Divine Mercy 101: The Parables of Divine Mercy

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

WEEK 9: Saint Luke: The Parables of Divine Mercy

It is clear from the opening canticles in the first chapter of St. Luke's gospel, the Magnificat and the Benedictus, that the evangelist wants to show us that it is the God of Israel, the God of the Old Testament, the God of Mercy, who is active in the whole "good news" story about His Son. His "hesed" is at work as he fulfills His messianic promises to His people, and His "rahamim" is expressed as a tender mercy so deep that it even reaches out to embrace the Gentiles, lost in darkness, in order to bring them too into the new, renewed Israel.

Much of the message of Divine Mercy in St. Luke's gospel has its parallels in the other gospel accounts. Thus, when Jesus teaches "Be merciful, as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36), this finds its echo in the gospel according to St. Matthew - in the Sermon on the Mount ("Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" Mt 5:7), and in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:23-35).

In St. Luke's gospel, however, the merciful love of God takes center stage as a defining characteristic of the Kingdom that Jesus, the Son of God, is bringing into the world. Indeed, Jesus points to the miracles of compassionate love that He is performing as signs not only of His messianic identity, but also as signs that God's Kingdom of mercy is dawning upon the world through His ministry:

And Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, and He went to the synagogue, as His custom was, on the Sabbath day. And He stood up to read; and there was given to Him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." And He closed the book and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:16-21).

And when the men had come to Him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to you saying, 'Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?' in that hour He cured many diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind He bestowed sight. And He answered them, 'Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offence at Me.'"

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31 also has its parallel in St. Matthew's gospel. The story about Lazarus shows us that unless we practice mercy ourselves, we shall not find mercy in the time of judgement. Thus, just as the parable concerning Lazarus is unique to the gospel according to St. Luke, so the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is unique to St. Matthew's gospel, and yet both convey a similar message: "I was hungry and you gave me no food.... Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me" (Mt 25:31-46).

On the other hand, for those who fail to practice mercy toward one another, God's mercy is always available to those who are truly contrite. Anyone who is able to say with the publican in our Lord's Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner," will come away "justified," that is, set right with God, restored to fellowship with Him and enriched with His grace (Lk 18:9-14).

The Parables of Mercy
As we have seen, the message of God's merciful love permeates St. Luke's gospel. In addition, there is one particular section of the book that is generally known as the "parables of mercy," a cluster of parables in chapter 15 that are unique to this gospel, and which center upon the theme of Divine Mercy: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. In all three parables, what is "lost" is the sinner, because of his sins, and the one who finds him is the merciful Savior - God. These three parables, therefore, focus on one particular form of God's mercy, namely, His mercy that meets our needs for forgiveness and moral renewal.

Let us look at two themes that are common to all three parables.

First, in each one, Jesus emphasizes that He not only welcomes the penitent sinner back-He actively goes out and seeks the sinner until He finds him. God is the "Hound of Heaven," so to speak. This comes out most clearly in the parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk 15:4-7):

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost." Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Commenting upon the parables in Luke 15, the great Jewish scholar C.G. Montefiore held strongly that these parables emphasize the one absolutely new thing that Jesus came to say. "The idea of a God who will invite the sinner back is not new; the idea of a God who will welcome the sinner back is not new; but the idea of a God who will go and seek for the sinner, and who wants men to do the same, is something completely new. Montefiore would therefore find the very center and soul and essence of the Christian gospel in Luke 15:1-10, in the story of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep, and the woman searching for the lost coin." (Rick Torretto, "St. Luke: The Gospel of Divine Mercy," in R. Stackpole, ed., Divine Mercy: The Heart of the Gospel, Marian Press, 1999).

This series continues next week on the theme, "The Good Shepherd Rejoices!"

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

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