September 11, 2016
Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
Today’s Gospel passage is long, and there is also the possibility of reading the short form. The entire passage includes the so-called three parables of Mercy, which conclude with the parable of the Merciful Father, also known, precisely, as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. One may read only the first part that only includes the parable of the lost sheep and the lost drachma. We’ll consider the three of them.
The context in which these parables have their source is stated in the first two verses (Luke 15:1-2) of today’s Gospel: the Pharisees, seeing how all the Publicans and sinners were approaching Jesus, murmured among themselves about the teacher’s inappropriate behavior. “And Jesus told them this parable” (a parable in the singular). Actually, Jesus tells three parables, but for the evangelist it is just one parable, because the three of them present the one face of God.
In this one parable, this one Face, we identify some traits.
We begin with the verb “to lose”: a shepherd loses a sheep, a woman loses a drachma, a father loses a son.
“Losing” is repeated eight times in the account (vv. 4,4,6,8,9,17,24,32). This reminds us that man’s reality is a reality that often encounters the possibility of being lost. Here, being lost is not interpreted in moral terms, of depravation, of sin: this, if anything, is a consequence. We are lost when we forget to whom we belong. Staying with the image of the Gospel, when the sheep no longer belongs to the shepherd, the drachma to the woman, the son to the father, one is lost.
We lose when we stray from the relationship that makes us live, like the younger son who, far away from home, was starving. He would be satisfied with the pods of the swine, but no one gave him any (15:16); not because all were mean, but because no one, except the father, can give life.
Being lost, therefore, is a contemplated possibility for every man, but this is never the final outcome; not because by himself, by his own powers, can man regain the way of belonging, but because there exists for him the possibility of being found.
And if “to lose” is repeated eight times in the account, the verb “to find” is also repeated eight times (vv. 4,5,6,8,9,9,24,32). We could say, in a certain sense, that in the parables of Mercy all are found and no one is lost.
This scandalizes the self-righteous, and with reason.
Because the shepherd, to find his sheep, is obliged in some way “to lose”, in frequenting places of perdition, in going to far away places, there where the sheep has lost itself.
It would be useless to seek the lost elsewhere!
To find us, the Lord becomes one of us; He shows solidarity, and even “loses himself”, our earth soils him. He comes to where we are. This is what Jesus of the Gospel does, scandalizing the Pharisees (1-2).
Also, the letter to the Hebrews (13:20) recalls: “The God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep”. The great Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus, went down to the netherworld but did not remain there: the God of peace brought him back home, by virtue of the blood of a covenant – of a banquet feast.
Then, if this is true, our every being lost is filled with hope and with a singular promise. Because only he who is lost can have the experience of being found. The one condition, which really scandalizes us, is the admission of our need of a salvation accomplished in that way, that is, in giving gratitude to God who comes to look for us right where we are lost. In short, the only condition for letting ourselves be found is the admission of our being lost.
To verb “to lose”, as I said, is used in this passage eight times, but in one case the modern versions do not literally translate it. It is in verse 17, when the younger son comes back to his senses and says: “How many salaried workers in my father’s house have enough to eat, and here I am lost in hunger”. Usually it is translated with: “I am dying of hunger”. To a certain point, in a word, yet in a confused way, the son recognizes that he is lost, and recognizes it from an unambiguous symptom: hunger.
Prescinding, however, from this or that expression, the younger son becomes aware of being lost and also begins to re-examine his former life in a different manner.
And from that awareness, he begins his journey of salvation, which will still be long and will gradually lead to the discovery of a father different from what he had always thought. That verse, that awareness, opens the way to recovery, and makes all the rest possible.
And returning home, his hunger would find not only bread, but a rich banquet feast. If hunger is absence of a relationship, finding oneself is a feast, the only true feast possible.
It is no coincidence that even for us today the deeper and truer relationship that we experience is given in a banquet, in a supper, the Eucharist.
Therefore, it is this recognition of being lost that makes the difference. Unlike the older son, who does not know, he also is lost, whilst having always remained at home, respectful and obedient.
It is striking that he too speaks of hunger, of a food he had not judged sufficient: “You never gave me a young goat to feast on…” (V.29).
In the father’s house, the older son ate what he merited, what he earned, as any servant. And this food could not evidently nourish him, because he was a son and not a servant; and the food of the sons cannot be that free.
But unlike his younger brother, he did not recognize his being lost, rather, he accuses the father of not being generous enough: “You never gave me…” So the older son remains outside, while the younger goes inside. We have heard these expressions, outside/inside, some Sundays ago (Luke 13:22-30), when the Gospel spoke about a narrow door: through it, only the one who comes from far away, like the younger son, entered it; but whoever thought he was already inside, remained outside…
Inside, there is the feast. And the parable of mercy emphasizes that before everything else the one who finds that makes the feast, that is, the shepherd, the woman, the father: it is the feast of God, the feast for a relationship finally restored, without which it seems that not even the Lord can live.