We begin the readings for this Sunday with a low point from the Book of Exodus. The Israelites have made a molten calf for themselves and are worshiping it as their god. God says to Moses about them, “They have become depraved. They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them.” On display before us here is the old story of temptation and sin. What we see in the Israelites we can also see in ourselves: the tendency to turn aside from the way that God has pointed out to us and begin to follow our own way, making up our own ideas about who God is and what he wants.

God, however, does not reject us when we sin! He has revealed to us that his mercy is never ending. In the Spiritual Reflection, Pope Francis emphasizes the complaint which the Pharisees and scribes make about Jesus: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Yes, God welcomes sinners! Jesus makes it clear in the first two parables of today’s Gospel that God goes out of his way to seek sinners, and he rejoices greatly when they return to him. He wants every sinner, no matter how gravely they have sinned, to come back to him and join in the heavenly banquet which he has prepared for us in Heaven.

There are two basic ways in which we might reject what God has revealed to us about his mercy and set up our own false idea of God in his place. First, we can think that our own sins are too great, that we are so weak or so thoroughly ruined by sin that God could not forgive us – that he would not “welcome” us nor want to “eat” with us. In his parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus forcefully teaches us that this will never be the case. The father was continually looking, waiting, and longing for the return of his son. When he saw the son approaching, he ran to meet him, embraced him, and kissed him. The son did not even have a chance to finish his prepared statement of repentance! We need to ponder this deeply and welcome in faith the unfathomable mercy of God.

If one way of rejecting God’s mercy is to consider ourselves too sinful, the other way is to consider ourselves too righteous, as if we deserve more from God. This is the attitude revealed in the words and behavior of the older brother. After the younger son went off with his half of the inheritance, it seems that the elder son looked on everything that was left as his rightful share – something that he deserved because of his hard work and obedience to his father. He did not feel that he needed any mercy from the father. After all, as he says to his father, “All these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders.” He resented the father killing the fatted calf for his brother because that calf rightly belonged to him now.

There is a line in the parable which is very disturbing, even frightening. Jesus says that the older brother “refused to enter the house.” The father’s party in celebration of the return of his son symbolizes the great celebration in Heaven, in the “Father’s house,” whenever any sinner returns to God and is saved. God wants every person to come into his house and join in this celebration. No weakness or sin can prevent anyone from entering, because God’s mercy can triumph over it all. The younger son, the great sinner, the prodigal, is in the Father’s house, joining in the celebration. But the older son refuses to enter the house.

This is a great danger for us, especially for those who are earnestly striving to follow God’s way and keep his commandments. We can subtly and gradually become convinced that we have “earned” a place in the house because of our obedience and our good works. Then we can set ourselves up as better than those whom we consider obvious sinners, who seem to us to have ignored God and abused his gifts. We can think that God should not be so merciful to them, and we can be resentful and arrogant toward them. If we fall into this trap, we can end up refusing to enter the real house of God, because it is not a house for the self-righteous – it is a house full of repentant sinners rejoicing in the mercy of God.

St. Paul, in the second reading, proclaims the truth about our merciful Lord very clearly and powerfully: “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Paul goes on to proclaim himself as the “foremost” of sinners, and says that this was one reason why he was chosen, so that God could display to the world his great patience and mercy in the way that he treated Paul. Thus, Paul can use his personal experience to testify that, indeed, God welcomes sinners.

In the Psalm for today, we beg God, “Cast me not out from your presence.” What he has shown us in Jesus is that he will never cast us out. His mercy endures forever, and he will always rejoice to welcome us into his house. We must only be careful not to cast ourselves out from his presence by refusing to acknowledge our need for his mercy and refusing mercy in turn to our brothers and sisters, our fellow sinners.

A good way to conclude today’s reflection is to take the Psalm and pray through it slowly, putting ourselves in the place of the younger son, knowing our need for God’s mercy and rejoicing that he offers it to us so freely. “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense…. O LORD, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

Do I see myself as one of the Israelites who turned away from the law of the Lord? Why? How am I merciful to others? Have I ever felt that God could not be merciful to me because of my sin? When and why?

Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.