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24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle C)

Readings:
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Psalm 51:1-2, 10-11, 15, 17
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-32

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation). CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy. The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Forgiveness for Sinners
Today's Bible readings address God's mercy in response to our willingness to confess our sins as a condition for restoring our broken relationship with Him.

In the First Reading, the Israelites had committed a great sin by creating the image of a golden calf as the focus of their worship (Ex 32). When God threatened them with destruction, Moses begged God to accept their repentance and to forgive them. God accepted Moses' petition to spare Israel, not because of Israel's merit but because of the plea for mercy from His covenant mediator and His promises to the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As the covenant mediator, Moses' intercession foreshadows the New Covenant mediator, Jesus Christ, who prayed on the altar of the Cross for sinners and who is still praying for us in the heavenly Sanctuary: Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25 NJB).

Psalm 51 in today's Responsorial Psalm is the most famous of the seven Penitential Psalms. It is a prayer for the removal of the personal, social and spiritual disorders that are the result of sin. Psalm 51 is a fulfillment of Psalm 50:14-15 in which God promises His people, Offer praise as your sacrifice to God; fulfill your vows to the Most High. Then call on me in time of distress; I will rescue you, and you shall honor me.

In the Second Reading, using his own life as an example, St. Paul assures St. Timothy that God can make good use of every life to advance His Kingdom. Paul refers to himself as a sinner who was forgiven his many sins, including the persecution of Christians, through the saving work of God the Son. God can do this in spite of past sins when one seeks God's mercy and forgiveness, and humbly submits one's life to God.

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus answers the criticism of the Pharisees, who accuse Him of associating with sinners, by telling three parables about mercy, forgiveness, and the patience of God—the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. When a person becomes lost to God through sin, God makes every effort to return that lost one to His covenant family, the Church. And when that one sinner is restored to the covenant community, God rejoices in his restoration, for it is God's desire that all should come to repentance, salvation, and knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9).

In human relationships, the refusal to admit wrong-doing and to seek forgiveness in a renewal of trust in a relationship becomes a barrier to love and friendship; so it is also in our relationship with our heavenly Father. In our opening prayer we ask: "Almighty God, our creator and guide, may we serve you will all our heart and know your forgiveness in our lives. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

The First Reading Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14 ~ God's Righteous Anger in the Event of Israel's Sin of the Golden Calf and Moses' Petition for God's Forgiveness
7 The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved. 8 They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, 'This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!' 9 I see how stiff-necked this people is," continued the LORD to Moses. 10 "Let me alone, then that my wrath may blaze up against them. Then I will make of you a great nation." 11 But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, "Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand?
13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.'" 14 So the LORD relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.

After the ratification of the Sinai Covenant, Moses spent forty days on Mt. Sinai receiving the instructions for building God's holy Sanctuary that was to be a copy of the heavenly Sanctuary, the commands for ordaining a hereditary priesthood, and the command and instruction for establishing a twice daily liturgical sacrifice and worship. At the end of this period of instruction, Moses also received the Ten Commandments written on two stone tablets—these were the same commandments God gave the Israelites in the theophany on Mt. Sinai (Ex 20, Ex 25-31). After many days the Israelites began to believe that Moses was dead and decides to make an image of a Golden Calf to worship as their god who brought them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex 32:1-4). In Exodus 32:7 of our reading, God orders Moses to return to his sinful people; notice that God does not call them "My (Yahweh's) people" but "your (Moses') people." This is the beginning of the breach caused by sin between God and the Israelites.

Exodus 32:8 ~ They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, 'This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'
Some scholars have suggested that the golden image was not a representation of Yahweh but that it was the footstool of the unseen God in the same way the Ark of the Covenant functioned as the visible link between the Israelites and God, acting as a guide and the point of mediation. However, this verse seems to refute that interpretation as Yahweh states the Israelites have worshipped the idol and offered sacrifice to it. Verse 10 also reflects God's judgment on Israel: "Let me alone, then that my wrath may blaze up against them ..."

Exodus 32:9-10 ~ I see how stiff-necked this people is," continued the LORD to Moses. 10 "Let me alone, then that my wrath may blaze up against them. Then I will make of you a great nation."
God's reference to "these people" is a repeat of the Israelite's disrespectful reference to His covenant mediator as "that Moses" (Ex 32:1) in the beginning of their decision to break the covenantal command not to make a graven image/idol. In the literal translation God characterized the Israelites as "stiff-necked," an image of willful disobedience and obstinacy derived from untrained oxen that resist the guidance of the farmer plowing his field. God is the Master and His people are to be His obedient servants who do not pull against His guiding hand. This image will become one of the reoccurring images of the prophets in depicting Israel's stubborn refusal to submit to their Master, Yahweh (see the chart "Symbolic Images of the Old Testament Prophets"). In judging the sin of Israel as idolatry, God tells Moses He will destroy Israel and that He will make a "great nation" instead through Moses' descendants (verse 10). God's phrase "great nation" recalls the divine promise God made to the Patriarchs (see Gen 12:2; 18:18; 46:3; also see CCC2112-13).

The creation of the golden idol and the people's decision to worship it was Israel's collective fall from grace; it was a rebellion against the covenant command to make no graven images and not to bow down to an image in worship (Ex 20:4-6; 20:23; a command that is later repeated in Lev 19:4; Dt 5:8; 27:15). God took Israel out of Egypt, but Egypt remained in the people because the sins of Egypt remained in the thoughts of the people and was reflected in their actions (Ex 14:12; 16:3; Acts 7:39-43). The incident of the Golden Calf was a mortal sin because the idol was created with knowledge of the covenant breach and with the intent to worship (mortal sin presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act in opposition to God's law and a deliberate consent (see CCC 1857 and 1859). The sin was equally Aaron's (Israel's high priest) sin and the people's sin. This a breach of the covenant that remained a barrier between God and His people until the coming of the Redeemer-Messiah (Ex 33:3; Jer 31:31-34).

Exodus 32:11, 13: Moses' Intercessory Prayer
11 But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, "Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? [...] 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.'"
This is the first of three intercessory prayers Moses will make on behalf of Israel. If it was God's intent to prompt Moses to remember the covenant promises to the Patriarchs with the phrase "great nation," Moses intercessory prayer in this passage is evidence that the plan worked. Exodus 32:11-14 together with 34:1-10 comprise the Synagogue Torah reading at the afternoon worship services on fast days other than Yom Kippur (JPS Commentary: Exodus, page 205). Moses' intercessory prayer and petition to God on Israel's behalf in verses 11-14 is based on four considerations:

  1. The Israelites are God's chosen people.
  2. He chose them when He manifested His power in liberating them from Egyptian bondage.
  3. The destruction of Israel at this time would diminish the witness to the Egyptians of God's mighty acts of power and mercy in freeing the Israelites (verse 12 not in our lectionary reading).
  4. God must keep the promises He made to the Patriarchs.

Exodus 32:14 ~ So the LORD relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.
God accepted Moses' petition to spare Israel not because of Israel's merit but because of the plea for mercy from His covenant mediator and His promises to the Patriarchs. As the covenant mediator Moses' intercession foreshadows the New Covenant mediator, Jesus Christ, who prayed on the altar of the Cross for sinners and who is still praying for us in the heavenly Sanctuary: Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25 NJB).

God forgave Israel. However, Israel as a corporate covenant people was still held accountable for her sin (Ex 32:33-34). It is humble confession and willing accountability for sin through penance that sets the sinner on the path to restoration of fellowship with God (CCC 1422-1424, 1446).

Responsorial Psalm 51:1-2, 10-11, 15, 17 ~ Presenting God a Contrite Heart

Response: "I will rise and go to my Father."

