In all of the readings for this Sunday’s Mass, the one single point we are invited to meditate upon is the limitless mercy and compassion of God. This is a God who forgives and takes delight in the conversion of sinners. In the first reading, Moses intercedes on behalf of the people of Israel, and the Lord relents of the punishment He threatened to inflict upon them. St. Paul, writing to Timothy in the second reading, says, “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Finally, in the Gospel Jesus tells three parables that illustrate the lengths to which God goes in order to seek out and save what was lost.
The central figure in this week’s Gospel is God Himself. He is the Good Shepherd who goes out in search of the lost sheep. He is represented as a woman who, having lost a coin, sweeps out the whole house and is not satisfied until she finds it again. He is portrayed as the loving father who goes out every day to await the return of his prodigal son. In all these instances, we see the infinite love God has for His people who so often turn away from Him and, by giving in to temptation, squander the inheritance we have received.
Nowhere is God’s mercy and love more clearly revealed than in the parable of the prodigal son. This is essentially a story of conversion, one that matches our own lives in many ways. First, the younger son demands his share of the estate; he wants to leave his father’s home and live on his own, unmindful of the love his father has shown him. Are there not times in our own lives when we try to live apart from God? Here is the essence of sin: It consists in rebellion against God, or at least in indifference or forgetfulness of Him and His care. Yet whenever we try to put God out of our lives, we end up like the prodigal son: alone, impoverished and in despair.
It is at this point that the younger son’s life begins to change. “Coming to his senses at last,” the son begins to reflect on what he had in his father’s house and what he has now lost through his sinful actions. The memory of his father’s love and the good things he enjoyed at home, together with the recognition of his present state of unhappiness, provides the impetus to return home. This is a decision the son alone can make; although his father loves him and waits each day to catch a glimpse of him, the father does not force his son to come back. Conversion is always a free choice you and I must make; God continually invites us to return to His friendship and grace, but He will not force us to do anything we are unwilling to do. Like the prodigal son, each of us must make that decision for ourselves.
What do we find when we return to God? Like the prodigal son, we find a father who greets us and welcomes us home without dwelling on the past. We find a father who wants to restore our lost dignity, symbolized in the parable by “the finest robe,” the “ring on his finger and shoes on his feet.” We find a father whose love is able to reach down to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. When this happens, the person who receives God’s mercy “is found” and restored to value; he “was dead, and has come back to life.” Abraham Lincoln was once asked how he would treat the defeated Confederates when they asked to rejoin the Union after the Civil War had ended. The questioner expected that Lincoln would seek revenge, but he answered, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” It is the greatness of the love of God that He treats us like that.
We are all sinners to a greater or lesser degree. But no sinner was ever lost and no sinner will ever be lost because of his sins. Sinners are lost only because they will not trust and believe in God’s mercy and turn to Him in the sacrament of penance to ask for pardon. Each day, the Lord searches for us and calls us to return to our Father’s house. Listen to that call and turn to God today with a truly contrite heart. God will do the rest.