Mercy triumphs over justice

Father John A. Kiley
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The Gospel according to St. Luke has rightly been characterized as the Gospel of Mercy. And no better evidence is needed than the three Lucan parables to be proclaimed at Mass this coming Sunday. Preachers, the faithful, and even printed Bibles label these three parables, unique to St. Luke, as The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and the Lost (or Prodigal) Son. Even when believers read the Bible, mankind’s fallen nature is dominant and humanity understands these Scriptural vignettes to be centered on mankind’s innate tendency to go astray like a wandering lamb, or to be far afield like a misplaced coin, or to drift into depravity like the wayward son. Certainly this triple indictment of mankind’s perversity is valid: “In sin was I born and in sin did my mother conceive me,” the Psalmist rightly laments.

Yet the true significance of these three celebrated parables is not the light they shed on man’s fallen nature, but rather the emphasis they intend on God’s merciful nature. These parables are not primarily about lost sheep or lost coins or lost progeny. Their chief lesson does not concern sin. Their intended message is the intensive and sweeping mercy of God. Accordingly, publishers of Bibles notwithstanding, these Scriptural sketches should rightfully be entitled The Good Shepherd, The Diligent Housewife and, in particular, The Merciful Father. The mercy of God is the principal and vital point of these parables; the blunders of mankind simply provide the occasion for God to display his true colors.

The authentic mercy of God evidenced, in fact, emphasized by these three parables is not simply a message of Divine kindness or Godly sympathy or Heavenly benevolence. God’s love is more than tender; God’s love borders in the foolish. These Lucan tales admirably illustrate that the mercy of God is rash and reckless, sometimes even ridiculous. God’s love and mercy frankly defy common sense.

Herding sheep is like herding cats. Unlike cattle, sheep have no herding instinct. They just roam hither and yon, nose to the ground, nibbling grass and totally oblivious to the wolf or the briar patches or the cliff edge that endangers them. Sheep desperately need a shepherd. But it would be the foolhardy shepherd who would leave the ninety-nine to their aimless wanderings while pursuing a single lost lamb or goat. The whole flock would be lost to the wolf or the cliff. And this is precisely St. Luke’s intended lesson. The shepherding action of God is madcap; his love is daft by human estimation; all things considered, his mercy is quite whacky. And so the sinner should take heart.

Coins and especially a stash of coins would have been a rare commodity in the Biblical world. A widow with ten silver pieces would have been quite well-to-do in Christ’s time. And certainly her neighbors would have been keenly aware of her ample resources. Misplacing one coin might certainly have been distressing but eventually rediscovering that one coin would hardly have been the occasion for a neighborhood celebration. “Doesn’t that old fussbudget have enough reserves without her rubbing our noses in it by celebrating her good fortune?” envious neighbors would be quick to suggest. Yet, when it comes to her coins, this senior citizen has no shame. She treasures her coins; she values her coins; she won’t apologize for her coins. As with God’s mercy, the widow’s concern for her coins is over the top. Again, the sinner should take heart.

What parent on earth would not be proud, and perhaps somewhat relieved, to have the elder son in the parable of the Merciful Father listed among their progeny. “All these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders.” Undoubtedly, and justly, it was this youth who deserved the sandals, the ring, and the fine garments, to say nothing of the fattened calf. Yet the Divinely merciful father bestows his clearly undeserved largesse on the delinquent lad, the ne’er–do-well, the loser, much to the understandable chagrin of the older sibling. Again, God’s mercy, reflected in the Biblical father’s spontaneous compassion, defies human explanation. Again, the hurting sinner should take heart.

Happily for mankind, God’s mercy is subordinate to his justice, as Dom Aelred Graham noted years ago. In fact, mercy triumphs over justice, as this Sunday’s triple parabolic presentation teaches. Sinners should indeed take heart. God not only forgives; he forgets. And eagerly restores the sinner to his proper place in the flock, in the cache, in the family.