1 Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. 2 Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.
Response
10 A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. 11 Cast me not out from your presence, and you Holy Spirit take not from me.
Response
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. 17 My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn. Response

Psalm 51 is the most famous of the seven Penitential Psalms. It is a prayer for the removal of the personal, social and spiritual disorders that sin has brought. This psalm is attributed to King David when Nathan the prophet confronted him after his sin with Bathsheba and when David planned the death of her husband (2 Sam 11:1-12:25). Psalm 51 is positioned in the Book of Psalms as a response to the charges against David in the previous psalm (Ps 50). The entire psalm is a fulfillment of Psalm 50:14-15 in which God says: "Offer praise as your sacrifice to God; fulfill your vows to the Most High. Then call on me in time of distress; I will rescue you, and you shall honor me." Therefore, the two psalms were always used in the same penitential service in Temple worship.

The psalmist begins by asking God to take away his sins and is followed by the confession that he is a sinner (verses 1-2). In verses 10-11, the psalmist pleads with God to renew and restore him and for God's Spirit to continue with him, giving him access to God's presence. In verses 15 and 17 the psalmist expresses that it is communion with God that will result in his praise of God's mercy. He will praise God with a contrite and humbled heart (verse 17). It is his spirit of contrition that makes the psalmist an offering that is pleasing to God.

The Second Reading 1 Timothy 1:12-17 ~ God's Mercy and Forgiveness
12 I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry. 13 I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. 14 Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. 16 But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that is me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life. 17 To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

St. Paul sent two letters full of fatherly advice when Timothy was at Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3; 2 Tim 2:17). This passage is from St. Paul's first letter to St. Timothy who Paul placed in authority as the Pastor of the Christian community at Ephesus in Asia Minor. Paul was writing from Rome where he was a prisoner. As a young man Timothy joined St. Paul's missionary team in Acts 16:1-3 when Paul recruited him from his home town of Lystra in Asia Minor. Timothy was the son of a Jewish-Christian woman named Eunice (2 Tim 1:5) and a pagan Greek father (Acts 16:1). He became one of Paul's most faithful companions, accompanying Paul on his second and third missionary journeys (Acts 16:3; 19:22). Paul mentions Timothy as a co-sender in six of his letters (1 & 2 Thes, 2 Cor, Phil, Phlm and Col), and in the list of fellow Christians who sent their greetings to the Christians in Rome, Timothy is listed first (Rom 16:21). Paul also sent Timothy as his emissary on several important missions (see Acts 19:22; 1 Cor 4:17; 1 Thes 3:2).

In verses 12-14, using his life as an example, he assures Timothy that God can make good use of every life to advance His Kingdom. God can do this in spite of past sins when one seeks God's mercy and forgiveness and submits one's life to God. Paul refers to himself as a sinner who has been forgiven his many sins through Jesus Christ (verse 15). Paul persecuted Christians for the Jewish Sanhedrin to the point of imprisoning men and woman and voting in favor of condemning them to death (Acts 8:1-3; 9:2; 22:4; 26:10). He did this out of his arrogance and his ignorance (verse 13). The Old Testament acknowledges the difference between sins done in ignorance and those done with the knowledge of evil intent with only sins of ignorance being capable of atonement prior to the coming of Christ (Lev 5:18; 22:14; Num 15:22-31). Yet, Paul is clearly appalled at the extent of his former sins against Christ and His Church. But "where sin abound, grace has abounded all the more" (Rom 5:20).

Paul refers to the moment of his conversion as a "strengthening" (verse 1). Spiritually he was weak until his conversion experience in which he was made strong through the intervention of Christ (Acts 9:1-8; 22:3-16; 26:2-18). He has been forgiven because of Jesus' meritorious death on the Cross, and Paul is grateful for God's abundant grace and mercy (verses 14-16). It is the gratitude we must all demonstrate since we are all sinners and have fallen short of the glory of God. And yet we, like St. Paul, have the assurance that we can be made righteous through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Roman Christians: ... all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed, through the forbearance of God to prove his righteousness in the present time, that he might be righteous and justify the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:23-26). Paul ends this passage to Timothy with an exclamation of praise (doxology) that affirms his belief in monotheism, offering praise to the one God who is "the king of ages" (also see the same title for God in Tob 13:7 and Sir 36:17). The eternal life that is God's gift to believers is not merely an endless life; it is the very life of the eternal God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Gospel of Luke 15:1-32 (short version 15:1-10) ~ Three Parables of God's Mercy and Forgiveness
Luke 15:1-7 ~ The Parable of the Lost Sheep
1 The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, 2 but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So to them he addressed this parable. 4 "What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy 6 and upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.' 7 I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."

