Have you noticed how the press and television manipulate images of well-known people? Some, like Pope Francis, are depicted as smiling. Others are given a more severe treatment or just caricatured – the hair styles of the present British PM and US President feature largely in cartoons.
Happiness and severity are not difficult to capture. But how do you picture mercy and mercifulness? Pope Francis achieved this with a memorable image when he hugged and blessed a young man with disabilities at one of the Wednesday general audiences at St Peter’s.
The theme of Sunday’s readings is mercy. The first from Exodus has God furious with the Israelites. He has brought them out of slavery in Egypt and they have repaid his mercy and generosity with worshipping other gods. He refers to them – speaking to Moses – as your people. He disowns them. But Moses pleads with God to be merciful. And God relents: ‘the Lord God changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people’.
The psalm begins with ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offences.’ This is the psalm used on Ash Wednesday and famous in its Latin form ‘Miserere’.
The First Letter to Timothy continues the theme of mercy. Although probably not written by St Paul, it voices the amazement that Paul has at God’s mercy. In his early life, Paul had been a leading persecutor of the Christians. You would think that this would have provoked God’s wrath but instead God grants Paul a vision of the risen Christ as he goes along the road to Damascus. This act of generosity and mercy changes Paul’s life completely. Through his personal experience of God’s generosity and mercy Paul is enabled to proclaim the mercy of God to others.
The gospel continues the theme with the two brief parables – that of the lost sheep and the lost coin – which introduce the great parable of the prodigal son. These draw on images that would have been readily accessible to their first audience.
They would have known the value of a flock of sheep and the value of a coin (possibly equivalent to the dowry of an ordinary young woman). The Pharisees who heard these stories would have been familiar with their theme of ownership and loss. They might have wondered, though, why Jesus was telling such stories when their criticism had been of the sort of company he kept: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’.
They are to imagine that God is like a shepherd who will risk his whole flock – leaving them unattended – so as find the single one that has gone astray. In other words, God will leave the majority who are in a right relationship with him to fend for themselves while he searches for the one who has sinned.
Or they are to imagine a woman searching high and low for a lost coin (perhaps we should imagine searching for a lost key, passport, vital document needed for a tax return?). God is like this, he searches for sinners in the hope of finding them and restoring them to his community, and when this happens the community should rejoice.