An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 1:1-31, September 15, 2013
HOW DO WE understand ourselves as a Christian community? It is strange that people usually are proud of their parishes or communities of faith on account of their achievements—a good retreat house, an elegant church chapel, and a flourishing cooperative. We say that it is strange because the picture of a Christian community that appears in the New Testament is not one that is concerned with its achievements, but one that is concerned about its very life, and the quality of that life.
In his letter to the Colosians, for instance, St Paul wrote: “I want you to know how hard I am struggling for you and for the Laodiceans and the many others who have never seen me in the flesh. I wish their hearts to be strengthened and themselves to be closely united in love, enriched with the full assurance by their knowledge of the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Col 2:1-2). In these words, Paul virtually described the identity of the Church: it is a community united in love, enriched by the knowledge of Christ. Of course, this implies that there is no such a Christian as an individual one; to be a Christian is to belong to a community. And what unites it is not so much law and authority as love and knowledge in Christ. It is this love relationship that identifies the Church. If it is asked how are we, the Church, to be recognized as Christian, it is not by the badge we wear, the idiom we use, but by the love we profess in the community. As John puts it, “this is know all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another” (John 13:35).
Obviously, though, the individuals who form the community are far from perfect. They are people who are all too human. There are always failures in love within the community. It would be presumptuous of its members to profess that they are set apart from the rest of humanity in virtue of their perfection. In the Old Testament, God constituted Israel a chosen people; but as the 1st Reading notes, after Yahweh solemnly made a covenant with them, displaying his mighty power at Sinai as he gave them the Ten Words, the Israelites committed apostasy by creating for themselves a molten calf (Exod 37:7-8). Paul himself is an example of a Church member who is far from perfect. In the 2nd Reading, which is an excerpt from his letter to Timothy, he said, “I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance” (1 Tim 1:13); he claimed to be the worst sinner (1 Tim 1:15). In today’s Gospel, Luke prefaces the three parables with these words: “The tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him, at which the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2). It is possible that Luke’s community demanded the exclusion of sinners, or at least some stringent requirements from them. Anyhow, the parables clearly indicate that there were sinners in the community.
But precisely because the quality of its life is important, the Christian community should be a community not only of love, but also of mercy and forgiveness. The community cannot deal with sinners by isolating them, or excluding them from the fellowship of God’s people. One does not preserve the sanctity of the community by punishing sinners; that would in the end reduce the community into thin air. On the contrary, it is the combination of love and mercy that makes the community whole. Even though he claimed to be the worst sinner, Paul confessed that God has treated him mercifully (1 Tim 1:13b). As for Israel’s idolatry, God allowed himself to be persuaded. He relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict his people (Exod 32:14). In the parables of the Gospel today—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son—the same point is being driven home: the Christian God is a God of mercy and compassion. These parables were taught to explain why Jesus accepted the tax collectors and sinners into his company: God does not seek the destruction of sinners, but their acceptance to the community of the rule of God; all he wants is to save the lost, and celebrate their finding in joy.
This message is not without relevance. The last time I went to the US, I was struck by a regular TV show, “People’s Court,” where cases were resolved in a jiffy. Having seen many episodes, I got the impression that if the show tells us anything, it tells us that many people have no tolerance for the slightest human mistake. That we think we are always right, and that we value money more than forgiveness in human relationships and healing of broken bonds—this seems to be the bottom line of the show. Indeed, how often it seems that we have little tolerance for the spiritually or morally lost! We have very few nice things said about them. But today’s readings have one message: If God showed mercy and compassion to the people of Israel despite her idolatry, if he forgave Paul despite his claim to being the worst sinner, so Jesus calls us now to show mercy and compassion to the lost, and rejoice in their return to the fold.
At the heart of every member of the Christian community should be mercy, compassion for the wayward members, and joy in their conversion. We cannot be indifferent even to a single sinner. We cannot be assuaged by the thought that we can exclude them, since there are still many members who are faithful and good. The life of each one, sinful though he may be, is important. We can never give up a lost member. After all, the Church is not a community of self-righteous people. If it is a community known by the love that prevails among its members and by their knowledge of the Lord, then it must love and have compassion for everyone, including the lost. According to Paul, our vocation is to be an example to those who would later have faith in Christ, and gain everlasting life (1 Tim 1:16b). And we cannot be that kind of community if we are quick to condemn sinners, and separate ourselves from them. On the contrary, that would even make hypocrites out of us. Which is why, every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we pray: “Lord, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” More positively, we say in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I, 1970 text): “Though we are sinners, we trust in your mercy and love. Do not consider what we truly deserve, but grant us your forgiveness.”