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The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 11, 2022

Watch this homily!

     This morning I’m going to direct my homily to the few instead of the many. I want to speak to anyone who may be carrying a heavy burden of sin, or anyone who may be burdened by memories of past sins and may wonder whether God has really forgiven them. That’s not many of you, I’m quite certain, but I’m willing to bet it’s some of you. If so, this is for you. If not, I trust you will indulge me.

     And now you’re probably wondering, ‘After an introduction like that, what on earth is he going to say?’ Nothing earth-shaking. Just a few things about sin and forgiveness. I can’t count how many times over the years someone has said to me
– in Confession, or just in a heartfelt conversation - ‘Father, I’m not sure God can really forgive some of the sins I’ve committed.’ My response is always the same: ‘God not only can forgive you. God does forgive you. You need only ask!’ Then, to prove the point, I turn to the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel – to those three wonderful parables of Jesus we just heard.

     It’s important to remember why Jesus told those parables.  The reason was given in the opening verses of today’s gospel: “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘this man welcomes sinners and dines with them.’” It was because the Pharisees and scribes thought Jesus was soft on sin or sinners that he told the three parables. He told them to explain why he spent so much of his time in the company of sinners. The Pharisees found this troubling, but Jesus knew that being with sinners was his calling - it was his very reason for being. Where else would he be but with people who needed to hear the good news of God’s boundless mercy!

     But it’s not hard, is it, to understand the Pharisees’ point of view? They lined up with the God of today’s reading from Exodus, the God who was ablaze with wrath against sinners – against his own people who made the golden calf and fell down before it in idolatrous worship. If that was how God dealt with sinners, why was Jesus spending so much time with them?  True, in the Exodus story God did relent, but only after some very clever bargaining on the part of Moses. As the Pharisees saw it, it was one thing for God to forgive, but quite another for this upstart preacher from Nazareth to be singling out sinners - favoring sinners even - spending virtually all his time in their company, dining in their homes, breaking the bread of fellowship with them. The Pharisees were quite sure that that wasn’t God’s way of dealing with sinners. For them, this was a sure sign that Jesus was not from God.

     So, we see what Jesus was up against. In order to bring them to a new place, to open up their closed minds, he told not one, not two, but three parables – three of the most beloved and reassuring parables in all the gospels, parables with power to change the minds of people who question God’s forgiveness or who go through life believing that God may forgive sinners but convinced that they are an exception.

     But, of course, there are no exceptions! Jesus tells us that God is the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one gone astray; God is the woman who turns her house upside-down to search for one lost coin; God is the father who doesn’t wait for either of his two sinful sons to come back to him but goes out looking for them. God is forgiving and passionate to forgive. God is the Hound of Heaven in Francis Thompson’s great 19th century poem, relentless in his pursuit of the sinner, lavish in his offer of unconditional forgiveness.

     All this is especially evident in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It should really be called the parable of the Prodigal Father because that father is the living embodiment of the God who is prodigal – beyond generous - when it comes to forgiveness. And the first son? He’s the poster boy for all who want God’s forgiveness but who think that they have to earn it. But there is no earning God’s forgiveness. There is no need to. None of that young man’s sins – not his selfishness, not his total disrespect for his father, not his wanton squandering of his inheritance, not even all his loose living – none of those sins was so great that he had to earn his father’s forgiveness. He may have disowned his father, but his father never disowned him. His father didn’t even let him finish his carefully rehearsed, rather self-serving confession. No, after running out to meet him, he embraced him, cut short his confession, wrapped him in a fine robe, put a ring on his finger and threw a great party for him.

     But what about the other son, the ‘good’ one, the one who served his father faithfully and always obeyed the rules? He’s the poster boy for self-righteous people who would put limits on God’s mercy but who need mercy themselves, really need it, because of their sins of pride, jealousy, and cold resentment – different sins from the first son’s, but sins nonetheless.

     My friends, I began by saying that I wanted to speak today to those who need forgiveness but who are afraid they can’t have it, and I’ve ended up with a word for those who may not think they need forgiveness at all, but who really do. So maybe there’s been something here for more than I thought. The stories of Jesus are like that. There is something for everyone. And there is healing and welcome for everyone now as we move to the table of the Eucharist, remembering that Jesus is the one who “welcomes sinners and dines with them!”

Father Michael G. Ryan





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