SCRIPTURE READINGS: [  Ex 32:7-11.13-14; Ps 50:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-32 ]

The theme of mercy and forgiveness runs through all the three scripture readings today.  In fact, other than the recurrent motif of love in the bible, mercy is the next most important theme.  The mercy spelt in today’s liturgy is in relationship to the forgiveness of sins and for those who are lost in life.  The basis for being merciful is primarily the mercy of God.  It is God who always takes the initiative, not us.

In the second reading, we have St Paul who considered himself to be an exemplar of God’s abundant and inexhaustible mercy.  Truly, one cannot imagine a greater sinner than Paul. Humanly speaking, he deserved the most severe of punishments because many Christians and the lives of their loved ones were wrecked by his persecution of the Church.  Yet, not only did God forgive him but He even made him His apostle.  This is unthinkable if not scandalous. “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, and who judged me faithful enough to call into his service even though I used to be a blasphemer and did all I could to injure and discredit the faith.”

In the first reading, we also read of God’s restraint in punishing His people.  We can imagine how broken hearted the Lord was.  He had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, intending to bring them to the Promised Land.  But the people were impatient and always grumbling. Those of us who are parents and superiors will understand what it means to have our hands bitten by those whom we feed.  Indeed, ingrates are hard to stomach at times and they hurt us deeply especially when we have made much sacrifices and done so much for them.  So we can imagine how much God grieved over His unfaithful people.  He said, “I can see how headstrong these people are! Leave me, now, my wrath shall blaze out against them and devour them.”  But in the end, He “relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

In the gospel, we have three stories of those who were lost and found.  In the first story, we read of how the shepherd went in search of the lost sheep.  One might wonder how he could have left the ninety-nine behind and went looking for the lost sheep.  This is because we are thinking in terms of the monetary value of a sheep.  If you think that the sheep is just a thing that can be disposed of without any emotional ties, then perhaps, one should not spend too much time looking for the lost sheep.  But for God, we are not just sheep.  We are His people and His children. Everyone is individually and personally important to Him, just as a mother loves all her children regardless how intelligent or slow; pretty or ugly they are.  Even those children who are mentally and physically challenged are loved, if not more, by the mother.  In the eyes of the mother, every one of her children is the prettiest and loveliest.  So, too, with God in the way He values us.

Hence, God comes to search for us more than we search for Him.  As St Augustine says, unless He has first found us, we would not be able to find Him.  And when He finds us, He will joyfully bring us back.   Every lost sheep, every lost soul, is important to the Lord.  No one is without hope and no one is to be thought of as insignificant.  That is why no one should fall into despair or think that they cannot be saved or that God no longer loves them.  They only have to stop resisting the love and mercy of God.

In the second parable, we have the story of the lost coin.  Many of us might wonder what was the big deal about a lost coin.  The truth is that it was more than a coin.  That coin was part of a headdress given to a bride on her wedding day, just as we exchange rings today.  It was made of ten coins linked together by a sliver chain.  To lose one of the coins would make the chain incomplete.  So it has a sentimental value that even money cannot buy.  Anyone who is married and loves his or her spouse deeply would be in distress if one loses the wedding ring.  It cannot be simply replaced because it holds the memory of the joy of the wedding day.  Such things again cannot be seen in a materialistic way.  So, too, God’s love for us.  We are more than a coin in His eyes; we are precious to Him.  Even if one of His children were lost, He would be sad.  Indeed, when someone has left us because of death, divorce or misunderstanding, we cannot but feel incomplete every time we gather for a meal, especially on special occasions and festivals.  When one of our loved ones is not with us, even if we have all the rest, we are not truly happy.  We are only happy when all our loved ones are reunited in love.  So too, our God will not rest till all of us are found.

In the third parable, we have the famous story of the Prodigal Father.  Again, we see the magnanimity of the Father’s love and abundant mercy.  In spite of the insensitive and selfish action of the prodigal son, the Father continued to wait for Him, love Him and hope for his return.  And “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.”  Such was the love of the Father.  He did not even wait for him to complete his rehearsed apology.  Instead, without interrogating or reprimanding him, the Father gave him back his dignity.  “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.”  This indeed is the patient love of the Father.  Unlike the earlier two parables where God actively sought out the sinners, in this instance He waited.  This is to underscore that God is patient in love and does not force us to respond against our will.  When we are ready and come to our senses like the young son, He will give us the grace to be reconciled and our dignity restored.

Consequently, today, particularly in this jubilee year of mercy, we are called to act like the Heavenly Father.  Like St Paul, we are called to be an apostle of mercy.  We are to be merciful because our Father is merciful.  How, then, can we be apostles of mercy?  Firstly, we need to welcome them.  The preface to chapter 15 informs us that these parables were addressed not to the sinners but specifically to the so-called righteous Pharisees and the scribes because they were complaining that “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”   Like the elder son, many of us are self-righteous and judgmental.  We condemn sinners and ostracize them.  We read that the elder son refused to enter into the house of his father to celebrate the return of his younger brother.  He even denied all relationship with him by addressing him as the son of his father but not his brother.  This parable reinforces that we must be forgiving, tolerant and welcoming towards fellow sinners as we are not perfect either; and if we can live a holy life, it is only by the grace of God.

Secondly, we must realize that people sin because of ignorance.  St Paul himself explained that he was acting in ignorance.  “Mercy, however, was shown me, because until I became a believer I had been acting in ignorance; and the grace of our Lord filled me with faith and with the love that is in Christ Jesus.”  In the gospel, we are told that the younger son came to his senses during the time of famine. Often, through our sufferings that come from the consequence of our sins, we come to full realization, leading to sorrow and repentance.  Hence, at the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34)

Thirdly, many sin because of fear.  In the first reading, we can appreciate the weakness of the people.  Moses had left them behind and went up to the Mountain for 40 days and nights.  So they became restless and anxious about Moses. They needed the presence of God.  Hence, without Moses, they pressured Aaron to make for them a calf of molten metal so that they could offer worship and sacrifices to it.  Indeed, all the seven capital sins are rooted in fear -of our enemies, competitors and that we will never have enough or that we are not loved totally.

To be able to enter into the spirit of mercy and forgiveness of our Heavenly Father, the only pre-requisite is that we must first be recipients of God’s mercy.  We cannot give what we have not got.  Unless we know God’s mercy, how can we render mercy?  The reception of God’s mercy begins with acknowledgment of our own sins and imperfections, like King David who confessed humbly to his sin of adultery: “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, nor deprive me of your holy spirit. O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise. My sacrifice is a contrite spirit.   A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.”   So let us be like St Paul and King David in coming to the Lord with a contrite and humble heart.  Receiving His mercy and forgiveness, we can then go out to do the same.

Written by The Most Rev William Goh Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore