Today's Gospel is about how God, being the Good Shepherd and, more importantly, the Good Father, goes in search of those who are lost, those who are broken, those who need healing. In other words, God seeks out people like me. In our rush to get to the Parable of the Prodigal Son we often over look the context of the three parables that comprise our Gospel reading for this Sunday.
The context is the scribes and Pharisees, noticing how Jesus draws the "tax collectors and sinners" to himself, complain. Their compliant? "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." It is the importance of welcoming sinners that prompts Jesus to teach three parables in succession. Each of the parables presents a different way of explaining why he welcomes sinners. It is with the Parable of the Prodigal that importance turns into necessity. It becomes necessity because welcoming sinners and inviting them to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb is the very nature of God.
There's probably no passage in all of the Sacred Scriptures that provides us with a more beautiful, that is, truer picture of God the Father than the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is God, the God of Israel. This is the One God, living and true. The God who is love (1 John 4:8.16). Worshiping any other God is rank idolatry. The God worshiped by those who think they earn God's favor through what they call obedience is perhaps the most pernicious idol there is, making the Golden Calf from our first reading seem benign by comparison. God loves you as you are because God loves that you are. After all, God made you out of love in order to love.
By welcoming and dining with tax collectors, who were the lowest of the low for cooperating with and profiting from the occupying Romans, and sinners- prostitutes and other such folks- Jesus was demonstrating in reality what he taught in parables. These days it's even worse. The Lord goes even further than merely welcoming and dining with sinners. He invites such people, like me, to partake of his body and blood. We call this Eucharist. Thank you, Lord, for inviting a sinner like me to your table. Moreover, thank you for letting me serve at your table. What a privilege it is. I could never be worthy. Both my participation and service are graces.
The essence of my main point is captured in our epistle reading: "This saying is trustworthy and worthy of all acceptance: that Jesus the Anointed entered the cosmos to save sinners, among whom I am foremost" (1 Timothy 1:15- from David Bentley Hart's New Testament: A Translation). There is a reason we enact the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass (the vast majority of the time- the rest of the time the Sprinkling Rite still reminds us we need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb). There is a reason we all say out loud, just prior to receiving Holy Communion:
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healedJesus is the healer of your soul and my soul. The Eucharist is the medicine with which we are healed.
It's true that neither of these penitential rituals has the efficacy of the sacrament of penance, but sincere repentance is a matter of the heart. My heart is only known by God and by me. While always known to God, my heart is opaque to me at times. I can go to confession, make a good confession, and yet not be truly contrite or have a firm purpose of amendment.
Yet, I can be at Mass and have a moment of genuine repentance, feel contrition, and resolve, in my weakness, to strive to change what I need to change. By receiving the Eucharist, I seek the help I need, the medicine for my soul. In any case, I am in no position to judge the inward disposition of anyone else, ever! Neither are you, my friends.
Pope Francis asserts that Holy Communion "is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." Lest someone accuse the Holy Father (yet again) of straying from the Tradition, consider these words of St. Ambrose of Milan: "If, whenever Christ’s blood is shed, it is shed for the forgiveness of sins, I who sin often, should receive it often: I need a frequent remedy."
I think it beautiful that our Psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 51. This psalm is also known as the Miserere. It is the first psalm of Morning Prayer each Friday of the four week Psalter. This psalm provides the words of the Invitatory with which the Liturgy of the Hours begins each day: "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise" (Ps 51:17).
Even now Catholics are to observe each Friday, except those on which a solemnity falls, as a day of penance. This makes opening Morning Prayer with the Miserere very fitting. The verses of Psalm 51 that compromise our responsorial for this Sunday note that all I have to offer God by way of sacrifice "is a contrite spirit" (Ps 51:19). I make it in the confidence that God won't reject my offering of "a heart contrite and humbled" (Ps 51:19). Anyone who thinks s/he has more to offer God than this is an idolator. In the words the late Philip Roth placed in the mouth of his literary character Mickey Sabbath: "Whoever imagines himself to be pure is wicked."