After reading today’s scriptures, one might ask the question: “Why does God put up with us?” Like the Israelites in the reading from Exodus, our society seems to have turned its back to God in embracing gods of our own making, worshiping the ideals of instant pleasure and of building a world that is powered by conflict instead of love. In the Gospel, Jesus, who knows human nature intimately, compares mankind to a stubborn sheep who thinks their way is better than the shepherd’s. The story of the Prodigal Son is most likely the most famous of Jesus’ parables, one that even non -believers know. Why? Because we recognize the characters of the parable in our world today, in every generation. We all know someone who wasted their opportunities in life. We all know someone who is judgmental, unforgiving, and resentful of the gifts wasted on those they consider unworthy. Don’t we know those stories from our own lives? So again – why does God put up with us?
The answer, I believe, is to be found in these same scriptures we study this morning. God is a God of beginnings and not a God of endings.
Early in salvation history, God tells Moses to begin again with the Israelites when they had proven to be faithless and depraved. In the second reading, Paul tells Timothy about his own history of blasphemy, arrogance, and persecution. But God gave Paul an opportunity to start over. The three parables of Jesus we heard this morning illustrate how the God of new beginnings operates and what brings God joy. The sheep that was lost is returned to the flock with an opportunity to start over to the great rejoicing of heaven. The woman who was lost but made whole again rejoices with her neighbors over this opportunity to start over. The loving father welcomes his son with a celebration and invites him to a new beginning.
Jesus tells these parables after dining with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees are scandalized and ask Jesus, in effect, ‘Why do you put up with people like that, the ones that have so fallen that their very existence offends us?” Jesus gives a simple answer, not once but three times. The answer is that the God of beginnings rejoices in giving to all the opportunity to start again.
As members of a fallen society, we need this message here and now: the message that no situation is hopeless because God can and will make everything new. Isn’t that what we are celebrating today, in this Mass and all Masses being offered throughout the world? We celebrate that Jesus, though tortured, dead, and buried, arose in a new beginning. On Easter morning. Jesus died to give us the opportunity to begin again no matter the situation, personally or as a society. God can and will forgive our gravest faults and give us an opportunity to start over. God is God. He can do all things. And he does all things well. God is the God of new beginnings.
The wonderful truth is that with God there is always the opportunity for new beginnings. With God, every day and every moment is an opportunity to start again.
Today’s Psalm, Psalm 51, tells a profound story of new beginnings. It was written by King David after the prophet Nathan accused him of the great sins of murder and of taking another man’s wife. You can hear David’s anguish when he cries out to God: “For I know my transgressions; my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your eyes”. If the Psalm ended there it would still be one of the most moving passages in the entire bible.
But it doesn’t end there. David knows that God is a God of new beginnings. King David remembered the history of his people and the many, many times God showed himself as the God of starting over when the leaders and people of Israel again and again turned their back to God. And so, the Psalm ends with a plea for a new beginning to the God of new beginnings. “A clean heart create for me, oh God; renew within me a steadfast spirit.”
Sometimes we are our own harshest judge. We look back and remember times we fell far short, far short, of the mark. People we have hurt, opportunities for growth in holiness we ignored, laws and commandments broken. We may look at ourselves and wonder – “Why does God put up with me?“
Even worse, you may have those feelings towards someone else, either an individual or a group. Who are the tax collectors and sinners in your life, the ones who have fallen so far that their very existence rankles or offends you? Is it those of another political party, the ones who refuse to listen to reason? Perhaps it is those who have fallen again and again into addiction or crime. Maybe it is even those whose very existence makes your life harder or more uncertain. Why does God put up with people like that?
Because the God of new beginnings offers a new start to all who will accept this gift. God loves us not for what we bring to his Kingdom, but simply because the God of new beginnings is a God of possibilities, of new beginnings rising even from the dead.
So let’s not give up on ourselves. We do not have the right to give up on ourselves. And while you are at it, don’t give up on others, whoever the ‘other’ is in your life. Yes, we need to seek forgiveness over and over. We are human beings who often turn our backs to God. But the God of new beginnings loves us and is always ready to give us a one more chance. We all need new beginnings. Look for the opportunities God puts in your life to begin again.