Year of Mercy: Parables of Mercy

In addition to the psalms, Pope Francis also references three parables in 15:1-32 and one in Matthew 18:22-35.  A supplementary resource (see below) expands a look at these parables of mercy by adding five more for study.  In the coming weeks, we will work our way through all nine of them.

We begin with Luke 15:1-32, a passage which is actually three parables.  Traditionally, we call them the parable of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son.  But in Middle-Eastern form, the parables are really about a shepherd, a woman, and a father–that is, they are about God.  Each is a parable of mercy.

The parable of the shepherd (Luke 15:3-7) reveals God’s universal mercy.  God is not content when even one sheep is missing. All sheep must make it safely into the fold (cf. John 10:4). God is not content to fellowship with the ninety-nine sheep who are found when even one is away from home.

This is likely the most revolutionary understanding of God in the Bible.  God is not willing that anyone should perish (2 Peter 3:9).  Even one lost sheep is one too many.  Honestly, we pay lip service to this amazing revelation.  We own it and then turn right around and say, “But you know, there will always be some who will refuse to be saved.” 

This shift in consciousness allows us to sit in the sheepfold (the Church) with a passivity that is foreign to the heart of God–a passivity that says, “The church is here; anyone who wants to can come to it.”  We replace God’s go-to mentality with our come-to mentality, and the one lost sheep remains in the wilderness.  Meanwhile, the God of mercy is out-and-about, restless until the final sheep is found.

Early Christianity gave a name to God’s universal mercy: apocatastasis.  It was the notion that, eventually, everyone would be found–everyone would be in the fold.  The belief has come to be called ‘universalism,’ with variations of interpretations which range from outright rejection of the doctrine to a full-bore acceptance of it.

This post is not about universalism, but rather about the first parable’s  teaching that God’s mercy is universal, flowing from a heart unwilling that even one person should remain lost. This means that God’s disposition is toward everyone, and God’s first move is to offer love and grace–no pre-requisites and no exceptions.

This is good news because we are all that one lost sheep. As the shepherd, God exhibits universal mercy, which means God is always headed our way!

[Note:  A resource entitled ‘Parables of Mercy’ is published by Our Sunday Visitor.  It is available from Amazon as an eBook or traditional book)

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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