The spiritual writer, Max Lucado, observed, “What’s the difference between mercy and grace? Mercy gave the prodigal son a chance; grace gave him a feast.” This thought can be applied to today’s Gospel, but also to the People of Israel in the First Reading and also to Saint Paul in the Second. Jesus did not only come to us to give us a chance with God; He came to reintroduce us to the heavenly banquet that we had lost through sin.
Our lesson from the Scriptures today is all about distorted images and how these distortions affect us – and, finally, how these distortions are healed. It is a lesson of God’s mercy and grace at work.
The Israelites in the desert were bearing the heavy challenge of following God and being guided by Moses. It was not easy – especially when they compared themselves with other nations and people who seemed to have it easier than they did. Therefore, they decide to change the image of God. They take the eternal God – the One who is, the One who would be with them always – and they change His image to that of a golden calf. In doing so, they distort the image of God into something and someone whom they can control. A god who listens to them – rather than listening to Him.
This has the effect, however, of also distorting them. No longer do they follow God with faith. They fall into sin – not only idolatry, but drunkenness and carousing in the pleasures of the flesh. This is not who they were called to be; this was not the image in which they had been created.
Paul, writing to St. Timothy, tells his friend how he had strayed from God’s ways – presuming to know better than God and persecuting the Church. He assumed that he know completely how God thought, and he was the one to judge others on God’s behalf. Because he tried to make the Lord into what he wanted God to be, Paul himself became “a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant.”He himself was distorted.
Finally, the young son of the father in the Gospel, looked at the father as simply a source of wealth and resources. His dad was nothing more than an ATM to the boy, and he decided that he no longer needed him and would set out on his own. He treats his father as already dead and takes his inheritance and squanders it. Because of this distortion of his relationship with the father, the son finds himself becoming almost inhuman – working with pigs, and even becoming jealous of them! We are told that “he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed.”
The lesson we learn is that when we distort the image of God, we end up distorting who we are at our heart. God is who He is. We cannot change Him, nor can we control Him. He has created each of us in His image – with a dignity that we can never fully appreciate. However, often, we try to shape God into something else – something we can control, something that is more comfortable, that doesn’t expect too much from us.
To the Israelites, they wanted to see God and carry Him where they went – not realizing that He was nearer to them than they could even imagine. For Paul, God was a harsh judge who sought punishment for disobedience and strict conformity to His laws – missing the fact that God is compassion and love. And the prodigal son saw his father as simply a source of things he wanted and not a generous source of blessing. Similarly, the older brother also had a distorted view of the father as a strict ruler of the household – rather than recognizing the nearness of all that blessing for himself.
Mercy gave all of these people a chance to encounter God anew. Through the prayer of Moses, God opens Himself up to His people and allows them to return to Him. St. Paul recognizes that “I have been mercifully treated” by God in His love. And in his return, the son experiences the infinite love of the father, who expects his return and showers blessings on him.
Brothers and sisters, what are our distorted images of God? What do we set in His place in our lives – those things we turn to for comfort and strength, rather than our heavenly Father? What does this do to us – to our relationships?
We need to remember this powerful truth: “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.” Today, at our Eucharistic banquet, Christ reveals who we are, and how we are to live – obedient to the Father and living life for others. In this Eucharist, the Father now sees and loves in us what He sees and loves in Christ, who offers Himself to us here. This is the banquet to which the Father invites us – even after we have fallen and lost that image that He created in us. Here, we are restored to the full dignity of children made in God’s image – not slaves who do not share that image, but sons and daughters.
This is the great blessing that we receive and of which we must be aware. God’s mercy has given us the chance to encounter Him again; and His grace spreads this banquet before us again.