Most Catholics will have a hard time appreciating the sacred authors' message in Sunday's three readings. Accustomed to channeling God's forgiveness through the formal Sacrament of Reconciliation, many of us believe God can forgive only in the context of such rituals. Our bible writers know nothing of sacramental reconciliation as we know it, and they'd certainly cringe if they heard how God's forgiveness in the sacrament is sometimes contrasted with God's forgiveness outside the sacrament.

My grade school religion teachers, for instance, assured me that as long as I'm sorry for my sins (even with "imperfect" contrition) and faithfully fulfill every step of the sacramental ritual, I can be certain I'm forgiven. Meanwhile, Protestants can only hope when they ask God directly (even with "perfect" contrition) for forgiveness that God will actually forgive them. They'll never know for certain until they reach the pearly gates.

Forgiving

Belief in God's unmerited forgiveness is a prerequisite for biblical faith. The Israelites of the Exodus certainly did little to merit Yahweh's forgiveness. We know that most of the Chosen People didn't want to leave Egypt in the first place. They spent 40 years in the Sinai complaining, griping and reminding Moses of how nice they had it when they were slaves. Yet Yahweh forgives even these ingrates, eventually agreeing to fulfill the terms of the contract made with their ancestors (Ex 32: 7-11, 13-14).

Jesus latches on to that same divine attribute in the Gospel (Lk 15: 1-320. Ironically, until 1970, we Catholics never heard this passage during a Sunday Eucharist! Notice, God does the forgiving here, not Jesus. The Galilean carpenter's role simply is to remind people that even though they can't find it in their hearts to forgive "tax collectors and sinners," God does.

Zeroing in on the "illogicalness" of forgiving, Jesus shows how illogical we humans act when we lose something, whether it be sheep or coins. But then He immediately slides into a story rooted in something only a parent can understand: unconditional love of one's child.

Though we probably know most of this parable by heart, we often forget why Jesus tells it. I heard the story as a child. But only when I started reading Scripture as an adult did I discover the older brother's role in the narrative. His attitude toward his Father's forgiveness and reinstatement of his sibling is why Jesus tells the story. It's the same attitude shown by the Pharisees and scribes who complain, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."

Parables' meaning

The parable only makes sense when it's directed to people who boast of a developed structure of forgiveness. Those who believe they've jumped through the proper religious hoops and received God's forgiveness always will be uptight with anyone who somehow receives the same forgiveness without jumping through any hoops. Jesus reminds His pious adversaries that God, like a good parent, is more interested in the return than the hoops.

The author of I Timothy, writing in Paul of Tarsus' persona, also concentrates on God's forgiving personality (I Tim 1: 12-17). But now Jesus is the one who forgives. The author's best known line is "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these, I am the foremost."

Seven hundred years ago, Thomas Aquinas was asked when, in the sacramental process of reconciliation, God actually forgives our sins. Is it when the priest gives us absolution, when we say our act of contrition, or when we complete our penance? This greatest of all Christian theologians responded, "The instant we're sorry for our sins, God forgives those sins." You'll have to read Thomas' "Summa Theologica" to find his answer to the next question: "Then why do we have to go to confession?"
(09-13-01)