Sunday 15 September 2013 Ordinary Time 24
Possible theme(s): God welcomes sinners
Sentence: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Psalm 51:10
1 Timothy 1:12-17
in Jesus you gather us into your family;
confidently we call you Father;
may your Spirit bring us to share
the glorious liberty of your children.
Brief commentary on readings:
In the too hard basket I am going to park the question of what it means for the unchangeable God to 'change his mind' (v. 14)!
In this famous story of Israel's 'fall' as a nation called by God's grace into existence, God is rightly wrathful against Israel. They have betrayed God for a golden calf. A betrayal as wounding as adultery (see Psalm 51 below). How could they? How could they be 'quick to turn aside' from God's way?
In the contest of today's readings about sin, confession, repentance and forgiveness, the importance of the reading lies in what Moses does about Israel's sin. He implicitly acknowledges Israel's sin and their deserving of obliteration by God but explicitly reasons with God that this should not happen, lest the reputation of God in the eyes of Egypt should suffer, and plays the trump card of appeal to the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In one way, Moses confesses to this sin but offers no repentance for it! That is not necessarily a model for us to follow. Repentance is important. The history of Israel subsequently shows us a mammoth amount of trouble Israel falls into because it continues to commit idolatry through many centuries to come. If only it had repented after that one egregious act of idolatry!
This is David's confession after ... it would be tempting to say 'his adultery with Bathsheba' but it is more accurate to say (with the superscription at the beginning of the psalm, before it begins in v. 1) after 'the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.' That is, David is provoked into this confession by the divine word of conviction brought to him by God's prophet.
It is often the way with us too. We sin but do not repent and confess that sin until and unless God convicts us of our wrong-doing.
The power of the words in the psalm for us is the assurance of our sins being forgiven (cleansed, purged, washed away). Yet the assurance comes as an implicit promise within the appeal of the psalmist that God might have mercy on him, cleanse him and renew him. David prays in this way confident that God is this kind of God.
We might note, should we be tempted to an understanding of mercy as tolerance and forgiveness as pretending sin does not actually exist, that David accepts that God is right to pass sentence on him (.v 4). 'Fair cop,' David says to God.
For theological reflection is the first line of v. 4, 'Against you, you alone, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.' Surely, we may say to ourselves, David sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, and indeed even against Bathsheba herself (the story of their adultery is not clear about the extent to which Bathsheba was equally culpable - today we would say there was a 'power imbalance' in their relationship). So, why does David make this claim that his sin is against God and God alone?
1 Timothy 1:12-17
In theory this epistle reading is independent of the gospel reading (i.e. not chosen to 'relate' to the gospel reading) but it fits very well with it. Paul sets out his career as a sinner and contrasts that with his vocation as an apostle. As a career sinner he was a blasphemer, persecutor and a man of violence, indeed the foremost or chief of sinners (vss. 13, 15). As an apostle he has been appointed by God, strengthened, judged faithful and granted mercy with overflowing grace (vss. 12-14). All for the purpose that 'Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience' in him, 'making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life'.
Sometimes Paul, Pauline theology and those parts of the church today which emphasise Paul's writings get a hard time ... the real gospel is found in the gospels ... Paul's instructions for church life (of which there are a few in 1 Timothy) too easily become a law applied with all the vigour of the Pharisees of old ... and so forth. But in this passage we meet Paul the man conscious of the reality of his life before God. He is the worst kind of sinner (because he has persecuted those sinners to whom God has been merciful) but has received God's grace, and a generous outpouring at that.
The heart of Paul's theology is expressed in v. 15 and introduced with appropriate solemnity ('The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance'). 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners' (v. 15).
The gospel is good news for all because all are sinners and Christ came to save us. Paul's role is to illustrate or 'display' God's gracious patience for 'those who would come to believe' (v. 16).
The significance of Paul and his theology, in the end, is not about the rules people draw down from his writings to guide the life of the church, but about his acute, precise, intense, and substantial understanding of the attitude of God towards humanity: grace. Nothing but grace. Grace alone. Why are we Christians? Because Christ came - full of grace and truth - to save us.
If we have read through the above readings to this point, it is no surprise to find that a grumble against Jesus was, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them' (15:2). Precisely!
Jesus responds to the grumble by telling three stories or parables, the first two of which form today's gospel reading.
The point of each parable told today is pretty simple.* God rejoices in the repentance (i.e. turning to God, away from sin) of sinners. Like a shepherd with one hundred sheep or a woman with ten coins, God treats every human as precious. To lose one to sin is like losing a sheep or a coin. That which is lost must be found. The family made incomplete through sin needs to be completed again.
*The third parable, of the Prodigal Son/Waiting Father, Luke 15:11-32, is a little more complicated as the second half of the story featuring the response of the elder son introduces a further point about which commentators have much discussion!