Sunday Reflection with Fr Robin Gibbons - 15th September 2019

Rembrandt drawing for Return of the Prodigal

Rembrandt drawing for Return of the Prodigal

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

From Psalm 51,vv 18,19

For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.

At the beginning of the morning Office of the Church, and also at the introductory prayers of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy this ancient psalm verse is proclaimed:

Lord, you will open my lips; and my mouth will proclaim your praise. (Ps 51:17).

I love that small verse, it has been for me an evocation down the years of dependence on the Holy Spirit to put into my mouth and heart, not the words I want, think, know or understand, but those that are true and just and belong to God's insight. I have frequently bemoaned the fact that too many religious people speak with an authority they don't possess, attributing their own ideas as coming from God, and excoriating those who do not agree with them. You may disagree but its all around us and we need to find ways of calling it out, putting back into the market place of life God's words.

That's why the words from Psalm 51 are so challenging and humbling, a deep reminder (deep because they are the oracle of God) of our constant need for metanoia, conversion of heart. We say God is angry, then we have to face the fact God desires a contrite spirit, hardly brought about by anger. We say God desires us to follow laws and those who disobey will be punished, and then find Jesus saying this kind of thing: "I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."(Lk 15: 7) This is disturbing talk, it has the capacity to unsettle all of us, especially if we think we have the answers, got God nailed down, so to speak. Today we read the long parable of the merciful father and his two sons, a well loved, much discussed and poignant tale of muddled perception.

We instinctively know that both brothers wrong foot the father and the story, though it has an ending suggesting harmony between father and younger son, doesn't exactly satisfy. We don't know if he really repents? The older brother is so like many of us, still resentful, angry at an apparent injustice-annoyed at the perceived misplaced generosity of the father. I'm so like that son, are you? Maybe not, but it's a reminder we can never be complacent. We can never wrong foot the Lord, nor can we ever claim to know the mind of God. The words spoken to the older brother should be printed on our hearts:

'My son, (my daughter) you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother (sister) was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'(Lk 15:31,32) The greater realisation comes to us when we see ourselves as the lost one who is found, when we know that in the end love and mercy are joined together and cannot be separated. So what to do? Let's take that psalm verse as our starting prayer each day, for if we ask the Lord to open our lips and help us declare 'your praise' then the Spirit and Christ the true word will help us become that truly humble and contrite person, who, as we are promised, through repentance will never be lost from God!

Pope Francis, from The Church of Mercy

Maybe someone among us here is thinking, My sin is so great, I am as far from God as the younger son in the parable; my unbelief is like that of Thomas. I don't have the courage to go back, to believe that God can welcome me and that he is waiting for me, of all people. But God is indeed waiting for you; he asks of you only the courage to go to him. How many times in my pastoral ministry have I heard it said, "Father, I have many sins"? And I have always pleaded, "Don't be afraid, go to him, he is waiting for you, he will take care of everything." We hear many offers from the world around us; but let us take up God's offer instead: his is a caress of love. For God, we are not numbers, we are important; indeed we are the most important thing to him. Even if we are sinners, we are what is closest to his heart.

John Henry Newman

(Sermon on the Parable of the Two Sons)

Sermon Notes, 327 (29.5.1859)

God, indeed, meets us on our way with the tokens of His favour, and so He bears up human faith, which else would sink under the apprehension of meeting the Most High God; still, for our repentance to be Christian, there must be in it that generous temper of self-surrender, the acknowledgment that we are unworthy to be called any more His sons, the abstinence from all ambitious hopes of sitting on His right hand or His left, and the willingness to bear the heavy yoke of bond-servants, if He should put it upon us. ….This, I say, is Christian repentance. Will it be said, "It is too hard for a beginner?" true: but I have not been describing the case of a beginner. The parable teaches us what the character of the true penitent is, not how men actually at first come to God. The longer we live, the more we may hope to attain this higher kind of repentance, viz., in proportion as we advance in the other graces of the perfect Christian character. The truest kind of repentance as little comes at first, as perfect conformity to any other part of God's Law. It is gained by long practice-it will come at length. The dying Christian will fulfil the part of the returning prodigal more exactly than he ever did in his former years.

Tags: Sunday Reflection with Fr Robin Gibbons, 15 September

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