The National Catholic Review
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), Sept. 12, 2004
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness (Ps 51:3)

At first glance, ancient Israel’s insistence on being the chosen people of God may appear to be somewhat arrogant. A closer look, however, reveals that again and again the people admitted that they did not merit this distinction. Far from it! They were not slow to own up to their own inconstancy. They were a sinful people, undeserving of God’s love and care. And yet they were blest with them every step of the way. They were not a loyal people, but God was a merciful God.

In so many ways, we are not different from them. We have been called into a loving relationship with a God who has given us everything we need to live meaningful and productive lives. And yet we too "have turned aside from the way [God] pointed out to [us];" we too are a "stiff-necked" people. And how does God treat us in our sinfulness? God is merciful. Rather than destroy us, as God had decided to do to the Israelite people, God relents from punishing. Like those who went before us, we are given chance after chance to return to the embrace of a loving God.

Paul certainly knew the mercy of God. Previously he had persecuted those who believed in Jesus. Now he was one of his most devoted followers. And like his Israelite ancestors, Paul was not afraid to boast. He was strengthened by Christ Jesus and found to be trustworthy. But Paul was quick to insist that it was the mercy of God that made him trustworthy.

Jesus is emphatic about divine mercy. God, who is infinitely merciful toward sinners, actually goes out and looks for them, like a shepherd in search of a lost sheep or a woman looking for a lost coin. Then Jesus tells one of the most shocking parables of the entire Gospel tradition, the story of the “Prodigal Son.” It seems that God is more concerned with the fate of the sinner than with reward for the faithful. This is often troubling for people who have lived righteous lives. The story itself points to the resentment that they sometimes feel.

The mercy of God is a difficult teaching to accept if we judge ourselves, over against others, to be righteous and deserving of reward. But if we are honest with ourselves and can admit that we too are in desperate need of God’s mercy, we will realize that envy of others is out of place. Actually, we should find the Scripture message for today very comforting. God is eager to be merciful toward us, not vengeful and punishing. This is definitely good news, reason to celebrate and rejoice.

Dianne Bergatn,C.S.A., is professor of biblical studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Readings: Ex 32:7-11, 13-14; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1 Tm 1:12-17; Lk 15:1:32
  • To what extent does your faith influence the way you make decisions in your personal life? In your social life? In your life as a citizen of the country?
  • Are you resentful when others seem to avoid just punishment? Does this flow from a sense of justice or from envy?
  • Pray today's psalm slowly and thoughtfully, making its religious sentiments your own.

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