Kids and teenagers are notoriously bad listeners. Not listening or obeying their parents and then lying about not doing what they were supposed to do make up probably 75% of the confessional matter for children. “I didn’t do what my mom asked me to do right away. She had to ask me several times.” Kids and teenagers are really not very good at following the rules. They make a lot of mistakes and are not very consistent in getting the job done. My niece and nephew are pretty normal, bright kids, but it seems that my sister, their mom, has to tell them over and over to do things. “How many times did I tell you not to leave your toys on the floor? Come on, get ready for bed! I’ve asked you 5 times already!” And each time she has to repeat herself, the frustration level rises as does the sharpness and volume of her voice. There are often the threat of punishment or the taking away of privileges and the rare offer of a reward, but, what might generate a short-term victory usually doesn’t translate into a consistent change in behavior. Far be it from me to offer anybody parenting advice, but perhaps there is a better way.
Today’s Gospel begins, “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus.” The tax collectors and sinners were the people who were not good at following the rules. They consistently fell short when it came to the moral law and expectations when it came to religious practice. According to the law, they were “unclean” and did not merit salvation. They were lost causes – unredeemable. And nothing they could do could change their situation. They expected to be shunned and belittled by the Pharisees and the scribes – the religious leaders, and they were not disappointed. But they listened to Jesus. They were attracted to Jesus. They paid attention to Jesus. They drew near to this holy man. Why? Because, as the Pharisees and scribes observed, “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The Pharisees and scribes complain about this. They don’t understand Jesus’ method. So to them, Jesus addresses the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. What is shocking in all the parables is the response of the shepherd, the woman, and the father to what has been lost. Their response is totally out of proportion to the perceived value of the thing that is lost. Jesus asks a rhetorical question when he says, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” The answer is no one would leave the 99 to go after the one. From a human perspective, it is not worth it. Why take the risk at losing the 99 to go after the one who is lost? It would make economic sense simply to write-off the one who is lost. It is the same thing with the lost coin. This woman must be crazy to tear her house apart for one coin. And then to invite her neighbors to rejoice with her when she finds it. Any party she would throw in celebration would be worth way more than the coin. And the response is even more surprising when it comes to the prodigal son. From a Jewish perspective, what the son does is beyond offensive. He rejects his father and his faith. He took a job working with swine – a job that made him unclean. Unlike the example of the coin and the sheep, what the son does is a conscious act of rebellion and disrespect and a degradation of himself. When he comes to his senses and returns home, he knows that he no longer deserves to be called a son. He has squandered his inheritance. But the father doesn’t give him what he deserves. He doesn’t disown him or reject him or say, “I told you so” or have him work off his mistake. The father can’t wait to restore him to his rightful place in the home. His place as son is a gift, not something that is earned. His restoration is not based on his “goodness” or ability to fulfill the law or make up for his sins. The father does not respond like any other father. He freely shares his life – “everything I have is yours”; his relationship with his sons is not one of master and slave or determined by obedience to the rules. He loves them simply because they are his sons. They belong to him. Even when lost, they belong to him. Nothing can break that bond that says, “you are mine.” It is this surprising, unmerited love that opens the human heart to listen and to draw near and to follow and to change. Just ask St. Paul who was moved to follow Christ and to change his life completely because he was mercifully treated. He was overcome by God’s grace and abundant love.
My niece is going to be Confirmed this year, and as part of her retreat, her sponsors and family members have been asked to write “love letters” to her. These letters will be a surprise. The letters are intended to tell the young person how much they are loved and valued. How they have been a gift in our lives and have brought much love and joy into our families. This awareness of being loved and welcomed – that it is good that you are here – before you have done anything or regardless of what you have done – is what forms the relationship with God and neighbor and what allows them to get up and stay in the relationship, not hide or fear, when they’ve failed in any way. God’s love for us is surprising. His mercy is beyond our measure. That he searches us out when we are lost and rejoices when we are found and runs to meet us along the way is what Jesus wants to reveal. It is not only crucial for a young person to know how much they are loved at that critical age when they are invited to embrace their faith more fully and embark more consciously on their baptismal mission. We all have to experience God’s merciful love. We all need to be surprised by love. Mercy is not cutting someone a break or letting them off the hook. Mercy stays with the sinner in a surprising way and doesn’t disown him. Mercy sees his destiny in the Father’s house and desires to bring him home. Mercy seeks him out, restores him to life, and celebrates that life. That is what “hooks” us to listen and to follow freely what we’ve been asked to do.