Wednesday, September 7, 2016

God does not throw away

Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

I often jokingly tell my two godsons that I won’t wait for old age to be thrown into an old folks home. I will start checking the Yellow Pages or search on-line for options. Perhaps, this isn’t such a funny joke after all. It is a reflection of the painful reality we have to contend with in our present age. We live in a world where everything is seen as disposable, replaceable or temporary, and overflowing landfills aren’t the only obvious signs. This is what we call the “throw-away culture”. What’s unfortunate about this mentality which says, “Use. Abuse. Then scrap,” affects more than just our attitudes toward material goods. It affects our attitudes toward other people too. We believe, if someone is somehow not useful to us, they are essentially useless. Utilitarianism of our consumer driven culture has made us cold and calculating, less respectful towards nature and neighbour.

In an age where the throw-away culture defines so many aspects of our lives, it shouldn't be surprising that permanence isn't a strong suit for many of us. We are witnessing a phenomenal increase in the number of people who choose to get rid of friends and lovers regularly, without a moment’s hesitation. We can look at figurative pathways strewn with broken relationships, forgotten people, abandoned beliefs and dilapidated dreams, which are the far-reaching effects of this throwaway mentality.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is famous for his strident denunciations of this “throwaway culture” that ruthlessly discards human beings not considered useful in an economy that “kills.” Since the start of his papacy, Pope Francis has focused on the many different facets of this throwaway perspective, challenging Catholics and the larger world to shun the pop-culture quest for more and more,  in favour of solidarity — with creation, with our poorer brothers and sisters, with the weak, the elderly and the most vulnerable.

Today’s gospel is intended to be a veritable celebration for sinners, those who are lost, displaced and marginalised, as it dramatises in triple parables the merciful love of God that seeks out the lost, moves him to repentance and rejoices at his coming home. This is bound to strike a chord with all of us, because there is no one who has not felt lost or displaced, or an unworthy sinner or marginalised in some way or at some time in their lives. Many of us have surely experienced the sting of being side-lined, discarded, ignored and thrown-away. But the radical truth about the kingdom of God, which Jesus makes known to us through these parables, provides us with a different vision of ourselves. It is this: that God loves us, cares for us, searches out for us and rejoices when we are found, not because we are useful to him, but essentially, because we are worth finding, because we have an innate value, because we are beautiful, good and wonderful, and because we have been made in the image of God. We have value because we are living icons of the living God.

All three of the lost items in the gospel were things the scribes and Pharisees would have judged not worth searching for, just like the tax collectors and sinners, the dredges of society, that were drawn to the Lord Jesus because they were attracted by His mercy and concern for their welfare. After all, what logical person would leave a herd of 99 sheep to search for a stray? And who would actually sweep clean a house to find one coin when they had nine others? And who would open him/herself to greater misery by seeking out a prodigal child who had disgraced the family name and disassociated himself from his sacred heritage, when you had another fine and upright son at home? Most sensible people would have just counted their losses and moved on. What more in today’s throw-away culture? No need to cry over something lost. The simple solution – settle for what you have or go buy a new one! The scenarios described in the parables were then and even now, just plain incredulous and outright scandalous! And, this is what that is so amazing about the point made by these parables – the amazing love of God, the extravagant love of God – the heart of God, so immense that it encloses everyone within its orbit, a heart which rejoices at the return of the sinner.

In giving a reflection on the first parable which involved the lost sheep, Pope Francis tells us that “there is no such thing as a soul that is lost forever, only people who are waiting to be found.” Because of His immense love for everyone, God takes the illogical step of leaving his faithful flock behind in the harsh desert to seek out the one who has gone missing. “The Lord cannot resign himself to the fact that even one single person may be lost.” God's desire to save all his children is so “unstoppable, not even 99 sheep can hold the shepherd back and keep him locked up in the pen.”

Lastly, let us have a look at the third parable, popularly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable is probably one of the most cited and most studied, and it fits well with this Year of Mercy. It is easy to picture the parable of the Prodigal Son, about two sons, one good and one bad, yet when we set our assumptions aside and unpack the depths of the story, we can see that both sons are equally lost. As the story unfolds, it is clear that the parable is more about the determined, compassionate and infinite mercy of the father than it is about the infuriating ways of his prodigal sons. This is a father who is not buying into the claims and promises of the ‘throw-away’ culture. As he runs out to reconcile with the younger wayward boy, he goes out of his way to reach out to the other sulking self-righteous one. In both cases, he suffers the further indignity of lowering himself to make the first move. He chooses to absorb the shame heaped upon him by his two sons. In the end, this parable points to the great embrace and deep expansive love, compassion, and justice of God, deeper, wider, and higher than our imagining. Here is a God who will never give up on us, a God who refuses to throw us away even when we find ourselves broken and lost, and a God who will love us to the extent of suffering the greatest humiliation to win us back.

What a radical image of God’s love and forgiveness? Today, we are shown an image of God’s love that is more generous than we can imagine. Today, our loving God shows us just how far He will go to find us. The economy of such love and grace surprises, even offends, us in its extravagance. Today, we need to be reminded once again by the words of our Holy Father, that “God doesn't know our current throwaway culture, God throws nobody away. God loves everyone, seeks out everyone, everybody - one by one.”

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