sharing in the divine life and gifts could be experienced by all the people. Those who receive it speak out in praise the words of the Lord.

Jesus also dealt with misunderstanding of the breadth of God’s distribution of gifts (Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48). Someone else was successfully driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps wishing to protect Jesus’ reputation as a healer in the face of competition, John tried to stop the other from acting and then informed Jesus of the competition. Jesus surprised John by telling him not to try to stop the other person’s actions. He noted that it is impossible to perform mighty deeds in Jesus’ name and in the next breath speak ill of him. “For whoever is not against us is for us.”  And any who help those belonging to Christ, even with a small drink of water, will be rewarded.

So much for jealously restricting the gifts of healing and prophesy…

Now for the other side of the picture. A series of dire warnings concludes this section of the Gospel. The warnings are phrased dramatically and speak of drastic efforts to keep from causing others who believe in Jesus to sin. They were not meant to be taken literally, though in the course of history, some people have done just that. Jesus is not advocating physically injuring or maiming oneself or others, but rather emphasizing how important it is to be aware of what leads us to sin – what leads us to miss the target of loving behavior towards others and ourselves. He warns that it’s better to do without something deemed very important than to go to Gehenna, where the fire is unquenchable.

This reference to Gehenna is one that today is not at all understood in the context known by Jesus’ audience. We tend to think of Hell as the destination in the reference, but that’s not what Jesus was saying. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, there was a garbage dump. This dump was not like a modern landfill. It was a place where garbage was burned in open fires. The fires were kept burning day and night. The final line is a reference to the last few verses of the Book of Isaiah. Those verses too spoke of the garbage-burning fires outside the gates of the city. The prophet has just spoken of the coming victory of the Lord and the bringing together of good people from all over the earth to live in the city of the Lord. The bodies of the enemies, slain in a great battle, would be burned in the fires of the garbage dump.

These readings, and the reading from the letter of James (Jas 5:1-6), almost follow a parallel pattern. First Moses chides Joshua for trying to limit the Lord’s sharing of the spirit. Moses speaks of a broader sharing of the spirit among all the people. Then James cautions against making assumptions about the future or storing up riches for old age by taking advantage of the poor or treating workers unfairly. He reminds his listeners that the Lord hears the cries of those who are being harmed and will ultimately rule in their favor.  Finally, Jesus refuses to limit the power of healing to the small group of disciples who travel with him. He warns of the serious nature of sin and the importance of guarding against falling into temptation.

These readings are not just samples of the thinking of historical figures. They are intended to speak to us today. What do they say to us?

The first thing that comes to mind is the insight of the Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council, when they declared that the Spirit has been at work in all cultures and times throughout the history of humankind. This was a major breakthrough. No longer do we say that only through faith in Jesus is salvation and everlasting life with God possible. We know that people of good will who have never received the gift of faith also share in life with God, both now and when they enter into eternity. The document, Nostra Aetate, (Declaration on The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), was promulgated on October 28, 1965. It is a short document, but its implications are profound for our world today and the religious strife which still plagues humanity.

The second point is perhaps more challenging. We absolutely must take seriously our own responsibility for our failures to live in self-giving love. And then we must do something about them.

What keeps me from a loving response? Is it the television show over which I get angry if I have to miss the final five minutes of the program? Is it the cell phone that keeps me distracted from family dinner conversation? Is it the sports event on television whose result upsets me so that I lash out angrily against my family? Is it taking on too many activities so that I can live up to an unrealistic picture of what a good parent does but then find I don’t have patience with a spouse or child who just needs a bit of attention and time from me? Is it social media? Do I really need to spend an hour or more each day catching up with my followers? What should I really be quietly doing for a friend today?

So many things can come between me and God. (The grammarian in me says it should be “God and me,” but the issue really is that God isn’t the one responsible here, so I will leave it with myself first here.) My challenge, and I think the challenge we all face, is to see what obstacles trip me up. Those are the ones I must address. They are the ones that need to be limited or dumped. Better they be dumped than that I end up in the dump – living apart from joyous presence of God.

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