TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 09/15/2019
THE JOY OF RETURNING SURPASSES THE PAIN OF DEPARTURE
Readings: 1st- Ex. 32:7-11, 13-14; 2nd- 1 Tim. 1:12-17; Gospel- Lk. 15:1-32
I was a concelebrant at a Mass in New Jersey when one of the bishops told a story of a young man named Adam. Adam started off roughly. As a teenager, Adam became big-time trouble for his parents. He dropped out of school, started hanging out with bad boys in their area. Adam’s parents brought him to the bishop several times for counseling, but he wouldn’t let go his bad habits. Adam smoked, partied, and got drunk from time to time. He started doing drugs and other substances. Eventually, his dad had stroke when Adam was about 25. As the dad was about to die, Adam stood by his bedside and begged for forgiveness. He denounced all his evil ways and promised the dad that he was going to make him proud. The bishop was the one who performed the dad’s funeral, after which Adam came to him and cried for the years he had wasted. That ended the story for a while. About ten years after, Adam returned to the bishop a completely different person. He was clean, got himself back to school, graduated as an engineer. Adam had come to present his fiancé to the bishop with the request that the bishop be the officiating priest at his wedding. The bishop described the joy of this return as one of great joy. Adam requested that the bishop share the story of his past with the congregation at his wedding. One year after his wedding, he returned to the bishop to have his son baptized in the church. Adam became a great husband and dad. Adam is the chairman of the pastoral council in one of the churches in New Jersey now and a living witness to the goodness and mercy of Christ. The joy of returning surpasses the pain of departure.
Does Adam’s story resonate with you or someone you knew? Saint Paul is a typical example, shares his own story of depravity in his letter to Timothy. He brings out the difference between the past and the present as he writes, “I was a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.” We might wonder what Paul meant by saying he was ignorant. Is he being defensive and avoiding responsibility? Wasn’t Paul an adult at his conversion? History tells us that Paul’s conversion might have taken place between the years of 33-36 AD. That means, he knew right from wrong, evil from good. Yet, he claimed that he was ignorant. Saint Paul is telling us of the impact of sin. Sin makes us ignorant of God’s love. It shrinks our cognitive faculties and blurs our spiritual vision. Sin makes us totally unaware of the enormous benefits of God’s grace and mercy. It puts us out of God’s favor. The joy of returning surpasses the pain of departure.
We hear that in the three parables of today’s gospel- the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The themes in those parables are vulnerability, finding the lost, joy, and celebration. Saint Paul expresses the love of the Father in these words, “Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:14-15). Paul’s story therefore becomes a testimony of hope and an inspiration to those who are struggling just like we hear we hear the echoes of joy over the recovered lost in the parables. God’s voice is strong at those moments, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin/sheep.” The joy of returning surpasses the pain of departure.
The parable of the lost son will resonate mostly with us for several reasons. First, it is about typical dysfunctional behaviors of individuals in family life, and the disappointments we have with irresponsible mature adults around us. Second, it presents the reaction of the self-righteous -the “elder brother syndrome.” Third, it demonstrates strongly what appears to be undeserved mercy for every sinner. Fourth, it stresses the importance of self-assessment and acknowledgment of our human inadequacies. Fifth, it opens us up to the grace of Christ even in our brokenness. Sixth, it sends out God’s invitation to return and how widespread God’s love is for those who return. Finally, it positions us for the great celebration at Wedding Feast of the Lamb in heaven. The joy of returning surpasses the pain of departure.
Remember the context of this parable; “Tax collectors and sinners are all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and Scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Lk. 15:1). Jesus shares the parables within this circumstance. The Pharisees and Scribes are apparently upset with Jesus, referring him to “this man.” They see him as scandalizing others. The lost coin might not have any blame, so also the lost sheep, but the lost son in the parable does. He requests a share of his inheritance from the father. He receives what he asks for and departs. He begins a strange lifestyle immersed in sin and shame. He seems to have found pleasure that could be described as short-lived. He embarks on a life of debauchery and dissipation. From abundance to scarcity, he begins to feel the pains. Life hits him hard and he comes to his senses. He realizes his faults. He decides to make up for his past. The joy of returning surpasses the pain of departure.
Does the father require him to make up for his past or just to return and be part of a glorious inheritance? Scripture remarks, “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” The father does not even allow his son to finish his confessions, rather immediately summons his servants, “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this my son was dead, and has come back to life again; he was lost and has been found.” The joy of returning surpasses the pain of departure.
It would have been interesting if this story ended here. However, Jesus intends to point out the reaction of the elder brother who meets the celebration on his return from a regular structured routine as an obedient son to his father. He is informed of the reason for the merriment and refuses to enter. He is angry at the father. He is upset at the lavish party. He detests his younger brother and describes him as, “this son of yours”. To him, his brother is a sinner, only worthy among prostitutes and outcasts. This elder brother represents the attitude of the Pharisees and the Scribes. He represents a self-righteousness which fails to accommodate the mistakes of others. It negates God’s love and mercy for the lost and depraved. The joy of returning surpasses the pain of departure.
Let’s flash our minds back. Moses pleads for the Israelites who worship idols. Saint Paul describes himself as the worst of sinners who depends on God’s mercy irrespective of his failings. The prodigal father reminds his older son, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come back to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Lk. 15:32). The joy of returning surpasses the pain of departure.
Have you been away for some time because of sin? Have you been avoiding God? Do you consider yourself unworthy to appear before God? Are you burdened by a particular sin that makes you feel there is no need trying? Are you worried by what the society or what your Christian community thinks of you? Don’t mind! Come back. God is already waiting. He is not here to condemn you. He is here to celebrate you, to celebrate your worth, your return. He wants to embrace you in the sacrament of reconciliation. Yes, you might need to weep for your sins, that’s a sign of your repentance, your return is a great come-back. The celebration is awesome. Your finest robe is ready. Your ring and sandals of royalty are prepared. Your fattened calf is slaughtered; He is the Lamb of God who sacrificed himself on the Cross for you. The great Feast is the Blessed Eucharist. It is for you. Join the party. The joy of returning surpasses the pain of departure.