Father Donald Senior, CP

Evidence of God’s lavish mercy is found everywhere in Scripture

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

Sept. 11: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ex 32:7-11; 1 Tm 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-32

Sometimes I like to tell my students that if I had to take one page out of the Bible to keep with me, it would be chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel. That is precisely the Gospel passage we have for this Sunday.

Who could forget the scene? “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,” Luke begins. Yes, of course, this is so often the case in the Gospels — Jesus welcomes sinners and outcasts with open arms. But the religious leaders see things differently. They are shocked at Jesus and complain “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus chooses not to get in an argument with the leaders but instead tells three magnificent parables that portray God as abundantly merciful and, therefore, as the justification for Jesus’ own lavish embrace of those in trouble.

The stories deal with three poignant human situations — a shepherd who loses a sheep; a woman who loses a precious coin; a parent who has lost a child. Yet standing behind these stories we know that Jesus is communicating his own conviction about how God deals with us.

The first two parables are stories of earnest search and joyous discovery. The shepherd jeopardizes his whole flock to search for that one lost sheep and when he finds it, he hoists it on his shoulders and carries it home rejoicing. Or the woman who has lost a precious coin — some think it must have been part of her dowry or a treasured keepsake from her family. She tears the house apart and when she finds it, calls in her neighbors to rejoice with her.

These two stories of earnest search are followed by one of earnest waiting. The story of the prodigal son is perhaps the most beloved parable of all. Every parent knows the feeling. A son or daughter has gone astray, risking losing everything. To try to intervene will only make things worse and drive the child further away. So the parent, like the father in Jesus’ story, can only wait and pray and hope.

Thanks be to God, the lost son comes home, driven by despair and hunger. The father runs to him, kisses him, embraces him, cuts short his prepared apology, lavishes him with love and throws a party for him.

Jesus’ profound understanding of the human heart is revealed in the fact that the story does not end here. There is the “elder brother” — the one who never left and who now, like the religious leaders who complain about Jesus, is resentful that his wayward brother is welcomed home with such mercy and so little punishment. The father has to deal with this son, too, reassuring him of his love, pleading with him to welcome his brother and celebrate with him.

The Bible’s conviction about God’s lavish mercy is found everywhere in the Scriptures. The first reading today from Exodus has the same melody. God is angry and disappointed with Israel but in a very human portrayal Moses reminds God of his own promises for the people he loves. And God relents.

In the second reading from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, the Apostle confesses that he was among the “foremost sinners” but that led Christ to treat him all the more “mercifully.”

The Psalm response for today picks up the same theme of mercy. It is from Psalm 51, the great plea for mercy and forgiveness that the church recites at its morning prayer each Friday: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.”

No wonder Pope Francis has asked the church this year to reflect on God’s abundant mercy. No wonder, too, that he has asked the church to be a place of mercy and compassion, reaching out to those in need, to those whom others despise or abandon. For that is God’s way revealed to us by Jesus.


  • scripture