In chapter 15 Jesus gives three parable teachings to the crowds concerning God's patience and mercy in calling sinners to salvation by using common examples of daily life. St. Ambrose writes: St. Luke did not idly present three parables in a row... The mercy of the divine act is the same, but the grace differs according to our merits. The weary sheep is recalled by the shepherd, the coin which was lost is found, the son retraces his steps to his father and returns, guilty of error but totally repentant (St. Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 7.208).

In each of the parables, Jesus also answers the criticism of the Pharisees who accuse Him of associating with sinners. The parables are: the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk 15:3-8), the Parable of the Lost Coin (Lk 15:8-10), and the Parable of the Lost Son (Lk 15:11-32). Of these three parables St. Ambrose wrote: By the parables of the sheep that strayed and was found, the coin which was lost and was found, and the son who was dead and came to life, we may cure our wounds, being encouraged by a threefold remedy. "A threefold cord will not be broken." Who are the father, the shepherd and the woman? They are God the Father, Christ and the Church. Christ carries you on his body, he who took your sins on himself. The Church seeks and the Father receives. The shepherd carries. The mother searches, the father clothes. First mercy comes, then intercession, and third reconciliation. Each complements the other. The Savior rescues, the Church intercedes, and the Creator reconciles (Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 7.207-8).

Luke 15:1-3 ~ The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, 2 but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So to them he addressed this parable.
Verses 1-3 set the stage: Jesus is teaching the crowds of Jews who have come to hear Him preach and to see Him work miracles. Tax collectors (who served the Roman authorities and were despised by the common people) and other sinners were drawing near to hear Jesus teach. The Pharisees (the most influential religious party in Judea) and the scribes (the teachers of the Law) were high status members of Jewish society who considered themselves to be among the "righteous" and interpreted the Scriptures and the Law very rigidly, often neglecting to follow the example of God's mercy and justice (Lk 11:39-52). They criticized Jesus for His interaction with what they considered to be the ritually unclean dregs of society. Jews were expected to keep themselves ritually clean and fit for worship by avoiding anything that might transmit ritual uncleanness. They saw themselves as "separated" (meaning of the word "Pharisee") and unlike those who were acknowledged "unclean" sinners not fit to enter the Temple and offer God sacrifice and worship. The tax collectors and sinners who were drawing near to hear Jesus and the Pharisees who began to complain are representative of groups one and two in the Parable of the Great Feast (the previous parable in Luke 14:15-24), and they are at the center of this teaching. The Pharisees complaint in verse 2:"This man welcomes sinners and eats with them", is a repeat of their challenge to Jesus in Luke 5:30 when they said Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?

The Parable of the Lost Sheep makes use of one of the reoccurring symbolic images of the Old Testament prophets which is domesticated animals (see handout 2 from the study of the Gospel of Luke Lesson 10 or the chart on the Symbolic Images of the Old Testament Prophets in the "Charts" section). In Old Testament imagery, God is the Shepherd of the flock that is His covenant people. One of the best examples of this imagery is found in Ezekiel chapter 34 where God promises to shepherd His people and restore them to Himself: For thus says the Lord GOD [YHWH]: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark. I will lead them out from among the peoples and gather them from the foreign lands ... (Ez 34:11-13a). It is in that same passage that God declares: I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd. I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I the LORD, have spoken (Ez 34:23-24).

Since this prophecy was made in the 6th century BC and King David lived in the late 11th century BC into the 10th century BC, the prophecy is speaking of a Davidic descendant. It is Jesus of Nazareth who is the fulfillment of the Ezekiel prophecies: Jesus is the son/descendant of David and Jesus the Son of God is the "I myself" who come to gather the "lost sheep" of Israel (Mt 10:6). Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy to gather back the lost sheep of Israel and He is the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11-16) who lays down His life for His sheep.

