Reading I: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Psalm: 51:3-4, 12-13, 17-19
Reading II: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Gospel: Luke 15:1-32
God is joyful! And what is the joy of God? The joy of God is forgiving, the joy of God is forgiving! The joy of a shepherd who finds his little lamb; they joy of a woman who finds her coin; it is the joy of a father welcoming home the son who was lost, who was as though dead and has come back to life, who has come home. Here is the entire Gospel! Here! The whole Gospel, all of Christianity is here!
These stunning words are those of Pope Francis, commenting on the same gospel passage as today’s in his Angelus message on September 15, 2013. At least several New Testament scholars would agree: in these three parables we find the entire gospel, the entire message of Christianity. One scholar I once read remarked that if by some fluke the entire New Testament would be lost completely, but we still had only had these three parables, we would have saved its entire message. The name of God is mercy. The face of mercy is Jesus. As Francis quotes Thomas Aquinas in Evangelii Gaudium: ‘it is proper to God to have mercy, through which God’s omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree” (EG 37).
God’s mercy is extravagant, and today’s readings overflow with that extravagance. God’s wrath against the people with their Golden Calf is over the top: “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.” But all that Moses has to do is to remind God of the promises made to the beloved “servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,” and such blazing wrath turns on a dime. Turns into mercy. Over the top.
Paul writes in his letter to Timothy that “indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Although, he says, he had been “a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant,” he had been “mercifully treated”—and he uses that phrase twice!
God’s mercy risks the safety of a whole flock to save one stray. God’s mercy is like a desperate woman searching for what is perhaps her daily livelihood—only to spend it on a lavish (for her) celebration when she finds it. God’s mercy is NOT like a perfect but jealous son, but much more like a jubilant father, more prodigal in his mercy than in the wastefulness of his prodigal son.
Several years ago, I read a reflection on a daily scripture reflection webpage published by the University of Notre Dame on the first of the parables, but I think that it speaks to all three. It was written by a young mother named Sarah Lamphier. The week previous to her writing, Ms. Lamphier remembers, her toddler son dropped one of the cheerios he was eating into his lap. “’Uh-oh,” he said, and “began searching frantically under his tray for the missing piece of cereal.” His mother assured him that he had plenty of cheerios left, but “he ignored me until he eventually squealed with delight and showed me his recovered treasure with a toothy grin.” “I suppose,” she reflects, “this is how God loves each one of us ‘little ones,’ even when we stray from the flock: illogically, undeservedly, joyfully.”
And intensely. The poet Denise Levertov writes about living within the mercy of God. Among the metaphors she explores is the abundance, power, and intensity of a waterfall, “flinging itself / down and down / to clenched fists of rock . . . not mild, not temperate . . . Vast flood of mercy.”
Every minute, every day, the waterfall plunges downward. Every minute, every day, God does God’s favorite thing: seeks, searches, looks longingly from afar—and forgives. Our readings today, especially the gospel so familiar to us, reminds us of this once again. Come to the water.