Divine Mercy 101: The Good Shepherd Rejoices!

A weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy

WEEK 10: The Good Shepherd Rejoices!

We have seen so far that the New Testament does not substantially alter the Old Testament definition of Divine Mercy, but it does show us just how deep and all-encompassing God's merciful love for us really is.

The parables of mercy in St. Luke's gospel reflect this appreciation for the depth of God's mercy shown in the incarnation and the Redemption of the world through Christ. As St. John wrote in his first epistle (I Jn 4: 9-12): "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins."

In other words, God is not just sitting patiently in Heaven, waiting for penitent sinners to come home to Him. Rather, our heavenly Father sent His Son into the world to seek us out and find us, like a shepherd seeking his lost sheep, or like a father of a prodigal son who runs down the road to meet his lost son at the first sign of his appearing.

The same theme echoes in the hymns of the Church, such as this one (an old Methodist hymn used by all Christian denominations):

It is a thing most wonderful
Almost too wonderful to be
That God's own Son should come from heaven
And die to save a child like me.

And yet I know that it is true
He chose a poor and humble lot
And toiled and wept and bled and died
For love of those who loved Him not.

We find the same theme echoed beautifully in the writings of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938). She heard Jesus teach her this same basic gospel message:

My mercy is greater than your sins and those of the entire world. Who can measure the extent of my goodness? For you I descended from heaven to earth; for you I allowed myself to be nailed to the cross; for you I let My Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of Mercy for you. Come, then, with trust to draw graces from this fountain (Diary, 1485).

Great joy
A second theme common to all three parables of mercy in Luke, chapter 15, is the great joy which our Lord manifests whenever He is able to rescue lost sinners and bring them home to His Heart:

  • Luke 15:5: When He finds His lost sheep He "lays it on His shoulders rejoicing."
  • Luke 15:6: "And then when He got home, He called together His friends and neighbours, saying to them, "Rejoice with me, I have found my sheep that was lost."
  • Luke 15:9: "And when she had found it [the lost coin], she called together her friends and neighbours, saying to them, "Rejoice with me, I have found the drachma that I lost."
  • Luke 15:32: "But it was only right that we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found."

So God in Christ "rejoices" and is "filled with joy" whenever He finds His lost sheep! This implies an intimacy between our Savior God and His creatures, an intimacy of which mere hints are given in the Old Testament. It also implies a depth of commitment in God to the good of human beings. In a way similar to St. Luke's use of the phrase splagchna eleous ("tender mercy"), we see how completely God is committed to care for us, a depth of caring love that springs from the very depths of who He is.

Once again, as we shall see, a similar truth is echoed in the writings of St. Faustina (Diary, 1728 and 1486). Jesus said to her:

With My mercy, I pursue sinners along all their paths, and My Heart rejoices when they return to Me. I forget all the bitterness with which they fed my My Heart and rejoice in their return. ... What joy fills My Heart when you return to Me. Because you are weak, I take you in My arms and carry you to the home of My Father.

Prodigal son
Let us focus more directly now on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Pope St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), section 5, focuses explicitly on this parable as portraying for us all the elements of how Divine Mercy overcomes human sin.

First of all, the son in the parable begins by asking for his inheritance early. Basically, he says to his father: " I really wish you were dead so that I could have my inheritance; just give me my inheritance now anyway as if you were dead, and I will go off with it and forget all about you - just as if you were dead!"

Secondly, the father (no doubt sadly) gives in, and gives his son the inheritance, and the son goes off and wastes his father's (doubtless hard earned) gift of money on immoral living. The result is that the son ends up losing most of his human dignity, for the parable says that he finds himself ultimately in a condition lower than the pigs he is forced to take care of to survive.

Then, verse 17 says, "But when he came to himself" - i.e., when he saw something of the truth about himself - he saw into the depths of his "squandered sonship."

Pope St. John Paul II writes (section 5):

He seems not to be conscious of it even now, when he says to himself: "How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough to spare, but I perish here with hunger." He measures himself by the standards of the goods that he has lost, that he no longer 'possesses,' while the hired servants of his father's house 'possess' them. These words express above all his attitude to material goods; nevertheless, under the surface is concealed the tragedy of lost dignity, the awareness of squandered sonship.

This series continues next week on the theme, "The Father of the Prodigal Son."

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of The John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

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