The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!' I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, "O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, 'I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
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. (R./)
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. (R./)
O Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall declare your praise.
My sacrifice, a contrite spirit;
a humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn. (R./)
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen.
[or shorter version 15:1-10 only the text in italics]
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. "Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father.
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-the best one-and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'
Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
Most people find it hard to forgive the wrongs they suffer. Perhaps the resented incident was deliberate, or it might have been unintentional. But some go through life harbouring grudges, making themselves miserable because they will not let bygones be bygones. They feel quite unable to consign to the past events of years ago, and still smoulder with resentment.
Because we can feel like this, we might imagine God waiting to settle accounts with us some day. Because we can be vindictive, we project our attitude onto God. Such a notion of God seems to be in our first reading today. In this story Moses seems to be more merciful than God When the people fell into idolatry and worshipped the Golden Calf, God turns aside from his anger and give his people another chance only because Moses intercedes on their behalf. How different is the picture of God that Jesus presents in his parable. The father is not an angry God who wants to judge us harshly, but a welcoming God who wants to be close to us, and forgive all our foolishness. God is like the loving parent who has lost a child, and cannot rest until the child is safely home.
There are painful signs that the spirit of hatred, anger and revenge is alive and well in our world today. Proxy civil wars are stirred up and prolonged by outside powers, with masses of guns and weapons of mass destruction piled up and waiting to be used. Some have stockpiled chemical weapons while others have nuclear bombs enough to destroy the whole planet. How conflicted are the views of politicians who talk of spreading democracy, but can rain down destruction from the safety of drones, high in the atmosphere.
Forgiveness is fine when we ask for it for ourselves. But what about letting others be forgiven? The father in the parable throws such a huge party that the noise is heard out in the fields. Are we also willing to celebrate, if peace can be reached without revenge or punishment? Or are we like the sullen elder brother who resents celebrating the return of his lazy, irresponsible younger brother? Can we accept that God offers mercy to everyone, no matter what they have done? If we are to be truly Christian, we have to change our view of other people, and to see them as God does, with understanding and of mercy. The Prodigal Son story has no clear ending. We don't know if the elder brother eventually went in to join in the celebrations, or stayed outside, seething with self-righteousness. There is no ending, because it is not just a story, it is a challenge to each of us. How would you end the story? Would you go in or stay outside?
God loves the just but does not ignore the sinner, for whom there is always a place in his kingdom. The church is not an exclusive club. The Pharisees resent God's mercy. The parable of the lost sheep does not deny the goodness of the virtuous majority but makes the point that there's a special place for the repentant sinner. The lost coin is important to the careful housewife, and her joy at its recovery is shared because it is deeply felt. The sum may be modest but it's sentimental value matters a lot to her. All are V.I.P.s in God's eyes, and especially what was lost and found.
But there is another side to this story: the Prodigal Son "came to his senses." He opened his eyes to see, his ears to hear; he reached out for help, and got in touch with reality. The father's welcome was extraordinary, but it could only happen because the son came back home. Are we willing to let the Father embrace us, and are we prepared to come to our senses too? His mercy is there for any of us who turn to him with all our hearts.
The parable of the prodigal son is a classic of narrative skill that is timelessly relevant. We need to know that a loving Father awaits our return home. We also need the reminder that the same loving God expects us to forgive one another and to keep in touch with one another. The joy of a son's homecoming was spoiled for the father by the sulking of the elder brother.
How sad that the elder brother resented his brother for having been such a waster in the past? God wants us all to be merciful. Leaving people helpless is no part of his plan. Though living under the same roof, the elder son was isolated from his father. Focussed on his own rights and needs, he could not stomach his brother's safe return. Calling him "this son of yours" must have grieved his father. Faithful and dutiful disciples need to be open to welcome home the wild ones, even the apparent wasters, for that is how things are done "up above", according to Jesus.