Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 15)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) noted author of “Mere Christianity,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Four Loves” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” was not always a believing Christian. In his work, “Surprised by Joy,” he describes the final moment of his coming to faith in this manner:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him of whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 (May 22) I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? … The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compassion is our liberation.”

In this moment of faith the door to the soul is opened from the inside and God’s loving mercy fills the heart. The last line in Lewis’ description, “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compassion is our liberation,” echoes the readings for Sunday’s liturgy. God reaches out to human beings, weak as we are, to draw them into the fire of divine love.

The passage from the Gospel according to St. Luke recalls a group of tax collectors and sinners (presumably public or notorious sinners) to hear Jesus speak. The invisible radiance of his compassion draws them close. They want to listen. Some Pharisees and scribes who are watching this react with a blinding cynicism, saying: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus then offers three parables sometimes referred to as the “parables of the lost.” The first is the lost sheep. The second is the lost coin. The third is the lost son.

There is a build up as Jesus tells the stories. Common to all is the rejoicing that occurs when something that was lost, and very valuable to the person who lost it, is found. Remarkable in the first two parables is that the object that was lost would probably not be considered of much value in absolute terms. Yet the person who lost these items sees in them a value beyond measure or quantification. The search is continual until that which is lost is found, and the finding is met with great rejoicing.

Jesus uses these two stories to speak to us of God’s gracious, compassionate, steadfast and determined love. He is the shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep. He is the woman who sweeps the house, not stopping until she finds the lost coin. The sheep and coin represent the one who has “lost” his or her way, has gotten on the wrong path in life, has become distracted or forgetful of God. Jesus wants us to understand that God does not relent in his seeking out what was lost. He wants them to be found and rejoices when they are found. The third story — that of the commonly called “Prodigal Son” — brings it all together.

The younger son, forsaking the father and his family, leaves the father’s household. He squanders his inheritance. As a result, he becomes destitute. He has reached the bottom. As he reflects on this he thinks he is as far away from his father as could be possible, and not just in spatial terms.

Yet the Father is not far from Him. The Father remains steadfast in his love. He earnestly and patiently waits for the son’s return. He is on the lookout ready to welcome him back at a moment’s notice. He does not force the son’s return but waits with open arms to receive him. All it takes is for the son to respond. He begins the journey back and once the father sees him, albeit while the son was “still a long way off,” the father rushes out to greet him with great joy and a loving embrace.

The son was in need of healing. The father recognized this all along. His love and compassion were never absent from the journey, in fact it was his love and mercy that were leading the son home. From the moment the son came to him asking for his inheritance to the time of his return, the Father loved him. The healing begins when the son recognizes that his father’s love is boundless. The story reaches a climax when the son returns seeking forgiveness and is completed in his father’s loving embrace.

St. Paul gives a personal witness to divine love. He can offer nothing but thanksgiving to the God who loves him, forgives him and gives him life. He says: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated …. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

God’s love is ever present. His love never goes away. When we get lost on the journey, take the wrong path or become absorbed with ourselves, God is always there seeking us out. The unseen Father draws us in, moves us to repentance and embraces us with mercy. For, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compassion is our liberation.”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.