The readings of this weekend speak of the joy that flows from finding the lost. Paul was lost and recounts his personal story. His conversion as a repentant sinner resonates with God’s loving mercy and compassion as he shares with Timothy the immense benefits of grace through Christ. Paul is clear on this, the message of salvation is “trustworthy and deserves full acceptance,” because Christ came into this world to save sinners.
In the gospel, Jesus uses three parables to explain God’s love and mercy but significantly his patience in waiting for the return of the lost. Like the shepherd who searches for the one lost sheep out of his one hundred sheep or the woman who searches for her one lost coin out of ten, Jesus’ mission is to search for lost people because God loves and cares for souls and wants to share life with them. The joy in finding each of these items is significant. And the beatific image captured here is important for us as anticipation of the triumphant joy in heaven as Christ says, “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.”
The beauty of the stories in the parables is that Jesus makes them easily relatable. He uses familiar images to communicate God’s love -the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son. The owners of these items and the father of the lost son all show desperation at their losses. Each demonstrates great compassion in the recovery of their lost item. The Greek word used to explain this commitment is “splagchnizomai” which denotes “to be moved in the depths of one’s being.”
The response of the father to his son’s request to have his share of the property and his subsequent reaction to receiving him back after his squandering the money teach us lessons about human freedom. God allows us to use our freedom to make choices. Sometimes we make silly choices, at other times we make great and wise choices. Whatever we decide to do is left to us, but the consequences come back to either make us better or harm us. But God still looks out for us and waits. In the prodigal son’s story, the Bible shows what has been described as the most poignant picture of God as a loving and merciful Father. He does not ask the son questions about what and where he is going with the share of his money. He does not ask him questions about what he did while he is away. He is not concerned about the past, but rather expresses joy at the return and even throws a party to celebrate his restoration.
We all love St. Anthony of Padua because he is the patron saint of lost items, no matter how big or small the missing item is. The reason is that there is always pain associated with loss. There is always anticipation for the discovery of what is lost. That anticipation is always alive. One writer described St. Anthony as the guy we turn to when we lose our car keys. Or can’t find the television remote. Or maybe when we’re looking for our reading glasses. And that St. Anthony even hears from those who do not believe in prayers or from absent-minded Catholics all the time about the innumerable mundane and silly things we lose track of throughout our days. The shepherd left his ninety-nine sheep in search of the one lost, so also the woman left her nine coins to go after one lost coin. The prodigal father’s love was in search of the lost son, too. In the end, we see the excitement at the recovery of that which was lost.
The message in these parables is for us to experience the strength of God’s love for sinners. God’s words to the prophet are clear, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezk. 33:11). Sin does not just mess us up, it takes us away from the richness of God’s love. Sin takes off the finest robe that we receive at baptism. It casts off the ring which is our consent to God and to renounce evil. Sin knocks off the sandals of safety from our feet. It excludes us from the banquet feast of God’s Lamb in the Blessed Eucharist. Sin exposes and ridicules us to the point of starvation from God’s love. The prodigal son felt it when he went away and became a beggar whereas abundance flows in his father’s house.
We have possibly been listening to the story of the prodigal son from our 4th/5th grades in elementary school, or as we prepared to do our First Holy Eucharist, but it is one story that we cannot get used to. What does this story mean for you? How does it speak to you? What images of the Father do you have and how much have you experienced the Father’s love? Are you aware of the compelling nature of his presence even when you’re in a state of sin? From time to time we hear the question of whether God is giving up on us. It does not matter how far gone you are or how weak you consider yourself, what matters is to understand how strong the love of God searches you out.
In her wisdom, the Church puts forward God’s embrace towards the sinner in the sacrament of penance. In that sacrament, the finest robe is put on sinners. The ring of love is put on your finger. The fattened calf is slaughtered for you as it prepares and invites you back into the great feast of the Blessed Eucharist. I was reading this beautiful exhortation by Archbishop Fulton Sheen and would connect this joy of finding the lost to his saying about the sacrament of penance: “God in His great mercy, has instituted the sacrament by which the sins committed after baptism may be remitted. No human being would ever have thought of this sacrament of reconciliation for it is something like a resurrection; we rise after we are dead. It is a journey back again to God. It enables us to get rid of infections before they become chronic diseases and epidemics. The sacrament of reconciliation is the inflowing of God’s mercy, an opportunity for the increase of the grace of Calvary. It is a medicine for the soul, the healing of our wounds, a homecoming, an undoing of the past; an opportunity to get a fresh start in life, another bath, a kind of secondary baptism.”
If you ask me where this joy of both returning and of finding what was lost begins, I would say it starts right at that moment when you step into the confessional and say, “Bless me Father for I have sinned.” The angels explode because of your presence. The saints sing. The heavens echo songs of joy. And the Father rises up and says, “Let the party begin, for this my child was dead and has come back to life again; he was lost and has been found. Now we must celebrate.” It does not matter what the elder son thinks of you, Christ indeed “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Let’s get back to our senses and go back to the Father of love and mercy.
Readings: 1st- Ex. 32:7-11, 13-14; 2nd- 1 Tim. 1:12-17; Gospel- Lk. 15:1-32