The lost have been reclaimed by the mercy of God
By: By Shawn Reeves
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 15
Exodus 32:7-11,13-14; Psalm 51:3-4,12-13,17,19; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-31
Patience is a hard thing. One need only ask my wife what her husband struggles with the most, and patience will most likely be at the top of her list. The irritations and inconveniences of the world often churn inside us, like magma slowly spinning within. The heat and pressure build; our gaze becomes removed from others and fixed solely upon the self; and wrath is unleashed instead of gentleness and love.
It is easy, then, to expect what Moses expected in our first reading. When the people had “become depraved” and “stiff-necked,” Moses, thinking as man does, assumed much, ascribing to God the characteristics of man. Yet, as God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). Instead of simply correcting Moses, God permits Moses to question such an assumption against his own experience of God: “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people?” The Lord responds, no longer referring to the Hebrews as “your” people but reaffirming them as “His” people.
Certainly, patience and mercy are the dominant themes of this Sunday’s readings. The choice of a golden calf was not accidental but a calculated dismissal of the Lord. The Hebrews had abandoned God in preference for the Egyptian Apis cult of the Sacred Bull, often associated with the Egyptian gods Ptah and Osiris. It was a ritual detachment from the God of Abraham and an ironic dedication to the gods of Egypt.
Still, God’s response is not wrath but patience and mercy, attributes of God praised in St. Paul’s confession, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated” and the Psalmist’s plea, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness.” Moses, the Psalmist, and St. Paul seem to cry out in unison, “A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn,” with St. Paul adding, “I was mercifully treated, so that in me . . . Christ Jesus may display all his patience.” The lost have been reclaimed by mercy.
PURSUED BY GOD
Perhaps the most poignant depictions of God’s mercy are the three parables from today’s Gospel. John Paul II called Luke’s Gospel “The Gospel of Mercy.”
Recalling God’s words through the prophet Ezekiel — “Look! I myself will search for my sheep” (Ezekiel 34:11) — Jesus reasserts that God is one who pursues those apart from him, like a shepherd chasing after a lost sheep, a parable taken by St. Gregory the Great to be a metaphor for the Incarnation. God is so replete with love and mercy that despite our brokenness, despite being “depraved” and “stiff-necked,” God determined to continue pursuing us even if it demanded becoming one of us, mounting our humanity upon himself like a shepherd carrying a lost sheep.
Similarly, St. Augustine, asserts, “You, though you were only man, wished to be God; and you were lost. He, though He was God, wished to be man that He might find what had been lost.” In taking our flesh, God searches for us by lowering to us, like a woman crouching low to find her lost coin, as St. Augustine writes elsewhere: “We fell, he descended: we lay low, he stooped.”
God seeks those lost out of misguided foolishness, like a sheep which has wandered off. God seeks those lost due to circumstances, like a fallen coin. God seeks those lost out of deliberate rebellion, like the heart of a prodigal son. God seeks the lost because it is his nature to do so. It is his nature to be mercy. Pope Benedict XVI puts it this way: “When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after his lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are not mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity.”
God is mercy. Let us, too, “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
SHAWN REEVES has served as the director of religious education at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center in Champaign since 2001. He and his family are members of St. Malachy Parish in Rantoul.