In preaching to Catholics, I find one of the most difficult biblical concepts to convey is that of God's forgiving mercy.

As we listen to Sunday's Gospel (Luke 15: 1-32), it seems the historical Jesus had the same problem. Because we live in a "quid pro quo" world, we can't understand how God constantly provides the quid without first having receiving our quo.

That's why Jesus hammers away at this mystery in Luke's famous chapter 15, first telling two short parables about a lost sheep and a lost coin, then closing with a long narrative about a lost child.

Mercy me

In each case, there's joy, amazement, and illogical celebrating after the lost object or person has been found. The prodigal father's older son summarizes the situation well: "All these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns, who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf." How does one show mercy without alienating those who don't need mercy?

Even the author of I Timothy is amazed at God's generosity (1: 12-17). Reflecting on the mercy Christ Jesus showered on Paul - and writing in the "persona" of Paul - he exclaims, "I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus."

God's prodigal forgiveness is impossible to understand, especially if we hear about it in the context of the Catholic Sacra-ment of Reconciliation. This is where the first reading comes in (Ex 32: 7-11, 13-14).

Scripture scholars insist that the well-known story of Israel's idolatrous worship of the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai has less to so with what happened a thousand or more years before Christ than with what was happening in Israel when the narrative was composed about 88 years before Christ.

At that time, almost every Jewish shrine had a statue of a cherub in it: a mythological figure with a human head, a huge bird's wings and a bull's body. Middle-eastern religions thought the gods visited their people while sitting astride these creatures. As we know from the Psalms, even Yahweh was enthroned on them. That's why two cherubim were placed on top of the ark of the covenant. They were a sign of Yahweh's special presence.

But because time has a knack of losing the real reason behind our most cherished actions and customs, it didn't take long for some Israelites to begin worshiping the cherub instead of the God whose presence it symbolized. (It would be parallel to worshiping the sanctuary candle in Catholic churches instead of the Eucharistic Jesus, whose presence it signals.)

Forgiven

The prophetic writers who composed the golden calf narrative wanted those "calves" taken out of Yahweh's shrines. In chapter 8, verses 5-6, Hosea, the prophet, commands, "Cast away your calf, O Samaria! My wrath is kindled against them.... The work of an artisan, no God at all, destined for the flames - such is the calf of Samaria!" Cherubs no longer conveyed the message they were intended to convey.

Perhaps we have something parallel in today's Church: a sacrament originally intended to celebrate and channel God's forgiveness is often equated with that forgiveness. What was once a sign of the grace God freely and generously bestows on us has become, for some, the only way God can forgive.

Remember St. Thomas Aqui-nas' answer to the question, "At what point in the Sacrament of Reconciliation does God forgive our sins?"

"The instant we're sorry for them," was his reply. They're forgiven even before we confess, receive absolution or perform our penance.

Now that's real, divine mercy.

(9/9/04)