Thursday of Week 31 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Luke 15:1-10

If the previous Gospel passage showed Jesus at his most radical (“No one can be my disciple unless he gives up everything he has”), today we see his compassionate and understanding side. These are not contradictory.

The gospel says that tax collectors and sinners were gathering round to listen to Jesus. To some of the Pharisees and scribes this was quite scandalous. “This fellow (Greek houtos; and one can hear the contempt in the phrase) welcomes sinners and eats with them.” As far as they were concerned, any God-fearing person, not to mention a rabbi-teacher, would have absolutely nothing to do with such people.

It was bad enough socialising with them but to share their food was unthinkable. They were unclean, and one became unclean by sitting at the same table with them. To eat with people was a sign of recognition and acceptance. As far as the Pharisees were concerned, these were contemptible, unclean sinners. It only confirmed the opinion of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus was a person to be removed.

In reply, Luke gives us three separate parables, each touching on the same theme. We have two of them today. The third and most famous – the Prodigal Son – appears elsewhere in the liturgical readings (24th Sunday in Year C). Each one is a picture of God’s attitude towards the sinner and it is very different from that of the Pharisee.

The first is of a shepherd who has lost one of 100 sheep entrusted to his care. The theme of the sheep and the shepherd is common in the Old Testament. We think of the famous Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) and a beautiful passage in Ezekiel (34:11-16). Without hesitation, the good shepherd leaves the 99 “good” sheep and goes off looking for the stray. When he finds it, he puts it on his shoulders and comes back in jubilation, inviting all his friends and neighbours to rejoice with him. “Rejoice with me for I have found my lost sheep.”

Similarly, concludes Jesus, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who sincerely repents and comes back to God than over many (self-) “righteous” people who have no need to repent, or who think they have no need to repent. There seems to be an ironic and sarcastic tone here. Who does not need to repent of something at some time? Jesus presents a totally different attitude to the repentant sinner, and he gives it as God’s own attitude.

The second parable is similar. A housewife who has 10 drachmas (small silver coins) – probably the sum total of her wealth – has lost one of them. Will she not turn the whole house upside down looking for it? A house like this would typically have no windows and rough earthen floors (and, of course, no electricity!), making a search quite difficult. But, when she does eventually find it, she will call in all her friends and neighbours to share her joy. “Rejoice with me! I have found the coin I lost.” Again Jesus says there will be even more joy than this in heaven over one sinner who repents. ‘In heaven’, of course, means ‘with God’.

We need to remember that these stories were told as Jesus’ response to the criticism of some scribes and Pharisees. He had absolutely no reason to apologise for his mixing with tax collectors, sinners and other social and religious outcasts. He was like the shepherd or the housewife. He was looking for people who were lost so that he could bring them back.

He spent time in their company not because he did not mind what they did; on the contrary, his whole purpose was to change them. But he could not do that at a distance.

The mind of the Pharisee was different. These people with whom Jesus was associating, were sinful and unclean and the “good” person had to have no contact with them of any kind or they too would become unclean.

Notice the different motivation. The Pharisee was only thinking of his own spiritual and ritual purity. Jesus was thinking of the person who was lost and needed to be brought back to a world of truth and love. And so he reached out. He went to where the sinner was. The Pharisee thought he was spiritually and morally strong, yet his avoiding the sinner showed he was afraid of contamination. Jesus was not afraid of such contamination – he was the really strong one. He could be with the sinners without becoming one of them.

Much of this is highly relevant for our Christian life today. There is probably a lot more of the Pharisee in our Christian hearts than we are prepared to admit. “Good” Catholics tend to keep away from “immoral” situations and the people who are there. “Good” Catholics do not like to be seen in certain places which do not have a “good” reputation. They even call them “occasions of sin”.

We tend to live in enclosed enclaves (we may not hardly be able to call them ‘communities’) taking care of our own spiritual welfare. But that is not the Church that Christ founded. We are called to proclaim the Gospel. We are called to reach out to the sinner. To do so, we have to welcome them and eat with them. Instead of living in sanitised suburbs, we should be down in the poor sections of our cities, in our pubs and clubs, in our “red light” districts reaching out and listening and, where possible, bringing back a sheep that is lost and does not know where it is going.

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