The Essence of God's Mercy
(Readings: Exodus 32;7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32)
Introduction to Mass
The long section from Saint Luke's gospel which forms today's gospel reading is the start of a whole series of parables that the biblical scholars have called the 'parables of mercy' - stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin and the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus uses these stories to show how God has no desire to dismiss or condemn our sinfulness and our moral failure but to lead us to turn towards him and towards his grace, which gives life to our souls.
At the beginning of Mass, as always we acknowledge our sins and faults and failings, and we ask God for his pardon and healing.
On this occasion Jesus isn't preaching about morality in the sense of preaching about how people should relate to each other - at least in the first place that's not what he's talking about. What he's talking about in the first place is a subject which was central to the Jewish faith and is just as central to the Christian faith: God's nature, God's character or personality, and how God relates to us.
This was one of the major bones of contention between Christ and the Jewish leaders. St Luke mentions how on this occasion the religious leaders are brooding away in the background, watching Christ and trying to put together their case against him. And we also get a sense of Jesus' disgust with them, which he hardly bothers to disguise - his distaste for their self-righteousness and their snobbery.
The Scribes and the Pharisees - like people in any time or place who regard themselves as superior to the other members of the community - look down on the individuals that the gospels call 'the tax collectors and sinners' - the people that were in different ways outside the boundaries of the religious Law.
It's important to recognise, I think, that Jesus didn't have a sloppy or romanticised view of the people who were outside the boundaries of the Law in that way. Tax-collectors, for example, weren't poor and humble and oppressed people. For the most part they were greedy and ambitious and quite well off, and they were prepared to collaborate with the occupying power - the Romans - to get the comfortable lifestyle that they wanted.
Jesus was well aware of that. At the same time he wasn't the kind of permissive or liberal person who thought that everybody should make up their own moral rules, or whatever. Jesus in fact had a very lively sense and a very deep understanding of sinfulness and the damage that selfish behaviour does to individuals and the people they come in contact with. He didn't take issue with the content of the Jewish Law as such.
Where Jesus got into conflict with the religious authorities about was that, unlike them, he wasn't interested in condemning people's sinfulness and excluding them, so much as going about the difficult task of 'bringing back to life what was once dead' - as he says here. Not writing people off, but awakening them to their true vocation: to live in contact with God and to be changed by that contact.
Christ makes his point with a number of parables which are quite homely - stories which would strike a chord with the people he was preaching to, and stories that we can identify with and get inside without too much bother as well.
First of all, we've got this story about a shepherd finding a lamb which had strayed from the rest of the flock. Then it's a story about a poor woman who lost a sum of money which was worth a tenth of her entire possessions, and then found it again. We can all identify with the experience of losing something valuable, searching for it desperately and feeling relief when we find it again.
Jesus' point is: this is God's reaction whenever somebody returns to him, reaches some turning-point in their life when they give up a sinful and damaging pattern of life and put God at the centre, with all the implications that has for our attitudes and conduct towards others.
In Christ's first two examples it's some object that's been lost - a sheep and a coin. Maybe to appreciate Jesus' lesson more thoroughly we have to put it in more human or personal terms.
We all know occasions when there's an argument in a family between the parents and a son or daughter, or when a young person goes off the rails in some way, and they leave home and lose contact with the rest of the family. The upset and the anxiety are tremendous. It's constantly present in the background.
Then one day - years later, perhaps - the parents open the door to find their son or their daughter standing on the doorstep. The anxiety falls away, the reasons for the original split are forgotten about, and there's just relief and happiness, because - in Jesus' language - someone who'd been lost has been found again.
That's not my parable, of course. That's Jesus' third story, and it's his third illustration of God's option in favour of the lost, and of how strong his desire is to welcome back anyone who has strayed away, no matter what they've done and what they've been through.
As I said at the start, these parables are part of a series of stories called the parables of mercy - God's mercy. But Jesus isn't only describing what God's like. The example of God's attitudes and God's behaviour are there for us to imitate as well. Jesus would often finish off his descriptions of what God was like by saying to people: now go and do the same yourselves.
Being a believer in God means being like God - allowing God's grace to work in us and act on us so that our character and behaviour take come to reflect God's character and personality.
That's what Jesus was always trying to get his opponents to realise when he pointed our their need for repentance. That's the summons that he made to everyone during the course of his ministry, and it's the same calling and challenge that we've got in our attempt to practice the way of discipleship in the circumstances in which we live today.