Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
This weekend’s first reading is from the Book of Exodus. This book roughly chronicles the passage of the Hebrew people from Egypt, where they had been slaves.
Moses guided them, but the Hebrew refugees believed that God guided Moses, since Moses could not have accomplished such a task without God’s help. So, while they had Moses to thank for their successful and safe passage across the Sinai Peninsula to the land God had promised them, they ultimately gave tanks to Almighty God.
In this reading, God indeed speaks to Moses. God indicts the people, first, for sinning, but also for committing the greatest of sins. They had constructed and then worshipped an idol, a calf crafted from metal.
Harsh punishment would follow, not because of divine wrath but because they had pushed God away and were left with their inadequacies.
Moses implored God to forgive the people, pleading with God to remain the people’s guide and protector even though they had sinned.
The First Epistle to Timothy provides the second reading. Timothy was St. Paul’s disciple. Together with Silvanus, Timothy had accompanied Paul on some of Paul’s missionary travels.
While elsewhere in his writings Paul seemed to express some doubts about Timothy’s skills for leadership, Paul nevertheless regarded him as a special associate and faithful disciple.
To fortify Timothy’s fidelity, Paul explained his own personal devotion to Christ. Paul described his vocation as an apostle and as a believer. In this effort, Paul made very clear that he was a sinner, unworthy of God’s saving grace. Despite all this, Paul insisted, God had saved him from eternal death, through Jesus the Redeemer.
St. Luke’s Gospel supplies the last reading. It is a story of the willingness of the Lord to associate with tax collectors and sinners. Today, some explanation helps to understand why the critics of Jesus so disdained tax collectors.
Tax collectors at that time were very bad people, for two main reasons. In the first place, they were turncoats and traitors. They were tools of the detested Roman occupation, collecting taxes for the imperial treasury. Secondly, they were legalized thieves and extortionists. Under the Roman system, tax collectors could assess taxes in any amounts they themselves chose. Then they could take whatever they received above and beyond what was sent to Rome and put it in their own pockets.
They were the worst of the worst.
Jesus associated with them and with all despicable types. Not surprisingly, Jesus was criticized. The Lord answered the criticism with three beautiful parables. The last of these parables is the story of the Prodigal Son, one of the most beloved of the parables.
The lessons are clear. God’s mercy never ends, nor is it ever limited. It awaits even the worst of sinners, if only they repent. God reaches out to all with forgiveness and mercy. Actually, no one is perfect. We all are sinners, maybe as heartless as the ancient tax collectors. We all need forgiveness.
In the Vatican Museum is a splendid item that the Austrian emperor and Hungarian king Francis Joseph gave to Pope Leo XIII on the pontiff’s 25th anniversary in the papacy in 1903. Mounted on a magnificent marble pedestal are exquisite gold figures of 99 sheep, following a shepherd holding one sheep in his arms. It represents the Good Shepherd who has found the stray sheep and literally is carrying this sheep to safety.
This beautiful artwork illustrates the first of this weekend’s parables and teaches us about the mercy of God. We are apt to lose our way, but the Good Shepherd will search for us and bring us home. He loves us that much.
We all wander and need God. God never forsakes us, not even corrupt tax collectors.
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