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The Question Our Lord Doesn’t Ask

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)  |  Fr Euan Marley looks at the free choice decisions we make to belong to the Father’s household of forgiveness and love.

Rhetorical questions don’t always work. Once after a little accident in our priory of Holy Cross in Leicester, I asked the question. ‘Well who here hasn’t accidentally set fire to the kitchen while cooking?’ Annoyingly quite a few hands went up. I could have pointed out that not everybody there actually did much cooking, but I know when I’m beat. Rhetorical questions only work when you are sure of your facts, which is not a problem for the incarnate word, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. His rhetorical questions are rock solid. He sees into the depths of humanity, and so he can ask questions which admit of only one answer. 

We have four questions in a row, all rhetorical questions, two last Sunday and two in this Sunday. To save space, I will paraphrase them. Who would build a tower without counting the cost? Which king would not assess his chances of winning when going to war? The next two are about the lost sheep and the lost coin. It is not that this is what would necessarily happen. Builders do build without counting the cost, and their towers fall down. In fact earlier, Christ has referred to the tower of Siloam which had collapsed. No builder would admit that they regularly decide to build come what may. That’s what they often do, but it is never what they say. Their cost cutting never gets into the advertising. Likewise the history of warfare is littered with examples of peoples going off to fight unwinnable wars. That is what Jerusalem will do when the try to fight the Romans. The other two questions are different because people do put a lot more effort into looking for lost things, than caring about what they have. It is part of the irrationality of human beings but it is also something we all know we would do. We grieve over lost things, more than we take joy in the things we have.  

The four rhetorical questions are part of a much larger rhetorical structure, because we come to the last parable, and there is no question, rhetorical or not, which is asked. The story of the prodigal Son does not begin with saying, which father among you, if his son took all his possessions, left and spent it all in a foreign country would not welcome him back with a great celebration? Some might but not often, and even now, when we have this story, when we hear about mercy and forgiveness in our Churches, pray for forgiveness in our prayers, and expect forgiveness in the sacraments, we do not always forgive. We certainly do not always forgive in the spectacular fashion of this parable. So what would it be like then, even in Israel? In effect, Christ is saying that, I can tell you something about what God is like based on what people are like. His love is something like the obsessiveness of human beings. It is a kind of greed for the redemption of sinners that explains Christ’s own mission.  There are analogies between the kingdom values and human values. Yet now here is a parable which is about the Father which shows how his love utterly transcends human thoughts about how life should be lived. The parable of the Prodigal Son casts a light back over the other examples, because it is a parable which utterly transforms the meaning of life. The father in this parable is no human father, he loves in a way that no human father does. The elder son, however, is quite human, quite reasonable about the propriety of not only accepting the prodigal son back but making him the centre of the whole household's love. 

This is because there is a difference between the relationship between persons, and relationships between persons and things. Personal relationships are always interpersonal, they go in two directions. Things are only related to each other from the point of view of the person who sees a relationship between them. Persons and things are only related in one direction. The coins that the woman has lost do not complain about the attention given to the lost coin. The ninety-nine sheep, being animals, are more like persons, but they do not go looking for the lost sheep; only the shepherd would do that. With the father and the son, the relationship is always in both directions, and neither can form a relationship without a response. So the two sons have to make their own free choice to belong. The Father though, is God, and his household are those who share in his Spirit. They have made their choice, they always will wait for us to come home, their door is always open. 

Readings: Exodus 32:7-11,13-14  |  1 Timothy 1:12-17 |  Luke 15:1-32

Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew, OP

Euan Marley O.P.

Euan Marley Euan Marley O.P. is Prior at Blackfriars, Cambridge.


Sister Maria Lourdes Blanca, O.P. commented on 15-Sep-2019 02:34 AM
This is excellent! Option to belong to God the Father is everyday choice. God love you my brother in St. Dominic!

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