My friends, I would guess that you, like me, had to wonder a bit hearing the first reading from Exodus today. Here we have a “God” depicted through the words of Moses who is definitely lacking in one of the key components that we all would look for in a loving God—the quality of “mercy.” In fact, Moses seems more compassionate and understanding than does God, and he has to basically talk “his God” into acting more like God.
We question why God is depicted this way, and all that I can come up with is that the people of Moses’ time, as we have discussed before, saw their God more as a reflection of themselves, then of the loving entity that God was. Often, in the Old Testament, it is the prophets, like Moses, who call out the best in the people when “God” apparently falls short. It would take Jesus coming among us, to show who God truly is!
Few of you probably remember Pope John Paul I because he was only pope for a month, dying far too soon, and as one reads about him and his life, he had much that he could have offered our beleaguered Church. Some have even thought and wrote about the fact that this otherwise, very healthy man may have had some help in dying before his time. Regardless, this John Paul was said to have not liked the “God” of the Old Testament! My guess is that the Old Testament God, as depicted here by Moses, was a far cry from the God depicted by our brother Jesus.
The remainder of the readings for today uplift the quality of mercy—in Paul’s letter to Timothy, his young convert, and also in the gospel of Luke, where in the long version that we used today, we are gifted with three versions of our merciful God: the Good Shepherd who will always search out the lost one, the woman who turned her house upside down looking for a lost coin—which by the way, is the same story as the Good Shepherd, only giving a feminine face to our loving God.
The final face of God given us to consider in this lengthy reading from Luke is probably, in my mind, the most beautiful depiction Jesus gave us of who our God truly is—the story of the “Prodigal Son,” but more so, the “Prodigal Parent.” The son shows us, “over-the-top” selfishness, and disregard for the mores of his family and community, and the parent shows, “over-the-top” love, and acceptance, regardless of mores, for the errant child, and thus, we, today, get a clear view of how God will look upon us as well.
In order for us to truly get a view of what Jesus is saying here about God in using the story of the Prodigal, it is important for us to look at how the people in Jesus’ time and culture would have heard and understood it.
An inheritance was given to an offspring at the death of the parent. In this story, the son asks for it early—the first custom broken which shows disrespect for the parent, which the parent dismisses and gives the inheritance anyway.
Now it would have been one thing had the son gone out and used the inheritance wisely, but as the story reveals, this was not the case. When the son, who eventually becomes penniless and is basically starving, having squandered his father’s gift, comes to his senses and returns, expecting to no longer be treated as a “son,” but as a “servant,” he discovers instead, the over-the-top love of his father.
It is good to look further into the cultural mores of this time, to get a better—more complete view of the parent’s action. The story tells us that the father “runs” to meet his son. This is important because the custom would have been for the “errant one” to be met at the city gates by a representative of the community, who would have broken a clay pot at the person’s feet, signifying that the relationship with the community had been broken, and going forward, “the sin” would always be remembered.
The Prodigal Dad, wanting to spare the child that humiliation, runs ahead, meets him, and lovingly takes him home. In our time, we would say, this dad “had his son’s back!”
And this notion of God, “as merciful” is fine nuanced in Paul’s letter to Timothy where Paul relates the sins of his former life and proclaims the “mercy” he was shown by the God of Jesus, [when he] “did not know what he was doing in his unbelief.”
So my friends, because “mercy” is so dominant the theme today, I used some literary license in changing the psalm response to the prayer of the 23rd psalm, “Shepherd Me O’ God and used it likewise for the Prayers of the Faithful. Where psalm 51 indicates the first action needed, “I will rise up and return to my God,” the 2nd response is the on-going prayer of one who wants God to always show them the way.
In conclusion then, the heartfelt words of Paul to Timothy, “that he did not know what he was doing in his unbelief,” seem perhaps, a response to much that is wrong in our Church and world today. We must all pray that the God who loves us so much will show us—shepherd us, into the best ways of being for ourselves and for others. Amen?