“Mercy is clearly one of Pope Francis’ favourite words. He uses it most often to describe a personal encounter, in prayer or sacraments, with Jesus Christ. It is his term for a loving embrace that conveys acceptance and forgiveness, not dwelling on people’s faults but looking for the good in them. … it is a defining moment when the ice begins to melt.” [THE TABLET: 3 August, 2013].

The quotation above is a splendid synopsis of the parable of the Prodigal Son as recorded in TODAY’S GOSPEL [LUKE 15: 1 – 32]. {see the words emphasised} We read that the younger son eventually has a personal encounter with himself. Then, there is the loving embrace, acceptance, and forgiveness which comes from the father, and defines the moment of melting ice. In passing we should note that as far as the elder son is concerned there is failure to encounter himself – and as a result the ice remains frozen, both in relation to his father and his brother.

FORGIVENESS, EVEN THOUGH WE NEED TO ASK FOR IT, IS NEVER EARNED OR MERITED … IT IS ALWAYS FREELY GIVEN.

This fact is given very clear expression in both the OLD AND NEW TESTAMENT READINGS [EXODUS 32. 7 – 11. 13 – 14 & 1 TIMOTHY 1: 12 – 17]. In addition, both these readings indicate that good is the expected result – especially in so far as a stronger personal relationship will emerge and GROW.

Against the background of these general observations let us reflect on the problems, difficulties, and expectations of merciful forgiveness being sought, extended, and accepted.

As we reflect, two essentials must never be overlooked. Firstly, the fact that the starting point is always with us, and this is movingly expressed in TODAY’S PSALM [51 or 50], where we read:

“A broken and humbled heart,

O God, you will not spurn.”

Secondly

, the truth that the basic initiative in response to the broken and humbled heart is always with the Lord God, WHO WANTS TO FORGIVE AND SHOW MERCY. All too often our God is, so to speak, hamstrung because our hearts are not truly broken or humbled. We need to bear in mind that a humble heart is an HONEST one. Do we always truly regret or are we still in the phase of mitigating factors with excusing causes? Do we truly DESIRE to come home – and BE AT HOME?

These two elements are very clearly illustrated in the parable of the prodigal son. We hear, first, that the son in question is a broken man, he comes to his senses {our translation does not do justice with the rendering he came to himself”}, and realises what is available ‘at home’. Then, we read that while he was yet at a distance. his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him …” In the meantime the elder son has, in many respects, also ‘left home’, and is sewing his wild oats in bitterness and resentment. There is no melting of any ice. His heart is hard.

We should not overlook the first two parables of this Sunday’s Gospel. In the first instance we are presented with an image of the God who will always search for the strayed sheep. He rejoices when he has found it but he is only able to ‘find’ when the sheep in question truly and honestly chooses to ‘go home.’

The second image is directed at each one of us. When we are ‘lost’ do we “seek diligently” to find the cause or reason why we have ‘lost’ the thing we DID HAVE AND ENJOY? Were we careless? Did we take proper care when we enjoyed it? Did we really appreciate it? The answer to these questions depends on how broken and humbled (honest) we are! Do I want the ice melted?

In all of this we need, as our Psalm teaches us, a pure heart” …… and, again, this indicates a heart which is honest.

All too often we do not SEEK real forgiveness because we have not accepted that we are lost – lost in our own little world of self-righteousness and certainty that, after all, it was not really ‘my fault’. Then, what about our own extension of real forgiveness to those who have injured us: do we make it as easy and painless as possible for them? Are we watching out, waiting, for them to return ‘home’, welcoming and non-judgmental when they do ‘come home’? Finally, do we genuinely accept forgiveness – from God or from others – when it is freely offered? Do we continue to hold on to excuses? Today, Saint Paul speaks to us of full acceptance.” We have to be ‘at home’ with forgiveness!

Return to the quotation at the very start, and let it sink in as deeply as possible.