24th SUNDAY-C- SEPTEMBER 11, 2022
Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14; Psalm 51; I Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-32
By: Jude Siciliano, OP
The Bible isn’t one book, it’s a library. In it are books of wisdom, history, biography, gospels, letters, poetry, etc. It is very hard to summarize this "library" under one category of literature. But let’s try anyway. The Bible can be called the "book of grace," for grace characterizes each page. Nevertheless, one can look in vain throughout all the biblical books for a definitions of grace. We don’t get one definition, as if grace could be summarized in one neat, all-embracing formula. Instead of defining grace, the biblical writers picture it for us.
The Bible is like the photo albums we have stashed away (now becoming extinct in the digital age) into which we pasted our photos of people we loved and admired, and scenes from our favorite vacation spots. Those albums were our personal "books of grace." They were like our Bible which has its own vast snapshots of grace. Today Jesus adds to the those "snapshots" of grace by giving us three parables. Each story captures aspects of grace for us; not strict definitions, but human portrayals of what grace looks like.
Does our common, daily usage of the word grace give us a clue into what biblical grace is about? For example, if you have studied music, or play a musical instrument, then you know what a grace note is. It’s not a very significant note, more of an ornament. When a grace note is written into a musical score it’s usually printed smaller than the other notes; it doesn’t even look important. It’s not essential to the musical line, it’s just a little something extra; the melody can make it on its own without the grace note. So, if we suspect grace is something important for our lives, then the musical term "grace note" is not going to help us learn about it.
Perhaps we get a better clue to grace’s significance if we look to athletics. During the last Winter Olympics I saw, what I thought was, a model of extraordinary grace and athletic ability in the figure skaters. The announcers of the events singled out specific skaters for their graceful and athletic accomplishments. "Such grace!" we exclaim. They make it look so easy and effortless – until you try to imitate them and fall flat on your face! Grace looks like second nature and yet with it one can achieve enormous results, beyond what we normally set as our limits.
We can find such examples of grace in everyday human activities. An infant is feverish and can’t sleep and so a parent stays up through the night with the child, loses sleep, skips breakfast and then drags him, or herself, through the rest of the day. A sick child hasn’t earned this devotion or tender care from a parent, but it certainly needs it. The child is the recipient of its parents’ love – its like receiving grace, the kind the people in the Bible experience from God’s loving hands. You don’t earn it, grace comes free of charge and usually arrives unexpected.
It’s what the son received from his father in the today’s parable. He wasn’t lavished with food and princely clothing because of his well-prepared apology – which he didn’t even get a chance to finish. Rather, the boy was let back into the warmth of home and his father’s embrace because that was just the way the father was. It’s what we also experience when someone says to us, "I forgive you," when we knew we had done something wrong and didn’t deserve the gift of forgiveness.
From the above examples we get hints of what grace is like. It comes as a free gift without expectation of payback – could the child ever repay the father, or mother, for all the sleepless nights they spent nursing the child back to health? ("Thanks dad, let me write you out of check....") Grace comes by surprise, especially when we don’t feel good about ourselves, or something we have done. Grace comes frequently at our lowest point, as it did for the prodigal son in today’s gospel. The parable describes just how low the boy had sunk: he "hired himself out,"... "to tend the swine"... he even yearned to eat "the pods on which the swine fed." How low was that!
The story of the boy who went off "to a distant country" is a story of grace, and because it is, it defies our logic. When grace is operating we get more than we give, or can produce; the usual math breaks down. Normally one plus one equals two; but in the world of grace, the world of the prodigal son, one plus one equals three, or six, or 11, or 1 million. In the world of parables some things just don’t make sense – at least not our kind of sense. The parable is not a story with a moral expectation to it. For example, it is not a teaching about child rearing. Nor is it a story that conforms to our sense of justice. Jesus is telling a story that goes outside the box of what we consider appropriate behavior. It’s a story about grace. Can we trust the storyteller knows more about the subject than we do?
Look again at the grace in the parable of the Prodigal Son. We may never find a definition, but grace is pictured for us throughout the tale. It can come at life’s lowest point and stir up images of "home" – of a better life than we are now experiencing. "Look at me... I could be better." A longing develops in us, grace enables us up to make a turning point and we find we can change the direction of our lives. The reasons for the change aren’t always the most noble, they can come from misery. The boy in the story is hungry and wants physical shelter and food, so prepares the speech he will make to his father to get what he needs.
The prodigal son is a lot like the rest of us. Some of us have really messed up. Most of us, while we have not behaved as badly or foolishly as the younger son, still know what it is like to go off on our own, to make a journey away to one "far country," or another. In the parable Jesus tells us we cannot go to any "far country" that can’t be reached by grace. Whatever the distance we have traveled from "home" – whether through weakness, negligence, cowardice, or regular, consistent and deliberate scheming over a long period, still the far-reaching arm of grace, reaches out to us and invites us to turn around and make the trip home. Shall we respond? Isn’t that why we come here to worship, to take one more step towards home?
Grace is all through the parable: when the father gives the son his freedom; when the son comes to his senses because he remembers his home. Grace accompanies him when he starts out on his journey and is with him each step of the journey. Grace guides him to his waiting father, who cuts the boy’s apology short. Grace is also there when the father talks to the older son reminding him, "Everything I have is yours." Grace isn’t some invisible coin dropped down from heaven, a payment for our hard work. We don’t "gain grace," if we did, it wouldn’t be grace. The son, after all, didn’t do anything to earn forgiveness. The father would have been justified in withholding it – ask the older brother, with his sense of justice, how he would have responded to his younger brother.
So, are we missing the obvious, the presence of grace in our daily life; the flesh and blood signs of God’s gifting-presence? Look around and notice:
There’s grace in the irritants too: the person who loves us enough to speak the truth and calls us to deal with an issue; the strident voices of the prophets in our midst who alert us to our too-comfortable lives, while others go without; the newspaper story, or television program, that awakens our attention to a need outside our small circle. Grace is not the exception, but the daily stuff of our lives, the voice in one form or another that awakens us and brings us to our senses.
At our Eucharist today we celebrate the many shapes grace has taken in our lives. We are like the younger son after he is welcomed home and forgiven. We enter this banquet with gratitude for what we have never earned, but have been given all along the journey of our lives. We pray we can fulfill the many commitments we have made – in marriage, the care of a child or a parent, honesty on the job, service to those with needs, etc. – and be pictures of grace for others so that, even though they can’t define grace, they can see what it looks like in us.
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