The Pharisees and scribes complain that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response, Jesus offers three parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son (also referred to as the Prodigal Son). At the heart of each parable is the rejoicing that comes with the finding or returning. Each one, in its own way, focuses on the divine activity in seeking the lost so that they might be found.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep focuses not so much on the lost sheep but the shepherd who goes to extraordinary efforts to find the sheep. He has 100 sheep. He is concerned for all the sheep but gives special attention to the one who is lost.
He leaves the 99 to find the one who was lost. When he finds it he lifts it up and puts it on his shoulders to carry it home with great joy. Then he celebrates with his family and friends. The message is clear. The Lord goes after those who are lost, and when they turn to him, he rejoices: “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.”
The analogy continues with the Parable of the Lost Coin. Similar to the shepherd, the woman who looses the coin goes to great efforts to find it. Likewise, when she finds it she invites family and friends to celebrate. Jesus offers the interpretation: “in the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The third parable is much more detailed. The three characters and their relationships are richly described. One of the purposes of Jesus speaking in “parables” is to draw us into reflection and a “pondering” on his words. The Parable of the Prodigal Son (or perhaps more aptly “The Parable of the Forgiving Father”) certainly does this.
One of the most moving scenes in this parable is when the younger son turns himself around and begins his return to the father. While the son “was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.”
The love the father has for the son is great and powerful. The love is one that has already forgiven the son. The son had asked earlier for his share of the inheritance from his father. This was a great insult to the father, for no son would seek an inheritance while his father was living. Yet in response, the father allowed the son his freedom and his inheritance.
Now that he is on the way back, the father is overcome with compassion and runs out to meet the son. Not only that, but when they meet, the father does not wait for an apology but first embraces and kisses the son. The father knows the son’s remorse before he even puts words to it. Now the son speaks: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.”
The father’s response is to order his servants to get the finest robe, a ring and sandals for this son who has squandered his inheritance. He orders the celebration and the slaughtering of the greatly valued “fatted calf.” The mercy of the father is overwhelming.
The older son’s reaction invites us to consider another aspect of the father’s mercy. This son has been with his father all along. He has remained faithful and true yet something is missing as we see from his reaction to the Father’s mercy toward the younger brother.
The gratitude of the older son toward the father should allow him to rejoice in the brother’s return. However, that rejoicing is not present leading one to suspect that the older brother has not recognized the father’s mercy toward him. Rather than focusing on the graciousness of the father toward him, he emphasizes himself — “all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.”
The father’s response stresses his mercy in terms of both graciousness to the older son and forgiveness of the younger: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
We continue to celebrate the Year of Mercy. The three parables found in Sunday’s Gospel remind us of the power of God’s mercy. He invites us today to share in that mercy and to celebrate his offer of life for ourselves and for all people.