Symbolic Imagery of the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk 15:1-7)
The lost sheep Sinners
The sheep fold The covenant community of the Church
The shepherd Jesus Christ who went in search of the "lost sheep" of the house of Israel
Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013

In this teaching, Jesus makes a comparison between God the Son and a shepherd and between the lost sheep and sinners. God cares about all the sheep in His flock and when one becomes lost, like a lost sinner, God, like any good shepherd, makes every effort to return that one to the fold. And when that one sinner is restored to the covenant community, God rejoices in his restoration.

Luke 15:7 I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
There is already joy in heaven over the others who are saved, but the salvation of every lost sinner is an additional joy because it is a victory for the Kingdom in which all the flock can rejoice. The whole purpose of Jesus' Passion was to sacrifice His life for sinners (see CCC 545).

Luke 15:8-10 ~ The Parable of the Lost Coin
8 "Or what woman having ten coins [drachma] and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.' 10 In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

A drachma was Greek silver coin. The message of the teaching is the same as the Parable of the Lost Sheep. God's concern for the lost sinner and His desire that none should perish: This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:3-4; also see 1 Pt 3:9).

This parable defines the mission of Mother Church to cherish her children and to keep them within the fold of the covenant family. She is not willing that any of her children should be lost to sin.

The Symbolic Imagery of the Parable of the Lost Coin (Lk 15:8-10)
The woman Mother Church
The collection of coins The community of the faithful
The lost coin The lost sinner
Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013

Luke 15:11-32 ~ The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Then he said, "a man had two sons, 12 and the younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me." So the father divided the property between them. 13 After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. 14 When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country and he found himself in dire need. 15 So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. 16 And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. 17 Coming to his senses he thought, 'How many of my father's hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. 18 I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers." 20 So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.' 22 But his father ordered his servants, 'Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, 24 because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.' Then the celebration began. 25 Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard sound of music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. 27 The servant said to him, 'Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' 28 He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. 29 He said to his father in reply, 'Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. 29 But when you son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.' 31 He said to him, 'My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. 32 But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'"

This is the third parable in the series of teachings on the mercy, forgiveness and patience of God. The Parable of the Lost Son is only found in the Gospel of St. Luke. It is also called the Parable of the Two Sons and the Parable of the Prodigal (wasteful) Son. However, a better title is probably the "Parable of the Merciful Father" since the father's mercy is the focus of the story and he is the pivotal figure. This parable is an answer to the Pharisees' criticism of Jesus' interest in sinners and is an insightful commentary on human conduct, illustrating the conflicts between free-will and responsibility, estrangement and family love, and the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. Above all, the parable teaches the gift of divine forgiveness to a lost sinner-the kind of people who were seeking Jesus and the restoration He promised to those who repented and accepted the coming of His Kingdom.

In verse11 Jesus begins His parable with the statement: "a man had two sons ..." He begins by setting the contrast in the story between the character of the two sons-the younger son who left because he thought he wanted the absolute freedom to live as he wished without any obligations except to himself and the elder son, the father's heir, who dutifully served the father and stayed at home. The parable is divided into two parts: the estrangement of the younger son followed by his return and reconciliation with the father (verses 11-24), and the elder son's anger when his brother returns (verses 25-31). As in all Jesus' parables, the elements of the story are symbolic and point to Jesus' teaching on our relationship with God and His kingdom and the estrangement caused by sin. Each of the people in the parable represents what is greater than the story presents:

Symbolic comparisons in the Parable of the Lost Son (Lk 15:11-32)
the loving father God the Father
the father's home the "kingdom" of the Old Covenant Church/Temple
the distant country the secular world
the elder son the religiously observant Jews
the younger son the repentant sinner and
the estranged Gentile nations of the world
Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013

