Cycle C | Ordinary Time | Week 24
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Little Johnny is always being teased by the neighbourhood boys for being stupid. They make joke of him regarding his choice of a penny over a ten pence coin. One day, a concerned neighbour takes Johnny aside to enlighten him: “Johnny, those boys are making fun of you. Don’t you know that a ten pence coin is worth more than a penny even though the penny is bigger?” Johnny grins and says, “Well, if I took the ten pence, they would stop making the offer; so far I’ve made £20!”
In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Pharisees and the Scribes complained that Jesus can’t be the Messiah because he welcomes sinners and eats with them. In response, Jesus used three parables to underline the key spiritual principle that it is God that searches for us contrary to popular piety view of faith as our quest for God. The spiritual life is about allowing oneself to be found.
Like the case of Johnny, a common feature of the three parables is the seeming stupidity of the searchers. First is a shepherd that abandoned 99 sheep in search of one that strayed. Doesn’t a bird in hand worth more than two in the bush?
Second is a woman who turns her house upside down in search of a penny. A mere penny! Does it worth all the stress?
Finally, a father runs to embrace a returning prodigal son.
Most absurd is that all called a party following their find. What can be crazier? Jesus knew how very unreasonable those moves are so he starts the parables by asking who could behave in such ways. The implied answer is nobody of course. We are much smarter than that. Yet, what parent with six children wouldn’t bother to go in search of one that is lost just because they still have five? God is like that. God as love searches even in irrational ways for the lost. The mystic Catherine of Siena declared that God is crazily in love. It is an expression of love we cannot conceive.
What kind of welcome could we give a family member who squanders all the family fortune on drugs and gambling? We shall more likely behave like the older son who feels strong resentment at the stupid party thrown for a returning black sheep of the family.
On the contrary however, the Lord feels bad and pity for the violence we have done to ourselves like the prodigal son through waywardness. He feels happy whenever we retrace our steps and are found.
The glory of God is man fully alive (St. Irenaeus). We fail in basing forgiveness on the offender being deserving of it. The sinner/offender already suffers by the very fact of their evil. As “virtue is its own reward” so is vice its own punishment.
The sheep, the coin and the son represent three distinct ways of being lost while the shepherd, the woman and the father represent three manners of divine intervention.
The coin is inanimate and lacks awareness. When it gets lost, it doesn’t even know. So, the question of finding its way back is ruled out. Sometimes people find themselves in this sort of situation; they have so compromised themselves that they lack any moral sensitivity. Their conscience is dead if you like so they don’t even know that they are lost. They may be successful in the world but they lack godliness. Yet, all hope is not lost for such persons; as the woman diligently searches for the lost coin, so does God diligently search for them.
Sheep is higher than the coin in terms of awareness. A sheep that strays or falls into a ravine could bleat for attention. Like such sheep, some people recognize that they have fallen short but they are unable to rise on their own. They need help. Their case is also not hopeless because like the Good Shepherd, God searches out for them too.
Unlike the coin and the sheep, the son is not just dumbly lost or unconsciously fallen into a pit. He is more sophisticated. He consciously and rationally rebelled against the dad but his common sense did not fail him at the moment of truth.
When he turns resolution into action and embarks on the long and difficult journey home, the dad was waiting for him. God stands waiting to have such souls back into His warm embrace.
What is our reaction when we see people whom we consider condemnable being rehabilitated or integrated into the life of the community and the church?
Well, while sin can take the form of wild and rebellious behaviour (the prodigal younger son), it could come more subtly in the form of sulking, angry and judgmental attitudes of self-righteousness (the Pharisees, the Scribes and the older son).
Those of us who lead quiet and seemingly “responsible” lives may very well fall into the trap of sullen, resentful and angry attitudes toward others who seem to be “getting away with murder.” What we need to ask ourselves is whether we have the kind of love that can understand why others, often less privileged than ourselves, may need both correction and forgiveness.