Asking forgiveness and receiving forgiveness are the beautiful themes for this week’s Sunday readings. The fact that all of us are always in need of mercy on one count or another reminds me of the instructive rhythm of the Church’s Lectionary cycle: we hear the same messages again and again precisely because we need to hear them—when it comes to life-altering conversion we tend to move slowly and require many words of encouragement.
In the first reading from Exodus we see Moses begging for mercy, not for himself, but for the rest of the people of Israel who had turned against the Lord and begun to worship the golden calf they had made. Moses scrambles to find a reason why the Lord might relent and spare Israel: “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand?” He then draws upon a healthy dose of chutzpah and appeals to God’s own sense of honor, asking the Lord to be true to his earlier promises: “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage’” (Exo 32:11, 13). Through all this Moses is intervening, not for himself, but for those who had abandoned God even while Moses stood faithfully before the Lord—an impressive act of selfless intercession.
The Psalmist sounds a different note: the Miserere, the moving Psalm we pray today, is traditionally associated with King David. He is well aware of his need for forgiveness for his own personal sins, and he has no hesitation in turning to the Lord and pouring out his heart: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense” (Ps 51:3). This Psalm especially touches me since the Benedictine monks of my community pray it as part of our office (our common prayer) every Friday—a day when Christians traditionally reflect on the death of Christ on the cross—and we also sing it when a monk has died and his body is being carried one last time into our abbey church for his vigil service and funeral.
For his part, after recounting the depth of his need for mercy, Saint Paul tells us in the second reading: “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.” He continues: “But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life” (1 Tim 1:15, 16).
Finally, we have the famous story of the prodigal son, (although there is a shorter form of the Gospel which may be read this Sunday, without the parable of the prodigal son). Like many of us, the prodigal son is worried about whether he can be forgiven, and he prepares a careful speech to beg mercy from his father. What the parable teaches us is that with God such things are unnecessary, since his forgiveness is offered more joyfully and willingly than we can ever receive it.
No matter how badly we have fallen let us imitate Moses, David, Paul, and the prodigal son and his merciful father, and turn to Christ with a humble heart (see Ps 51:19), joyfully receiving his forgiveness—and then offer the same to others.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Artwork: Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt