September 9, 2016

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Msgr. Owen F. Campion

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThis 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 essentially, in Hebrew eyes, God guided them 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, the thanks ultimately were due to Almighty God.

In this reading, God speaks to Moses. God indicts the people for sinning. They indeed had committed the greatest of sins. They had constructed an idol and then worshipped it, a calf crafted from metal.

Harsh punishment would follow, not because of divine wrath, but because they had pushed God away. They would reap the whirlwind. It reflected the overall ancient Jewish thought that rejecting God totally upset a person’s life, flawed the person’s decision-making and weakened a person.

Moses implored God to forgive the people. He pleaded with God to remain the people’s guide and protector, despite their sin.

St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy is the source of the second reading. Timothy was St. Paul’s disciple. Together with Silvanus, Timothy had accompanied Paul on some of the great Apostle’s missionary travels.

While elsewhere in his writings Paul seems 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 explains his own personal devotion to Christ. Paul makes clear that he himself was a sinner. Despite all this, Paul insists God had saved him from eternal death through Jesus the Redeemer.

St. Luke’s Gospel provides the last reading. It is a story of the willingness of the Lord to associate with tax collectors and sinners. It is still easy to imagine why the critics of Jesus would have disdained sinners. After all, sinners had insulted God by breaking the divine law.

Still, why were tax collectors such terrible sinners? The reason was two-fold. In the first place, they were turncoats and traitors, 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 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.

Jesus associated with these despicable tax collectors. He even called one of them, Matthew, to be an Apostle! Jesus was criticized.

The Lord answered the criticism with three beautiful parables. Their 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 us in our need.

He can give us the strength to see the way and to withstand whatever.

Reflection

Displayed in the Vatican Museum is a splendid item, given to Pope Leo XIII in 1903 by the Austrian emperor and Hungarian king Francis Joseph I on the 25th anniversary of the pope’s election. Mounted on a magnificent black marble pedestal are wonderfully crafted gold figures of 99 sheep, following a shepherd literally carrying a sheep in his arms.

The scene recalls the Good Shepherd, who searched for and found the stray sheep.

This beautiful work of art illustrates the first of this weekend’s parables, and through it reveals the loving mercy of God. If we return to the Lord but are weak, the Lord will carry us to fertile pastures.

First of all, we must admit our own blindness, limitations and stubbornness. It is not easy. We need God’s enlightenment.

God will enlighten us, if we are humble, as Moses was humble, as Paul was humble. †

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