Fifty-first in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
One of the more interesting notions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks 15 years ago came from the more fundamentalist sects of American Protestantism: that these attacks, which resulted in the deaths of 3000 people and an amorphous war against the worst kind of enemy (i.e., the organized yet unseen), were God’s punishment upon America for its sins. From legalized abortion to support for the state of Israel, any moral or political failing, real or imagined, was used to justify the terror attacks as the righteous judgment of a vengeful God. Such was the way our more radical brethren tried to make sense out of an attack perpetrated by radicals. But today, our Mass readings cast such thoughts into what then-President Bush called “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”
The First Reading, from the Book of Exodus, shows an argument between God and Moses. God has seen how His chosen people have rejected His commands and failed almost immediately to live up to their end of the covenant, even making a calf out of melted and beaten gold and worshipping it as their god. Therefore He will destroy them all and build a new nation, starting with Moses. But Moses intervenes for the errant Israelites: “Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people…?” He even reminds God of the promise He made to Abraham – “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky” – and implies that to destroy Israel now is to break His covenant with Abraham. God could have, I suppose, easily mounted a counter-argument that since Moses himself is a descendant of Abraham, He is still faithful to that covenant by raising a new nation from Moses. But He doesn’t. Instead, Exodus says that God “relented,” He changed His mind and let Israel live – simply because Moses asked Him to.
So perhaps our more radical brethren could argue that God allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen because no one asked God not to let it happen. But then what do we make of the parables Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel reading? The prodigal son we have heard about before; like the father in the parable, God will meet us halfway if we come to Him. But what of the lost sheep? Or the lost coin? In these stories, the owners search over hill and dale, from attic to cellar, seeking what is lost. In fact, it’s safe to say that the sheep and the coin in question likely don’t even know they are lost! But they are looked for anyway, and when they are found a celebration is held. In the same way, Jesus tells His audience, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” God wishes salvation, not destruction! He wishes all the lost to be found, for all who sin to convert. How can they do that if He blithely destroys them? How can we ask for God’s mercy and healing and love if He punishes us before we even know to ask?
The attacks 15 years ago are a major example of how not every human action accords with God’s will for us, but looked at in the light of the Gospel they are a reminder not of God’s vengeance, but of His staggeringly infinite patience. Saint Paul knows of this patience all too well, and he speaks of it in the Second Reading. Writing to his disciple and fellow bishop Timothy, Paul says, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant.” He even calls himself the “foremost” of all sinners. And yet, he maintains that sin is not an occasion for punishment so much as for mercy. “I was mercifully treated, so that in me…Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him.” Paul wants Timothy – and us – to realize that when sin occurs, the only appropriate response is the patience of God’s mercy. True, those who perpetrated and organized the attacks have no interest in reconciliation, and when threatened a nation will take measures to defend and protect itself and its citizens. Such is the state of world affairs. That doesn’t mean we ever should despair of God’s mercy – for our country or for its enemies.
“This saying is trustworthy,” writes the Apostle, “and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Even Jesus knew and taught that straying from God’s will is an inevitable consequence of the human condition. But that’s why He came, looking for us like someone who’s lost a sheep or a coin…or a house-key or a set of earrings with personal value or that one photo you just know is there somewhere in the drawer. And that’s why He tells us to ask for His grace, for His help, for His mercy. He will give us even His whole Self if we just ask, and He’s waiting for us to ask! Someday a time for judgment will come, for us and for the world; someday we will run out of second chances on this earth. Before that time comes, turn to Him, run to His mercy, and ask Him to help you share His compassion with all the world.
May God continue to bless America!