Today’s Gospel contains some of the most beautiful and popular stories in the Bible. The parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost (“Prodigal”) Son are frequently mentioned, especially when we talk about God’s mercy. Today we have an opportunity to reflect on them more deeply.
The way of life of the nomadic tribes of the Middle East, which is the backdrop of biblical history, can provide us with some cultural clues for understanding the parables. It was quite common, for example, for sheep owners to hire shepherds to lead the sheep out to graze and to safely lead them back to the sheepfold. The shepherd was responsible for each and every sheep assigned to him; not one must be left behind. To lose even one would cost him the trust of the owner who hired him; so one hundred minus one is not ninety-nine but zero. He rejoices greatly in finding a lost sheep because he can fulfill his obligation to his master to return them all, receive his just compensation, and be assured of being called back again the next day to work as a shepherd.
For the women of such nomadic tribes, it was a custom to own a family heirloom as part of the dowry needed for marriage. For the Bedouins, this was a headdress decorated with jewels and coins. Because it is a family heirloom, each part of it has meaning and value for the family. If one piece falls off, the meaning and value of the whole headdress is not the same. A lost coin cannot be replaced with just any other coin; it has to be a particular coin.
In this context, we can appreciate better the lesson that Jesus is teaching in the parables. He is speaking to the Pharisees and scribes about the tax collectors and sinners who are all drawing near to listen to him. He assures them that he has come to save all sinners, each one of whom is of great value to him, like one lost sheep or one lost coin.
In the third parable, the most popular one, one aspect that is not often discussed is how much time lapsed after the younger son left home for a foreign country, squandered his inheritance, experienced famine, and finally came to his senses. There are hints that the son was away for a considerable length of time: for example, the father’s reference to his death, and the brother’s exasperation at having served his father “all these years.” Rereading the story in this light, we can surmise that it must have been a long time. The story has the father staying at home while his son is working in the field; perhaps the father is already very old and has retired from active work. Yet he remains alert and eager to welcome his lost son. When he catches sight of him, he runs to him, embraces him and kisses him. It is a glorious manifestation of the mercy of God our Father. His patience with us is never exhausted, no matter how long we have been lost!
The first reading can help us reflect further on what the parables of God’s mercy point out to us. We are taken to the dark moment when the Israelites, in Moses’ absence, made for themselves a substitute for God, an idol, a golden calf. This action offends God who proposes a just punishment. Since they have rejected him, he must reject them. He will eliminate this depraved and stiff-necked people and start all over with Moses. However, in revealing this possibility to Moses, God opens the way for Moses to intercede, which he does in a most effective way. Moses does not defend the people; rather, he reminds God of his own promise to them and appeals to his faithfulness. There is no excuse for the people’s sin, but there is still hope for them because God is faithful to his promises.
The three Gospel parables also showcase God’s faithfulness. We see it in the faithfulness of the shepherd to care for all the sheep assigned to him. We see it in the woman’s faithfulness to her family by the safekeeping of every piece of their heirloom. We see it in the father’s faithfulness to his son. Despite all that the son has done against him, the father continues to be his father. God’s mercy is his faithfulness.
But like the Israelites, we can find it difficult to relate to a powerful and transcendent God, even if we believe he is faithful. We begin to think we would be better off having something concrete and readily accessible – an idol. How can we draw near to this God of mercy who is always faithful but seems too far away? The second reading reminds us that God has already solved this difficulty for us. He has made himself accessible to us through his Son. As St. Paul writes: “the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, “who came into the world to save sinners.” He is the perfect revelation of the loving Father who welcomes us all. He is also the embodiment of God’s faithfulness.
We can ask one further question: what ought to be our response to the mercy and faithfulness that God shows us through his Son? Today’s liturgy gives us two ways to respond. The first is the way of contrition, beautifully expressed in Psalm 51, the Miserere, an Old Testament prayer of contrition. In praying this psalm, we humbly acknowledge our guilt in light of the greatness of God’s compassion. We learn that contrition leads us back to God, not further away from him. Like the prodigal, we ought to rise up and go back to our Father.
A second way to respond to God’s mercy is contained in today’s Gospel Acclamation, which connects the mercy we receive and the mercy we share with others. Grateful that “God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ,” we joyfully bring the “message of reconciliation” to the world. In so doing, in our own little way, we participate in the faithfulness of God, extending the fulfillment of his promise of mercy. He uses us to find the one lost sheep or the one lost coin or to help the prodigal son find his way back to the Father.
Do I believe that I am a great sinner yet of great value in the eyes of the God? Am I merciful to those who have harmed me? Am I afraid to approach my merciful Father?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.