Sunday, July 28, 2013

Year C Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Gen. 18:20-32; Ps. 138:1-3.6-8; Col. 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

The Lord our God is kind and merciful. If you take away nothing from our readings today, remember that.

How merciful is the Lord our God? In his very first Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis urged us to remember that “God never ever tires of forgiving us!” We may well tire of asking God to forgive us, but God never tires of so doing. We may also tire of forgiving those who have wronged us, but God, our merciful Father, because of the precious sacrifice of His only begotten Son, “never tires of forgiving” (17 March 2013 Angelus).

While this is good news, indeed, for many it is also a scandal. In our first reading today Abraham, our father in faith, eventually tires of imploring the LORD to be merciful towards the inhabitants of Sodom. He starts by asking God to spare the city His wrath if he can find fifty righteous people. God agrees. Feeling emboldened, Abraham lowers the number to forty-five. God agrees. He keeps bargaining and God keeps acceding: forty, thirty, twenty, and finally ten, before he inexplicably stops. Why do I say his stopping is inexplicable? Because up to that point the LORD had granted everything he asked. For those unfamiliar with the Middle Eastern way of doing business, even down to our day, it is a culture where prices are not fixed, like ours, but are negotiable. Both sides seek to obtain the best possible deal for themselves, each expecting the other to protect his bottom line.

Lot fleeing Sodom, by Benjamin West, ca. 1810

In Abraham’s negotiation with God, as witnessed by the LORD’s willingness to bargain as long as Abraham wanted to dicker, it was a win/win: the fewer people destroyed because of wickedness the better, both for Abraham and for God. What should strike us about this is that God has no appetite for destruction. His sending Jesus Christ into the world is the best proof of this that anyone can offer.

This brings us to the scandal of God’s Divine Mercy, which is divine because it is infinite, that is, unbounded, meaning that God’s mercy is higher, lower, wider, and broader than you or I can fathom. Attempting to impose limits on God’s mercy is to blasphemously attempt to reduce God to your own measure. We impose limits on God's mercy both when we exaggerate our sins, thinking them too great for God to forgive, and when we diminish the wrong we do, mistakenly believing that we don't need Divine Mercy. This is exactly what St. Paul is getting at in our second reading today. Writing about the powerful effects of baptism, in and through which we die, are buried, and rise in Christ, the apostle reminds, not just the saints in ancient Colossae, but you and I this very day that “even when you were dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, [Jesus Christ] brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:12-14).

I believe it is instructive to look at the verse that follows the last verse of today’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, which not only brings this section of the letter to an end, but finishes the sentence left unfinished by the lectionary: “despoiling the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by it” (Col. 2:15). In addition to bringing us to life, the life that is truly life, by dying on the Cross for our sins, Christ not only defeated, but publicly humiliated and led away as captives the principalities and powers that seek to destroy us. All we have to do, my brothers and sisters, is lay claim to this victory again and again, never growing weary.

When we go to confession, we do not admit defeat. It is precisely how we lay claim to Christ’s victory, making His triumph our own. This is why, as Christians, we should grant discouragement no quarter in our lives. It is also why we should never grow weary of seeking the Lord’s mercy, of seeking His face, of laying claim to that life which is truly life: life in Christ. After all, isn’t that why we are here right now? If not, then being here now is useless!

In today’s Gospel Jesus urges us not merely to be persistent, but to be unrelenting in imploring the Father for good things in prayer: for His mercy, His grace, a greater portion of the Holy Spirit, for the fulfillment that is the desire of every human heart. Is this not the lesson we learn from father Abraham?

We can be unrelenting because God is trustworthy, as Jesus assures us, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13) The theological virtue of hope means the ability to trust God. While hope, like faith and charity, is a theological virtue, meaning that it can only be initially acquired as a gift from God, it is something we can verify in reality, over and over again through the very circumstances of our lives.

Hope is the flower of faith. Faith comes, as Pope Francis recently reminded us in his first encyclical, Lumen fidei, which he co-authored with Benedict XVI, by means of a life-changing encounter with Christ. This encounter is decisive for everyone who has it (see Deus caritas est, par. 1). “Faith,” we read in Lumen fidei, “is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love. It assures us that this love is trustworthy and worth embracing, for it is based on God’s faithfulness which is stronger than our every weakness” (par. 53).

Our blessed Lord told St. Paul, who implored Him three times to take away some unspecified "thorn in the flesh," "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, with the apostle, let us heed what Christ urges us to do and never tire, but be content "with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ,” in the awareness that “ when [we are] weak, then [we are] strong" (2 Cor. 12:6-10).

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