Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Laws of God

September 15, 2019 –– 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 32:7–11,13–14 / Psalm 51 / First Timothy 1:12–17 / Luke 15:1–32
The Laws of God

It is good and helpful when we can understand the authority of law to be a security and even a comfort in our lives. One curse of self-autonomy is to react to laws as an infringement on our personal freedoms. Whenever we want to do “my own thing” or to be first or to be the exception, we might think of the chaos and anarchy that results if every person relates that way to others.

This is true in the natural world. Think of the basic law of gravity. Gravity is what keeps our feet anchored to the ground so we can walk. Sometimes we get frustrated with gravity (even if we don’t think of it in those terms): if we drop something valuable or precious to us and it breaks, we can think “why did that have to fall?” Or when we weigh ourselves we might wish the gravitational pull was not so intense on the scales.

This carries into the spiritual world. Just as there is a law of gravity in the natural world, there is a Law of Divine Retribution in the spiritual world. Disobedience to God brings hard repercussions. Sin gets judged. In the first reading Israel turned away from God and was in immediate danger of divine retribution. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the wayward young man remembers life at his fathers’s house (the household where he formerly felt so confined and restricted) and becomes aware of what he has done––I have sinned against heaven and against you; and he knows the appropriate repercussion––I no longer deserve to be called your son.

If we see only the restrictive and threatening side of law, the result is usually misery. As the parable opens the prodigal son felt the restrictions of home and bolted. At the end of the story his brother, the older son, thought he had done right. When the prodigal returned the other son complained to the father: all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends… The younger son selfishly ran away and the older son miserably remained to “earn” (this is implicit) the favor of the father.

It would have been “best” for both sons to stay at the Father’s house out of love––most of all, out of love for the father, but also allowing that love to open their eyes to the true goodness of the father’s house (instead of evidently seeing mostly confinement). Neither of the sons had truly understood the father’s heart.

All three readings today have one focus: God wants us to be “grabbed” by the true nature of his heart. In spite of the atrocity Israel committed against the Holy One who had so recently delivered them (even so miraculously) from slavery in Egypt, the LORD relented in the punishment he had threatened…. Writing to Timothy, Paul remembers his sins––a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but then gives this wonderful witness: I have been mercifully treated… The prodigal son goes home and tells his father: I have sinned…. I no longer deserve to be called your son. But even before he could get those words out, while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

Just like in the natural world, there are spiritual laws. There is a Law of Divine Retribution, but it is only a default for those who will not accept another, and deeper, Divine Law of Mercy. It is rooted in the nature of the God whose name is Love. In the natural world there is a law of gravity, but it can be superseded by the law of aerodynamics. Gravity tells us that something as heavy as an airplane cannot stay “up” but the law of aerodynamics shows that gravity does not have total force. And while airplanes eventually have to come down, in the spiritual world the Law of Divine Retribution can be perpetually superseded by the Law of Mercy. St Paul affirms to Timothy––This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Something broken in us inclines us to focus on the negative. Like the older brother we easily see it in others (and, like the older brother, we often want to justify ourselves because we think we’ve behaved “better” than someone else). Sometimes we focus on the negative in ourselves; Satan wants us to do that if it can drive us to despair. What God wants us to see is his love and mercy––his father’s heart.

I am a father and a grandfather. I cannot describe the love I have for my family. I would die for the good of my children, but that is only an inadequate expression of the love of God. Again, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. There is no greater love.

St Ambrose, the early Father of the Church who helped form St Augustine, says this of God the Father:

Truly, he will come out running to meet you, his arms will be all embracing––for the LORD lifts those who are bowed down (Ps 147:6)––and he will give you a kiss, a sign of affection and of love; he will order his servants to dress you, to put a ring on you and give you sandals. You still are fearful for the affront you have caused, but he returns to you the dignity which you had lost. You fear punishment, and he kisses you. Finally, you fear being scolded, but he entertains you with a banquet.

Hear the Gospel. Let the “spiritual law of aerodynamics” lift you into the loving arms of our Heavenly Father and then soar in the mercies of grace given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. As we come to the banquet of the Eucharist we are “fueled” with grace so we can fly, and they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isa 40:31). This is the Law of Mercy from our Father.

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