The mercy of God is nowhere more graphically and pictorially recounted than in chapter fifteen of St. Luke’s Gospel account. The popular titles of these three Lucan parables place all the emphasis on the delinquent characters – the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son. Again mankind’s inherent selfishness turns the attention toward himself! But when properly titled, these parables of the good shepherd, the diligent housewife and the merciful father properly draw striking attention to the “loving kindness” of the heavenly Father toward unruly mankind, to the heartfelt benevolence of the merciful God toward his errant sons and daughters. St. Luke would certainly want these three parables, unique to his Gospel account, to highlight God’s generosity much more than man’s waywardness
In each of these three parables, there is a certain recklessness, a certain irrationality, about the mercy and love of God. The good shepherd who left behind the ninety-nine sheep to seek out the one stray would return to discover his entire flock unhappily scattered over the hillside. Sheep do not have a herding instinct like cattle. They simply follow their nose munching grass. Ignoring the flock to rescue the wanderer is very risky business! A widow with ten precious coins would be quite well off by ancient Palestinian standards. To search all day for a single coin and then to invite her neighbors to share her success would easily lead to the conclusion that the widow was compulsive, perhaps even greedy. But then again God, like the widow, is indeed compulsive about recovering lost sinners!
In his 1980 encyclical letter, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), Pope St. John Paul II analyzes in great detail the parable of the merciful father and his profligate son. His holiness first observes that the son asks the father for “my share of your estate.” The young man is prematurely asking his father for an inheritance – a not-so-subtle way of wishing his father was dead. Alienation is already present. The son soon dissipates his fortune and is reduced to feeding pigs, certainly significant of a loss of dignity. The youth is also experiencing severe hunger: “He longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.” Then, illustrative of the young man’s depravity, his bodily hunger urges him to return home more than his loss of dignity: “‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.” His comfort is still more important to him than his self-respect.
The over-the-top response of the father upon the wasteful son’s return is intentionally baffling: “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him…his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ And they began to make merry.” The father’s attitude borders on the rash. Certainly the young son should be somewhat answerable for his careless conduct. The dismissive attitude of the older brother seems much more reasonable: “When your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” But the reckless, irrational, unreasonable response of the father upon his rebellious son’s return is precisely the point of this Lucan parable and precisely the implication of God‘s mercy. “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” God’s mercy defies rational explanation. God’s mercy confounds human logic. Divine mercy will not be inhibited.
The Jewish scholar Claude G. Montefiore held strongly that these three parables emphasize Jesus’ most absolutely new revelation: “The idea of a God who will invite the sinner back is not new; the idea of a God who will welcome the sinner back is not new; but the idea of a God who will go and seek for the sinner, and who wants believers to do the same, is something completely new.” God is indeed “dives in misericordia,” i.e., “rich in mercy,” and his followers should be, too!