They are never out of range of God's mercy. Never.
Most of us know what it's like to ache for someone who is "lost." A daughter or friend has cut herself off from the family; a son or neighbor has turned his back on the Church; someone we love has set out on a path of self-destruction. We encourage, instruct, prod and pray, to no apparent avail.
Our heart aches.
Lent is the perfect time to surrender these loved ones to God, as we reflect on our own repentance and conversion; for just as God is drawing us to himself, so is he waiting patiently for them, never giving up on them, for in his eyes everyone is of inestimable value.
On a Lenten Sunday we hear the parable of the prodigal son, which in Luke 15 is the climax of three parables about "lost" things. Looking at the context in which Jesus tells them helps us understand where he is heading - and gives us hope for our own lost ones.
Luke 15 begins with the high-minded grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees, who have observed Jesus spending time with tax collectors and sinners. "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them," they gossip. As far as they are concerned, that is proof enough of his unrighteousness. Jesus responds with parables to explain what he is doing and why.
A single sheep is lost while 99 others stay put, but the shepherd goes after the lost one. A woman has 10 silver pieces and loses just one, but she turns the house upside down until she finds it. In both cases, the result is sheer delight at finding what was lost; friends and neighbors are called in to share the joy.
It almost seems that the rejoicing is out of proportion to the finding. Was it really worth risking the safety of the 99 sheep to go on a wild goose chase for one straggler? And if nine of 10 coins are still securely in the cookie jar, is it worth losing a good night's sleep to recover only 10 percent? Why not cut your losses and move on?
The first two parables are about lost possessions, an animal and a coin. Luke uses them to introduce Jesus' main parable, about a lost soul. A young man absconds with his inheritance while his father is still alive, spends it all in short order, then finds himself homeless, reduced to caring for pigs. Things get so bad, and he is so hungry, that he would eat pig feed; but no one in this far-away land lifts a finger to give him anything. That's how much they notice his plight, how little they care.
But the father has not forgotten his runaway son. His heart aches so much for him, to whom he had literally given the shirt off his back (and would again, gladly), that from his front porch he strains his eyes scanning the hills to see if there is any sign of the lost one. Any sign at all.
When finally he catches sight of the runaway, he takes to his heels, rushing to embrace and escort him home. As in the other two parables, the rejoicing is extravagant, for the lost has been found. The father throws an out-of-proportion party for a delinquent son. It makes no sense to some, but to the father it makes perfect sense. His son hadn't just run away - he had died, and now he is alive again. They "must" celebrate and rejoice.
Jesus "must" eat with tax collectors and sinners! To some they were unsavory, unseemly, unrighteous characters; but to Jesus they were sheep without a shepherd. Had he not been sent by the Father to find them? How could he not be happy that they finally faced up to their wounds and disfigurements, that they regretted the dark roads they had taken, even if their motives for repentance were not yet pure? How could he not rejoice and invite others to join the celebration? He had been sent to bring them home.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - March 2019