It might be an accident of history that the current administration chose to announce this week that the son of Osama bin Laden, Hamza, had been killed in an air strike on militants months ago somewhere in the region of Afghanistan-Pakistan. Perhaps not. The nation was, after all, observing the 18th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on that dreadful day in 2001. As with the threats by Vladimir Putin against those he considers enemies, revenge may be slow but it will be severe and if possible, deadly. That was also in the news. Again.
So it is with a sense of the divine irony of the Word of God that we consider the message of today’s scripture readings in our celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. Each
focuses on sin, guilt, and expected and even deserved retribution. But all end, forcefully, with the promise of forgiveness and redemption. And something more.
The story of Moses haggling with God (again!) to spare the rebellious Hebrews from divine wrath may be difficult to digest if only for the impression that the Almighty and Merciful Lord is, first off, vindictive, and secondly, can be browbeaten into changing His mind. But that misses the point of the story – God wishes not the death of the sinner, but conversion of heart. The second reading from the Letter to Timothy illustrates from St. Paul’s conversion just how such forgiveness and redemption are guaranteed us: “You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” Not the righteous, and especially not the self-righteous, not the vengeful and violent who feel no need of forgiveness, but those who are sinners and know and admit they are sinners and beg forgiveness. Like Paul himself.
In Jesus’ story of the prodigal youth (which shouldn’t be omitted from the gospel), the focus is not on sin, guilt, and shame, which are again taken for granted. Jesus wants us to consider something else, even beyond the young man’s coming to his senses, his repentance, and his acknowledgment of guilt — all of which, by the way, are guided by enlightened self-interest. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the joy his father experiences just because his wayward son has come back home. The personal hurt is forgiven, swallowed up in the old man’s happiness. It is that joy, which doesn’t need words of absolution, that in fact prefaces the story of the prodigal. For St. Luke introduces his most famous and important story about forgiveness and reconciliation with two little parables that notify us in advance what’s important in Jesus’ scheme of values and, you can be sure, God’s.
For some reason, it took me awhile to see it: both of the short parables conclude with the same words, “Rejoice with me…”, which figure twice in the story of the Prodigal. First: “Let us eat and celebrate because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life.” And then, “We had to celebrate and rejoice!” And then the punch line: “This lost sheep, this lost coin, this lost brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost, and is found. Rejoice!”
In the brief epilogue to the main story, the failing of the older brother is that he could not bring himself to rejoice in his little brother’s salvation, a point that drives home the principle message.
Eighteen years ago, on the Sunday after 9/11, this same Sunday, I wrote this. Looking back, I wouldn’t change it:
“As a people, we stand today humbled by the great disaster that befell on Tuesday, but resolute in our faith and firm in our commitment to heal the wounded, to comfort the grieving, to bury our dead, and to rebuild not only a shattered community, but our moral purpose as a nation. The temptation is powerful to strike out in anger, to violate those we believe to have violated us. But on this day of prayer and mourning, if we listen to the voice of Jesus, even the words from his cross of execution, we will hear both of forgiveness but also a warning: those who take the sword shall perish by the sword. “Beloved,” the great evangelist [Paul] also wrote, “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No,” he adds, “‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” [Rom 12:19-21, citing Deut. 32:35 and Prov. 25:21].”
So many years later, surveying the destruction and carnage unleashed on the world by the desire for savage retribution, we have cause to ask ourselves, are we going to continue standing outside the party blaming and shaming or go within to rejoice in the community of love and forgiveness?