Christ the King Catholic Church
We have just read an entire chapter of Saint Luke's Gospel. God's Word is so rich that, often, we take just a small bite. But today the Church presents us with all of chapter 15 of Saint Luke's Gospel.
The theme of the chapter, like the theme of the first reading from the Book of Exodus and the theme of Saint Paul's Letter to Timothy, is the mercy of God. Mercy is the prism through which we see God. Pope Francis, as we know, has made it the hallmark of his papacy. He burst upon the world scene six years ago proclaiming the mercy of God and inviting us all to rediscover this mercy which is the very nature of God and at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In Chapter 15 of Saint Luke's Gospel Jesus tells three stories that all speak of the mercy of God. In each story something that is lost is found and there is joy in heaven.
A sheep is lost and then found and brought safely home by the shepherd. Sheep in ancient Palestine were often communally owned by the people of a village. Two or three shepherds would oversee tal<lng the sheep out to pasture during the day and then bringing them home at night. If a sheep would stray and get lost, as they often did, one shepherd would stay behind and go in search of the lost sheep, while the other shepherds would lead the rest of the flock home. The whole village would wait and watch for the sight of the remaining shepherd bringing the lost sheep home and there would be a shout of joy and a collective sigh of relief.
A coin is lost and then found, and a woman rejoices. The coin, most probably, was a very special one. The mark of a married woman in Palestine was a head-dress that was adorned with ten silver coins linked together by a silver chain. For years a young woman would scrape and save so as to have the ten coins for her head-dress by the time she would marry. It was as valuable to her financially and
romantically as her wedding ring. To lose and then find one of those silver coins would be a cause of great joy.
And then the third story, perhaps the best-known passage of the entire Gospel: The Parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable is sometimes called 'the Gospel in the Gospel' because in this parable we find the very essence of the Good News that Jesus came to bring us.
We know the story well. A young man asks his father for his share of the inheritance while the father is still living. In Jewish culture this would be like a son saying to his father, "You are dead to me." With that transfer of the inheritance before the father's death, all ties between the father and the son were severed.
The son goes off and uses the inheritance foolishly. As long as he has money, he has friends. When the money is gone, so are the friends. The young man finds himself in dire straights and hires himself out to care for, of all the things, the pigs. As this story was being told in Jewish circles there would be a collective moan at this point for no animal is more loathsome to Jewish sensitivities than the pig.
That little detail would signal to a Jewish audience that the young man had sunk as low as one could sink.
But he comes to his senses and makes the decision to return to his father and ask his father to hire him as a hired hand, knowing that at least then he would have food to eat. And so, he begins the long journey home, practicing his lines. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, I no longer deserve to be called your son... "
The father sees the son from a distance and runs to him. We have the sense that he has been watching for the son from the time the son first left home. The father does what no self-respecting Jewish father would do -he runs to meet his son. In Jewish society the less important person would come to the more important person, not visa-versa. Overcome with joy, the father in the story throws protocol to the wind and embraces his son. As the son deliver his lines, the father pays no heed and begins to bark out order to his servants. He orders the finest robe to be placed on his son's shoulders, a ring to be placed on his finger and sandals on his son's feet. Again, a Jewish audience would understand the significance of each of these things. The son is being welcomed home not as a hired-worker, or even as a disgraced and humbled son, but, rather, he is being completely restored to his place in the household as the father's son. And to top it off, the father orders that the
fattened calf be slaughtered and that a feast be held to celebrate the son's safe return. And the party begins...
This is where most ofus tune out. It's a great story. It's a story that teaches us what God is really like. He is the father in the story who welcomes his straying sons and daughters home. So many people have a distorted image of God.
Whatever image we may have of God, we must ask how it squares with the image of God Jesus gives us in Chapter 15 of Saint Luke's Gospel.
We are all the prodigal sons and daughters who come to our senses and make our journey home to God after straying from him and who find warm welcome This story plays out for us each and every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
But the story doesn't end with the homecoming party. In fact, where we tune out, is exactly where Jesus wants us to tune in. The real focus of the story is the elder son.
Whenever we read a passage of scripture, we have to know the context of the passage in order to understand what God is trying to tell us. The context in which something takes place determines its meaning. The mantra of realtors is, "Location, location, location," and the mantra of scripture scholars is, "Context, context, context."
We find the context for the Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son at the very beginning of Chapter 15. Jesus is mingling with sinners and tax collectors - doing what Pope Francis calls 'accompanying' those who are far off. The Pharisees, whose very name means, 'the Separated Ones.' are scandalized that Jesus would have anything to do with sinners. They had written them off and had forbidden any pious Jew from having any contact with them. In fact, the Pharisees had a saying and it was this: "There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God." To them, the Pharisees, Jesus addressed these parables. The Pharisees are the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. They were the ones who resented that God was merciful to sinners and outcasts. They resented that God loves all of his children. To drive his point home, Jesus rephrases their saying, by saying, "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no
need of repentance." Far from rejoicing in the obliteration of sinners, God rejoices in the conversion of sinners. The younger son in the parable understood this and the elder son did not.
Jesus is calling us to be merciful as God is merciful. Jesus is calling us to trust in God's mercy and to rejoice when we experience that mercy- as wealldo, but to rejoice, as well, when that mercy is shown to others. God does not write anyone off and neither must we. Jesus is calling us to root out the 'pharisee' that resides in each ofus and rejoice wherever mercy is shown.
It means that at Christmas Mass we welcome the person who hasn't been in church all year not with the words, "What's he doing here, but rather with the words, "Welcome home!" It means that the news of a prisoner on death row who repents and whose execution is changed to a life sentence is met with joy - and not anger. It means that we are as kind to the neighbor with the barking dog as we are to the neighbor who plows our driveway every time it snows.
By God's grace may we understand what the Pharisees and the elder son did not. "There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents that over ninety-nine righteous ones who have no need of repentance." Mercy is the very nature of God and at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As Shakespeare's Othello tells us, "The quality of mercy is not strained: it drops on the world as gentle rain does from heaven. It is doubly blessed. It blesses both the giver and the receiver."
May we always be grateful for the mercy we have received from God and may we, in turn, show mercy to others. But may we also always rejoice whenever and wherever mercy is shown to others.