24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
My dear friends, can you complete this sentence? Ignorance is… That’s easy enough, right? Ignorance is… bliss. So goes the proverb. And we know what it means, don’t we? It expresses the popular belief that it’s often better not to know something than to know it,and then to be kept awake at night worrying about it.
For example, in the movie, Men in Black, a top secret team of government agents go to great lengths to protect the earth against alien attacks. All the while keeping the rest of the human race blissfully unaware that aliens even exist. Let alone that they walk and work among us on earth. In disguise. Why keep everyone in the dark? The reason is simple. For fear that knowledge might lead to a general panic. Ignorance is bliss.
And perhaps many of us can identify with that. Especially those of us who have ever felt reluctant to see a doctor. Even though we might not be feeling 100% fit. Why? Precisely for fear that the doctor might discover something seriously wrong with us. Better not to know about it. Even if it’s there. Knowledge brings hassle and worry. Ignorance is bliss.
But do you agree, sisters and brothers? Does ignorance really bring bliss? And nothing else? What do you think?
At first glance, our Mass readings may appear to confirm this belief. In the first reading, it’s not aliens but God who comes very close to exterminating the people of Israel. Punishing them for their idolatry. For worshipping a golden calf made by their own hands, It is only because Moses pleads for them that God relents, and decides to show mercy. But, on their part, the people remain unaware of just how close they’ve come to being wiped off the face of the earth. For them, it would seem that ignorance is indeed blissful. Even ignorance of the immense mercy of God.
And yet, it doesn’t take much deeper reflection for us to realise the serious limitations to this point of view. Sure, ignorance of God’s mercy may lead the people to experience bliss of a certain kind. But doesn’t it also prevent them from regretting their actions and turning back to God? As you know, idolatry remains an ongoing problem for them all through the Old Testament. And perhaps the reason why the people find it so hard to repent is because they do not really appreciate how truly merciful God is towards them. Which goes to show that bliss is not the only outcome of ignorance. Stubbornness is too. Hardness of heart.
We find something similar in the gospel. In that beautiful parable that we all know so well, the elder son is quite obviously ignorant. Ignorant of how much his father really loves him. How much mercy the father shows him. You are with me always, his father tells him, and all I have is yours. Clearly, in his father’s eyes, he is not only a son, but an heir as well. Yet, the elder son is ignorant of this. He considers himself nothing more than a slave. Look, all these years I have slaved for you, he tells his father, and never once disobeyed your orders… And, as a result of his ignorance, the elder son stubbornly refuses to celebrate his younger brother’s return. He resents his father’s willingness to forgive.
This situation of the elder son exactly mirrors that of the Pharisees and scribes at the beginning of the gospel. It is in response to their protests that Jesus tells the parable. Like the elder son, the Pharisees and scribes refuse to rejoice at the repentance of their siblings, the tax collectors and sinners. Why? Perhaps because, for all their apparent fidelity to the Law, the Pharisees and scribes have never really experienced or understood the mercy of God. Which indicates, once again, that ignorance leads not just to bliss. But also to slavery and resentment. To green-eyed envy and self-righteous judgment. Stubbornness and slavery. Jealousy and judgment. These also are the effects of ignorance.
In contrast, knowledge of God’s mercy brings very different results. In the parable, we’re told that the younger son came to his senses. What does this involve? Not just the realisation of how far he has fallen. Although that’s there. And not just the regret of all the foolish and sinful choices that have brought about his fall. Although that’s there too. For the younger son, coming to his senses also involves the recognition that, if only he returns home, his father will surely take him back. A beginning appreciation of the depths of his father’s love for him. If ignorance leads to stubbornness. Then even an initial understanding of God’s mercy brings repentance. And the joy of being forgiven and received back into the father’s house.
But that’s not all. In the second reading, we find something else that knowledge brings. Here, St. Paul writes about his own experience of God’s mercy. Even though Paul had been a persecutor of Christians, God still called him to be an apostle. Mercy… was shown me, Paul writes, because until I became a believer I had been acting in ignorance… And as a result of this radical shift from ignorance to mercy, Paul is now filled no longer with self-righteous hatred for Christians. But instead with heartfelt gratitude to the Lord. A gratitude expressed in the desire to sing God’s praises. And to serve God’s people.
Which is also what we find in Moses as well. For as you may recall, Moses had killed an Egyptian. And then escaped into the wilderness. But God showed him mercy by appearing to him in the form of a burning bush. And calling him to help save God’s people. Isn’t this what Moses is doing in the first reading? Saving the people by interceding for them before God? Just as he had interceded for them before Pharaoh?
In direct contrast to popular belief, at least when it comes to the mercy of God, ignorance brings not bliss, but stubbornness and slavery. Jealousy and judgment. While knowledge brings repentance and rejoicing. Gratitude and glory. Isn’t this one of the main reasons why we gather here today? To recall and to deepen our experience of the incredible mercy of God shown to us in our Lord Jesus Christ.
All of which might lead us to reflect on ourselves. In our daily lives, what do we experience more regularly? Stubbornness and resentment? Or repentance and service? The answers that we give will give us a good indication of how ignorant or how knowledgeable we are of God’s mercy.
My dear friends, at one point in the movie, Men in Black, veteran top secret agent K invites ordinary police detective James Edwards to consider becoming an agent like him. To leave the ignorance of the crowd. And to share the knowledge and mission of the Men in Black. Is it worth it? asks Edwards. O yah, it’s worth it, replies K. If you’re strong enough…
Brothers and sisters, what must we do to obtain the strength to deepen our knowledge of God’s mercy today?