In Exodus 4:22 Moses is instructed by God to tell the Egyptian Pharaoh: "Israel is my firstborn son." The people of the Sinai Covenant were collectively the "sons/daughters of God" (in Ex 4:22 the word "son" is in the singular as in Wis 18:13). If Israel's status is God's first-born son in the human family, then that status makes all other members of the human family the younger sons. In the story the father extends his love to both sons in the same way Father God extends his love to sinners and to His sons and daughters in covenant fellowship with Him. In the parable the father continues to show his love toward the angry, older son (symbolically the Jews) despite the elder son's criticism of the father's decision to welcome back his brother (symbolically the Gentile nations) into the family. The parable stresses God's willingness to accept all repentant sinners into His kingdom. As Luke mentioned in 7:29-30:...tax collectors and sinners who were baptized with the baptism of John [the Baptist] acknowledged the righteousness of God; but the Pharisees and scholars of the law [scribes], who were not baptized by him, rejected the plan of God for themselves. And as Jesus taught in Luke 13:30: Look, there are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last, referring to the Jews who were the first to hear the good news of salvation but who will be preceded into the kingdom by the Gentiles who embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior.

The younger son also embodies man of every age, beginning with Adam who was the first to distain his "Father's" gifts to run after what His Father told him to avoid, losing the inheritance of grace and original justice. In fact, as Pope John Paul II wrote, "The parable indirectly touches upon every aspect of the breach in covenant love, every loss of grace and every sin" (Dives in misericordia, 5). Do not miss the significance that the younger son tended swine. Swine were unclean animals and association with them was strictly forbidden for a member of the Sinai Covenant according to the Law (Lev 11:7; Dt 14:8). That the younger, estranged son was willing to tend swine shows how far the younger son had traveled from the Law of God's covenant with Israel and the depths to which he had sunk into sin in his personal life.

The younger son's anxiety, hunger, and homelessness are the result of his rebellion and enslavement to sin (Rom 1:25; 6:6; Gal 5:1) by which he has lost the freedom of being a beloved son of his father to become one whose sin has placed him under the power of Satan (Rom 8:21; Gal 4:31; 5:13). In contrast to the unclean swine, the fatted calf his father offers in celebration of his younger son's return symbolizes the restoration of communion with the father and the father's household. In the same way, a repentant sinner is restored to communion with God the Father and with God's household of the Church in the Sacrament of the Eucharist (CCC 1443).

The Pharisees and scribes to whom Jesus is directing His parable are displaying the same anger and unwillingness to welcome back the repentant sinners to whom Jesus' extends His mercy and forgiveness like the elder brother who will not welcome back his younger sibling. In addition, there is another comparison that can be made to the Jews of the Old Covenant who jealously guarded that status as "firstborn sons" in refusing to welcome their "younger brothers" of the Gentile nations into the New Covenant in Christ Jesus (see verses 29-30). The father in the parable manifests his love for the elder, upright son (symbolic of the Jews of the Sinai Covenant), but he reminds his elder son and heir that the younger son must be restored to the family and his restoration must be celebrated in the communion meal. It is a subtle warning Jesus gives His kinsmen of the Old Covenant faith that they must be prepared to welcome the repentant "younger brothers" of the Gentile nations into the Kingdom He has come to establish.

In the parable the elder son has to make a decision-will he accept the father's rebuke and welcome his younger brother back into communion with the family, or will he reject his younger brother and harm his relationship with his father? We are not told what decision the elder brother made, but we know that many of the Jews rejected the Divine Father's plan for the restoration of the human family in Jesus' Gospel message of salvation. St. Paul wrote: For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendant, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26-29).

Catechism References:

Exodus 32 (CCC 210, 1857, 1859, 2577)
Psalm 51:1-2, 10-11, 15, 17 (CCC 1422-1424, 1446)
1 Timothy 1:15 (CCC 545); 1:18-19 (CCC 162)
Luke 15:1-32 (CCC 1443, 1846); 15:1-2 (CCC 589); 15:7 (CCC 545); 15:11-32 (CCC 545, 2839); 15:11-31 (CCC 1700); 15:11-24 (CCC 1439); 15:18 (CCC 1423, 2795); 15:21 (CCC 2795); 15:23-32 (CCC 589); 15:32 (CCC 1468)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013; revised 2016