Sunday Sermon for September 11, 2022, the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Readings: Ex 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-32

In the readings today, we hear about sinners, the righteous, and the hope for sinners to become righteous.  We begin with the second reading where St. Paul declares himself to the be worst sinner of all.  What is most amazing about this confession, is that St. Paul was living an exemplary Jewish life and, for this reason was filled with a sense of self-righteousness.  More to the point, St. Paul says he was once a blasphemer.  We can all understand that his self-righteousness was arrogance, as he admits.  We also know he persecuted the Church.  But for a man who would have been considered the ultimate or consummate Jew, blasphemy would not be what anyone would expect to hear.

In the first reading, we hear about the Israelites who had come out of Egypt just a couple months prior to the events related in the reading.  As they were camped near the base of Mount Sinai while Moses was at the top of the mountain with the Lord, the people rebelled against God and Aaron made a golden calf that they worshipped as their deliverer.  After seeing so many signs and wonders in the ten plagues and in the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, they so quickly abandoned the Lord.

In the Gospel we hear about the Prodigal Son who takes what his father had generously saved up for him, and squandered it all on selfishness and self-indulgence.  In this parable our Lord adds a number of details to make sure His audience understood that this young man had sunk to the deepest levels of sin.  A Jewish man taking care of pigs, the very epitome of what is unclean, and even wanting to eat what is fed to them, was unthinkable.

There is one further twist to this story.  Before we can address the righteous of the readings, we need to consider the older brother of the Prodigal Son.  He appears in every way to be righteous.  He was faithful to his father and always obeyed his father’s commands.  Now, however, we see that this righteousness is merely external.  In other words, he went through the motions and performed the tasks that were required, but we see that his heart was lacking the charity God is seeking.  His righteousness was in following rules and laws, but his heart was not open to the most important laws of loving God and neighbor.

Now we come to those who are truly righteous.  In the first reading we see God testing Moses by saying He will destroy all the Israelites and make a great nation through Moses instead.  Moses, filled with a true charity for the people, even though they had sinned greatly, turned the focus from himself and brings up the promises God made to Abraham.  Moses was intent on following all that God had commanded, but he demonstrated that his motive was love for God and neighbor.  He showed himself to be truly righteous, as opposed to being self-righteous.

In the Gospel we see the father of the two sons who also shows himself to be righteous.  His generosity and selflessness are shown to us very clearly, but this is not a matter of being weak or wimpy.  Because his love was real, even when he was used and violated, he continued to keep his heart open and seek reconciliation with his son rather than condemning him.  As he admits to his older son, the younger one was dead in his sin.  He is not trying to whitewash things or ignore what the younger son had done, but he rejoiced to have him back repentant and humble.

This is the hope which is ours: God does not condemn us, but desires that we would humble ourselves and repent.  St. Paul says that God’s mercy extended to him as the worst of all sinners, gives the rest of us hope because if God can have mercy on the worst, He will certainly be merciful to those whose sins are not as offensive.  The Lord also makes this point in the Gospel reading when He speaks of the rejoicing in Heaven over one repentant sinner.  One would think that Heaven would be rejoicing over the righteous people (and you can be guaranteed they do), but our Lord said there is more rejoicing over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people!  Indeed, the righteous, being conformed to God, will also be rejoicing over the repentance of sinners.

Our hope is that maybe, by the grace of God, we might become righteous someday.  In the meantime, we must be the sinners who repent and, recognizing our own sins and imploring God’s mercy, we do not stand in judgment and condemnation of other sinners, but pray for their repentance.

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.

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