Jesus came to save and forgive
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sunday, September 16, 2001
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Mercy and forgiveness
spill out of the Lectionary next Sunday. The Bible's most famous story of forgiveness, the prodigal son, anchors the sequence of readings. Moses implores God's mercy on the chosen people after they erect a golden calf for false worship. The psalm draws its refrain from the Gospel, "I will rise and go to my father," as it begs God's mercy for sins.
Even the second reading next Sunday fits this overall framework of forgiveness. On any given Sunday the second reading is not known for its integration with the other Scriptures. When the Lectionary was revised in 1969, the liturgical leaders of the Second Vatican Council decided not to try to integrate the second reading into the theme of the other two. Instead, they established a semi-continuous presentation of New Testament letters during Ordinary Time. Last week, for example, we concluded a series of excerpts from Hebrews. This week we hear a single excerpt from Philemon.
Next week we hear the first of three excerpts from the First Letter to Timothy, and after that we'll hear four weeks of excerpts from the Second Letter to Timothy. In other words, there is no grand plan with today's second reading that matches it up with the themes of the other two. It just happens to fit this time.
The two letters to Timothy are generally grouped with the Letter to Titus and called the Pastoral Epistles. Together they envision a church with a budding hierarchy, practical internal concerns, including the worthiness of candidates for the office of leadership, and the need to adapt the church to culture while remaining faithful to the Gospel. Many biblical scholars believe the church described in these letters could not have existed in the same decade that Paul was writing his other letters. These pastoral letters do not share much vocabulary with Paul's other letters either. Consequently, it is likely that the pastorals were written by someone else, in the 90s, after the death of Paul - but by a writer who borrowed his name. Our custom of having ghostwriters compose texts for public speakers is somewhat related to this ancient practice. The difference, of course, is that the person for whom the ghostwriter wrote was dead.
The passage we will hear next week comes near the beginning of the letter. Its form resembles the thanksgivings that Paul makes at the beginning of other letters. "I am grateful to him who has strengthened me," Paul begins. There is one major difference. In the authentic letters, Paul usually thanks God for something relating to the community to whom the letter is addressed. In this letter, Paul thanks God for acting in Paul's own life. The writer, wanting the letter to appear all the more as if it comes from Paul, gives a pseudo-autobiographical account of the conversion and incorporates it as the basis for the letter's opening thanksgiving.
This thanksgiving is beautifully composed and follows a very deliberate structure. Think of the letters in the word radar. The first letter parallels the fifth and the second parallels the fourth. This whole thanksgiving is built the same way. It opens with praise of Christ Jesus our Lord and closes with praise of the incorruptible, invisible, only God. Then, in both the second and the fourth parts of the thanksgiving Paul repeats the phrase, "I have been mercifully treated," and he gives reasons. Smack in the middle is a saying that is "trustworthy and deserves full acceptance." Paul makes us zero in on this truth: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Here is where this reading fits so well with the others next Sunday. Jesus came to save sinners. We know this theme from elsewhere in the New Testament. Jesus says to Nicodemus, "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17). Jesus says to Zacchaeus, "The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus says to the Pharisees, "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Matthew 9:13).
The same truth appears in the story of the prodigal son and in the thanksgiving of First Timothy. Sinners take heart. Jesus comes not to condemn us, not to belittle us, not to embarrass us, not to shame us. Jesus comes to save.
Father Paul Turner is pastor of St. Munchin Parish, Cameron.