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March 3 - March 16, 2013

Forgiveness takes leading role in Gospel passages during Lent

Perspectives on the Scriptures Father Patrick O'Malley

Fourth Sunday of Lent: March 10

Jos 5:9-12, 2 Cor 5:17-21, Lk 15:1-32

I never grow weary of reading or hearing — or preaching about — the story of the one we call the “prodigal son.” It’s one of Jesus’ many masterpieces in the Gospel according to St. Luke. An extravagant father and his two pusillanimous (love that word!) sons. What a trio!

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the details of the story that Jesus tells. One son runs off with his early inheritance, the second one stays behind in his father’s service even though he is discontented and harbors resentment and bitterness over his lot.

You can’t please all the people all the time, I guess.

The most intriguing person in the story is the ever-patient and forgiving father. He is a character for the ages.

I suppose it is inevitable that we compare this earthly father with the Heavenly Father. That may not have been Jesus’ intent initially, but that’s how the meaning of the story has evolved somewhat down through the ages.

Recently I had a conversation with a father of two children who was describing their ascension into teen-agery, to coin a phrase.

They are loved deeply by their parents, but the teens do know how to push their parents’ buttons in daily situations.

Like the father in the Gospel story, these parents know what their children are going through and they have infinite patience with the kids — well, maybe not infinite, but considerable. It’s a true-to-life situation, isn’t it?

The story, so vividly re-told by Luke, strikes a chord with all of us. Whether we imagine ourselves as the younger son, the older son or the father himself, there’s a place for all of us in the tale.

If I see myself as the self-centered, pleasure loving, short-sighted lad consciously separating myself from home and family and religion and country, the story tells me there is ultimate forgiveness. All I have to do, would you believe, is return home and cash in on the already existing love.

If I resonate with the sullen older brother, angry at his father and his brother and convinced there is no justice, I am assured there is a place for me at the table. Maybe I won’t accept the offer right away, but hopefully I’ll relent sometime in the near future; and there will be music and dancing as well which ought to bring me out of my funk.

The one who makes it all happen, the father, offers me a model for loving behavior.

When asked once how often we should forgive when someone has hurt us, Jesus tells Peter it should be 77 times, i.e., don’t ever stop. You get the impression from the dysfunctional family depicted in today’s story that at least one of the members has got the message.

As we hinted earlier, beneath the power of this parable is the suspicion that it is really about God. Maybe that’s why I ultimately cherish this tale so much. It is pure optimism with, as we used to say in Latin, a “fundamentum in re” (for the curious among you, that means my optimism has a strong basis in reality).

Fifth Sunday of Lent: March 17

Is 43:16-21, Phil 3:8-14, Jn 8:1- 11

If you have any doubts at all as to whether your past sins are forgivable, then read today’s Gospel passage again and again. I know from experience that there are many people who are haunted by what they did in the past. Haunted and convinced that even the merciful God can’t overlook their former evil actions.

Often, this condition persists — even unto despair — because people have a tendency to commit some sins over and over again. And yet God puts up with us so patiently, because he knows us and knows what we are made of. Check out Psalm 139 for corroboration.

After all, God is the one who fashioned us in the first place. And when he created this less-than-perfect world, he looked at it and saw that it was good. “Good” is one of our credentials ever after; we always, always remain good in God’s eyes.

But back to our Gospel reading today. In the earliest days when the Gospels were in their initial stages of formation, this story bounced around a bit. Some authorities placed it in Luke’s Gospel reasoning that Luke frequently portrayed the forgiveness of God and, therefore, he would have probably authored this tale. But the story ended up here in the eighth chapter of John, and we are the better for it.

An anonymous woman is caught in the act of adultery. We are given none of the lurid details, nor are we told what happened to the man in the affair. (He was probably let go with the excuse that he was “just sowing his wild oats.”) At any rate, this woman is caught by a group of religious “purists” who seize her and use her to put Jesus on the spot.

If he is lenient to the woman, they will accuse him of ignoring the strict laws against adultery. If Jesus is strict about her punishment, then they will denounce him as an unfeeling fraud. It’s a loselose situation for both Jesus and the unfortunate woman.

But Jesus knows the essence of the law. He knows that, if anyone is to denounce and punish another for adultery, that person better be righteous before God; the law leaves no wiggle room for hypocrisy.

“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” We are secretly delighted to see the accusers slink off one by one, beginning with the elders. Only one man is left, Jesus — and, for the record, he truly is righteous and without sin.

The shamed woman may have sensed that now she was in for it, but, as usual with Jesus, that is not what happens.

He looks at her and simply says he will not condemn her. What must she have thought then? She knew she was guilty of grievous sin before the Law, but this one truly moral man refused to turn on her.

You know what I think? I think she did not need any further warning about sinning no more. She had experienced divine mercy, overwhelming divine mercy, in that moment.

From that point on, I would imagine that she must have become a different person. Still loving, of course, but with an entirely different and wonderful feeling about true love.

This Jesus is really something; he can change our lives with a forgiving smile.

O’Malley is a faculty member of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, a former vicar for priests and pastor emeritus of St. Celestine Parish.