“Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.” 1 Timothy 1, 12-17
The Pharisees growled: “He takes in sinners and even eats with them.”…Then you call your neighbours and say: “I’m so happy, because I have found my lost sheep…because I have found the coin that I lost…because your brother was lost and has been found.” Luke 15, 1-32
Today’s readings lead us to reflect on God as someone who is forgiving. Is God really forgiving and just how forgiving? The first reading from Exodus gives us an insight into Moses exercising his persuasive powers with great skill. He is courageous enough to say to God: “You have no choice other than to be forgiving. Otherwise, all you have done for your people up till now will be a great waste of divine time and energy, and the Egyptians will have the last laugh.” Moses went on to remind God of the divine promises previously made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The second reading from Timothy follows up with Paul speaking eloquently of God’s forgiveness demonstrated in the compassion of Jesus: “Here is a true saying for your complete acceptance and belief: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I’m the worst of them, but God was merciful to me so that Christ Jesus could show his full patience in dealing with me” (1 Timothy 1, 15-16). The gospel reading presents the ultimate case for God’s forgiveness with the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the incredibly forgiving father. These parables are supported by the reputation for forgiveness and acceptance that Jesus enjoyed among the earliest Christians: “This man welcomes outcasts and sinners and even eats with them” (Luke 15, 2).
But implied in the reality of God’s forgiveness is our readiness to repent, and the word repentance, taken into English from Greek, refers to the price to be paid for having destroyed someone else’s property. To be in need of repentance is to be guilty of having destroyed God’s property. But let’s not get anxious about God’s call to repentance. It is founded on God’s affirmation of our basic worth and dignity. It presupposes that we are valuable to God. It’s rather like being taken aside and shaken up by a friend who believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. And let’s face it: one of our greatest difficulties is really believing that we are worthy of God’s love, that God calls us friends. When we truly repent, we rue the times when we thought so little of ourselves and others.
The younger son of today’s third parable had experienced a sense of loss, and the pain that goes with it. That’s an experience we have all had. The circumstances of life have led us sometimes to drift away from friends, from promises and commitments, from responsibilities we have undertaken and even from faith in God. Others of us feel a deep sense of loss when we see our leaders showing little or no concern for the earth that is home to us, for the way in which water, energy and natural resources are wasted and polluted. Still others experience bewilderment and loss when they see street crime on the rise in their neighbourhood or witness mass killings of innocent people on their streets and in their shopping malls, bus stations and places of worship. They wonder if the society to which they belong has lost its bearings. And we all experience a sense of deep loss when we see the young and vulnerable physically, emotionally and sexually abused in our schools and churches by those whom they had a right to trust.
In addition to these losses, there is loss which accompanies significant transition times in our lives, such as the moving from adolescence to young adulthood, the mid-life crisis, the loss of a loved one, and retirement from full-time employment. These are all times when we experience a sense of loss. Reflecting on these various senses of loss in the context of today’s three readings reminded me of a book that was a best-seller over forty years ago. It was written by Gail Sheehy, a prominent journalist and public speaker. Her book was entitled Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (Bantam Books, N.Y. 1974), and in it she described how being caught up in a mass-shooting in Northern Ireland changed her life forever, and as profoundly as today’s second reading recounts how Paul’s life was changed on the road to Damascus when the Spirit of Jesus tracked him down and made him welcome.
Sheehy recounted how, after dragging herself from under the bodies of strangers who had been massacred, she called her partner in New York. His response was heartless: “Well, I told you, just interview the Irish women.” It left her feeling completely alone and unsupported. Later, she was able to write how she felt:
“From the moment I hung up on that non-conversation, my head went numb, my scalp shrank. Some dark switch was thrown and a series of weights came to roll across my brain. I had squandered my one wish to be saved. The world was negligent. Thirteen could perish - or thirteen thousand - I could perish - and tomorrow it would all be beside the point.”
She went on to tell how, now at the age of thirty-five, she had been living her life as a performer, playing a role, rather than being a full participant. The crisis she had experienced brought her back to her senses and made her see that it had brought her to a critical turning point. She had experienced a sense of loss and had realised that she felt lost and totally alone. Her glamour career had evaporated. That’s the kind of experience we hear Paul telling Timothy about in today’s second reading. Paul was probably in his fifties when he had his conversion experience. A sudden realisation hit him like a ton of bricks. He saw the people who supported him and the praise he depended on suddenly disappear. In telling Timothy that he had been arrogant, a blasphemer and the worst of sinners, he admitted to his vulnerabilities and let go of the secrets in his heart that really imprisoned him. He could not have been more lost than that. In his own words he spelled out the depths to which he had sunk and how he had been rescued: “Not only was I lost, but I was found…by God’s unspeakable mercy in Jesus”.
That’s the theme woven into the three parables of the gospel and today’s other readings. Coming home, recovering from our experiences of loss is all about allowing ourselves to be found by a God who searches us out rather than about anything we do ourselves. The best we can do is to recognise that our neediness is real and that it can be satisfied by none other than God. Recovering from our loss and coming home to ourselves, to one another and to God is the work of a God who loves us more than we will ever imagine.