In a patriarchal society, a father who was disgraced by his son would have disowned him
“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?
And when he does find it,
he sets it on his shoulders with great joy
and, upon his arrival home,
he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’”
In her reflection on the Church Year, Barbara Reid, a Dominican sister and Scripture scholar, tells the story of a missionary who was working with street children in Sao Paulo, Brazil. As she taught the children Bible stories, helping them reflect on their meaning, the missionary told the story of the “Prodigal Son” we hear recounted in this Sunday’s Gospel. Reid relates:
She stopped at the point where the younger son decided to return home, and she asked if he would be able to go back home. One youngster spoke up. “It depends,” he said. “On what? she asked. “On whether there is a mother in the house. If so, then she will work on the father and get him to finally accept the son back.”
Without realizing it, the boy picked up on an element of the story that eludes many of us. By asking if there was a mother in the home, he seemed to understand that in Jesus’ culture—a patriarchal society much like his own in Brazil—a father who was disgraced by his son in the way Jesus describes would have been justifiably enraged by the son’s behavior and could easily have disowned him. After all, the son essentially says to his father, “You are dead to me and I want nothing more from you than the money I believe is mine.” And yet, the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son is, as Reid describes him, “more like a mother who watches and waits and runs to meet the wayward son when he finally appears on the horizon.”
This Sunday’s Gospel, with its three parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son (although only the first two are included in the “shorter” version of the Gospel given as an optional reading in this Sunday’s Mass), invites us to reflect on the dynamic quality of God’s mercy.
Pope Francis picked up on these themes in the document The Face of Mercy¸ in which he called for us to celebrate this Year of Mercy. He writes: “In the parables devoted to mercy, Jesus reveals the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy… In these parables, God is always presented as full of joy, especially when he pardons. In them we find the core of the Gospel and of our faith, because mercy is presented as a force that overcomes everything, filling the heart with love and bringing consolation through pardon” (§9, emphasis added).
Ultimately, the message of mercy in this Sunday’s liturgy (including the beautiful testament to the mercy of Jesus that Saint Paul shares in his First Letter to Timothy), is an invitation for us to reflect on how we celebrate the reality of God’s tender mercy in our own lives as disciples of Jesus. But, even beyond this, is a deeper opportunity to reflect on how we proclaim the Good News of mercy to a world crying out for mercy and compassion.
As we mark the 15th anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, we would all do well to pause and offer a heartfelt prayer for lasting peace, itself a gift of our Merciful and Prodigal Father. This significant anniversary invites us to reflect on how willing we have been—and continue to be—to offer mercy and forgiveness to those who have offended or wounded us. The kind of mercy that Jesus’ asks of us as disciples does place demands upon us. This weekend, let us take time to reflect on how we have been lifted up and consoled by God’s mercy and, by extension, listen to the voice of the Shepherd calling for us to share that mercy with others.
When have you experienced God’s mercy in your own life?
How do the images of the shepherd, the searching woman, and the loving Father help you to understand God in new ways?
How are you an instrument of mercy and forgiveness within your own family, parish, and community?
Words of Wisdom: “We are sheep. Let us seek pastures. We are coins. Let us have a price. We are sons. Let us hurry to the Father. Let us not fear because we have squandered the inheritance of spiritual dignity that we received… Already meeting you on the way, he falls on your neck, ‘for the Lord sets the fallen right.’ He will give you a kiss, that is, the pledge of piety and love.”—Saint Ambrose