The Gospel for September 11th, 2016: “The Parable of the Lost Sheep,” “The Parable of the Lost Coin,” and “The Parable of the Lost Son”
Reflection: Mercy and Forgiveness on 9/11
I think it certainly says something about the magnitude of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks that my thoughts turned so quickly to them when I saw 9/11 is the date for Sunday’s gospel. Even though I did not personally lose anyone close to me in those attacks, it still resonates strongly with me as with most Americans. The fact the devastation was covered so vividly by the media is, I’m sure, one reason. But more than that, as an American, the attacks shattered any illusions of our country’s ability to guarantee our safety from foreign threats on our own soil. Then there is the whole Muslim jihad angle that forces Americans to ask themselves why they are the targets of a holy war. I think we have to ask ourselves why that is. It is alarming, disconcerting, and confusing to contemplate even now. In my memory, the aftermath seems as muddled and puzzling as the event itself. Even though we were able to identify the terrorists responsible for the airplane hijackings, figuring out who they represented proved to be far more complicated, especially as thoughts of justice and eliminating future threats became the focus. Eventually, we settled on El Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as the chief targets, which led us to Afghanistan. Finally, the Navy Seals assassinated bin Laden giving Americans a victory to celebrate in the strange and elusive war. And yet, despite bin Laden’s death and reports of a weakened El Qaeda, the group continues to persist in its holy war against the West and U.S. in particular.
With this background in mind, I would like to focus on one line in particular in today’s gospel. It is a charge against Jesus from the Pharisees that says, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (2). I don’t know about others, but it is this inclusive nature of Jesus’s mission that I find one of the most appealing aspects of Christianity. I love it because it means I have a place at Christ’s table despite my sins. It is the gift that makes that continues to make life in this world livable and gives hope for eternal life. Like the Prodigal Son in one today’s parables, I am welcomed back despite my selfish choices.
The catch is that with every gift Jesus gives, he also gives an uncomfortable mission. One of those is for us too to welcome the tax collectors, the lost sheep, and the prodigal sons and daughters. When those wayward souls have not harmed us, I think this is within comfort zone of most Christians. We are willing to help those who those in need and forgive those who have sinned. Our charity in these case feels rewarding and sweet. But do we also welcome our enemies to the table? Do we also eat as Jesus did with the Judas Iscariots and Pharisees, whom He knew willed His death to further their own selfish motives?
Our mission is to imitate Christ in the full depth of His holiness. In so doing, I think we are called to welcome and eat with our enemies like Osama bin Laden and the members of Al Qaeda. Frankly, this is so uncomfortable to think about that I can’t even begin to imagine how to do that or what that might look like. Furthermore, I don’t know how I as an ordinary citizen might contribute to a diplomacy with an enemy that is based on Christ’s teaching. All I can think to do is pray about this today. I pray for the victims and their families. I imagine the only peace for such an unjust tragedy can come from the Lord. I pray they may know peace. But I also pray for the hijackers, bin Laden, and the current members of Al Qaeda. I pray that the forgiveness and mercy of God may be theirs as I hope it is mine. Finally, I pray for forgiveness for the thrill I felt when I found out bin Laden was dead. When juxtaposed with Jesus’s open table fellowship, there is something wrong about that desire. I was not showing love for my enemy, willing his good. In a sense I was like the Good Son in today’s parable who preferred to judge His brother’s sins and resented his father’s mercy, forgiveness, and joy at his return. Would he have experienced the thrill of revenge if his father had thrown out the Prodigal Son upon his return? In likeness of Jesus, we are called to love the unlovable. Against that measure, I am humbled to such a degree that I must crawl back to Jesus and beg for his mercy and forgiveness at my hardness of heart. It may be just at this moment that I finally understand the Sacred Heart of Jesus devotion. May His heart be our hearts.