Graphic David Chen

God in His mercy writes no one off

  • September 1, 2016

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Sept. 11 (Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; Psalm 51; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32)

Fickleness and ingratitude are unfortunate human characteristics that have always been with us. God had done so much for the Israelites. He had liberated them from Egypt with mighty signs and wonders, as well as providing them with food and water in the hostile wilderness. But they asked the age-old question: what have you done for me lately?

Most of us can recall instances of profound ingratitude — perhaps we have even on occasion been guilty of it. With the Israelites, as with most people, the trigger was fear. Moses had tarried just a bit too long on the mountaintop where he had gone to speak with God. The people assumed that something had happened to him and that he wasn’t coming back. In human fashion, they looked around for something concrete to give them assurance, and the Golden Calf was the result. God was all set to wipe out the people and proceed with Moses alone, but Moses was a skillful and powerful advocate for his wayward people. He immediately reminded God of His promise of redemption and a land for their own. In the omitted verse, Moses even appealed to public opinion. What will the Egyptians say when they see what you have done to your people? Definitely bad PR! God finally relented and stood down from His plan to annihilate the people.

This story is in the realm of folk tale or fable. God does not have to be reminded of His promises and responsibilities. He does not fear public opinion, nor does He “change His mind.” This is a teaching story and it illustrates several important points. The first is human fickleness and ingratitude, in which we all share. This was followed by Moses’ plea for justice and mercy. He could have stood aside and let things unfold, but he chose to stick out his neck for his people. Finally, God’s fidelity to the divine promises, even after extreme provocation, should give us hope. We might ask if we have trust and confidence in the compassion and fidelity of God as we meet the challenges of life. What do we reach for when confronted with uncertainty and fear?

Paul had an overpowering and personal experience of God’s mercy. By his own admission, Paul was a fanatical and violent persecutor of Jesus’ followers. But God’s grace overflowed for him in the faith and love of Jesus. Paul even looked on the gravity and horror of his sin as part of the divine plan — it would serve as a testimonial to extreme lengths divine grace, love and mercy would go. No one is ever beyond redemption or disqualified from receiving God’s mercy.

The three parables in Luke all focus on God’s mercy. The first two deal with missing sheep or coins. The human tendency would be to cut one’s losses and move on. After all, there were still 99 sheep and nine coins. But that is the point — any loss or exclusion is unacceptable. The flock is incomplete with only 99; a full purse is 10 coins, not nine.

In the first parable, the shepherd took great risks for himself and the rest of the flock in order to find the one missing sheep. It was more precious than all the rest! And the woman would not give up until she had joyfully recovered the 10th coin. We can never write any person or group off — God doesn’t, so why should we?

In the beloved parable of the Prodigal Son, mercy is evident in a spectacular way. After years of self-indulgence, sin and infidelity, the younger son came to his senses and staggered home. He planned to win his father’s favour by a self-punishing confession of sin and worthlessness, followed by a request to be taken on as a mere hired hand. The overjoyed father was not interested in any explanations, apologies or grovelling, but treated him as an honoured and exalted guest. It was enough that he was alive, safe and home — worse for wear, but much humbler and wiser. The outraged and resentful elder brother was like so many people today, for whom talk of “mercy” or “compassion” is like fingernails across a blackboard. He needed to learn, as we all do, that mercy is another name for God.