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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 Oct 17, 2021

How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?

How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?

How many times do I have to tell you? Which of us has never heard this question addressed to us by an exasperated parent or teacher? Sometimes it’s an issue of not having paid attention. Sometimes it’s a question of not believing it applies to us. Sometimes it’s an issue of thinking that what is being said is too good to be true – or too bad to be believed.

Jesus had the same problem with his followers. In the Gospel reading for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark tells us of a time when two of the disciples, James and John, approached Jesus with a confidential request: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” (Mk 10:35-45) Jesus was flabbergasted (totally amazed) by their request. “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (To be baptized means to be plunged into something.)

Now Jesus has been telling his friends for a while already that he is going to Jerusalem and there he will be turned over to the authorities to be tortured and killed. No one can comprehend that this is really going to happen. I would guess they think he’s just a worrywart or exaggerating, but he was absolutely serious. This is why he asked James and John if they could do what he was going to have to do. They brashly assured him they would be able to do whatever he had to do, after all, what made him any more capable of dealing with whatever came than they were!

As it turns out, Jesus assures them, you will indeed drink from the same cup – face death for proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God – and in fact, they later did die as martyrs (witnesses).

When the others caught wind of this conversation, they were incensed. Who do these guys think they are? As the anger and conflict among them grew, Jesus intervened. He told them once again what would be demanded of them as his followers. He spoke of the social reality that existed in the world of non-Jews, the Gentiles (Romans, Greeks, and other surrounding nations). Large numbers of people were slaves. Estimates are that 1/3 of the people were slaves. Most of the rest were not particularly well-off. Only the rulers and upper classes lived well. They considered themselves to be better than the rest and didn’t hesitate to abuse and take advantage of everyone below them. Slaves were seen and treated as less than human, despite the fact that anyone could be enslaved for something as out of their control as the loss of a family’s income that plunged them into debt. If a debt could not be paid, the whole family and their belongings could be sold to pay the debt!

Jesus spoke words at this point that echoed ones we all have heard so often. Mark doesn’t have him saying, “How many times do it have to tell you?” But there’s the same sense of that in what Jesus says. The disciples are told point blank that if they want to be great, they must behave as if they were slaves to all they meet. The reason for this is that he has not come to be a master. He has come to serve as if he were a slave and to give his life as a ransom. This is not the first time he has told them this. It won’t be the last. Eventually, he will show them, but that comes later…

Isaiah spoke many generations earlier of the mystery of the Suffering Servant who would give his life as an offering for sin, see his descendants in a long life, and be the channel through which the Lord’s will can be accomplished. “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” (Is 53:10:11) This is from the fourth song of the suffering servant, the one most fully developed.

Jesus knew of these prophecies. He took them seriously, though many probably thought of them as more symbolic than realistic. Yet they fit into an ancient theme in Jewish history and thought. While the Israelites were traveling in the desert after they left Egypt, they were instructed to set up a tent for the Lord. Only certain people were allowed to enter the tent and only at certain times. If those conditions were not met, it could be fatal for the intruders and their families. Aaron, brother of Moses and priest ordained and authorized to offer sacrifices to the Lord, discovered this the hard way when two of his sons entered the tent and died. He was then required to offer a sacrifice of atonement for their actions or die himself. This is all described in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 16.

Aaron’s sacrifice included the use of two male goats. One was sacrificed and offered to the Lord inside the tent. The other was symbolically loaded down with the guilt for the sins of his sons, himself, and all the people. Then that goat was driven out into the desert to die there, taking the sins of the people with it. This goat came to be known as the scapegoat, perhaps because it was sometimes known as the “escaping goat.” Each year after that, on a date set by the Lord for each year, the high priest was to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. After the temple in Jerusalem was built, the very innermost court was called the Holy of Holies. The high priest was the only person allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and offer the sacrifice of atonement there. The rest of the people were also to make sacrifices in their personal lives on that day. This tradition has continued to the present day, without the inclusion of temple sacrifices, on the Day of Atonement each fall.

The Suffering Servant in Isaiah would be the one on whom the guilt of all would rest. His sacrifice would bring a restoration of the good relationship with the Lord for all the people.

This theme arises again in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 4:14-16). The author speaks of our great high priest, Jesus, the Son of God, who has passed through the heavens. This high priest does not need to offer a sacrifice for his sins and those of the people each year. Nor is he one who cannot understand human frailty and our tendency to sin, to miss the goal of acting lovingly. This high priest has shared everything there is to experience about being human, including suffering, loss, and death, but he has never sinned. Because our high priest is Jesus, we can approach the throne of God with absolute confidence, knowing we will be received with grace, mercy, and the help we need going forward.

So the question arises: Have I heard this time? Do I get it? Do I understand that I am not the one who will be in the driver’s seat? I am not to assume others will do my will. I am to be the one who seeks to meet the needs of my sisters and brothers, without demanding that they change or try to do things my way. Am I willing to serve as Jesus served? Am I willing to try to love as Jesus loved? Am I willing to learn to forgive as Jesus did?

The Kingdom of Love awaits. The ones who serve are the ones who will sit at the places of honor (figuratively, of course). Our Lord reaches out in service. As his followers, we are called to join him in doing the same.

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