“Jehovah, a God Merciful and Gracious”
“Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth.”—EXODUS 34:6.
1. (a) What comfort does the Bible provide for those who have seen loved ones stray from pure worship? (b) How does Jehovah view erring ones?
“MY DAUGHTER told me that she no longer wanted to be part of the Christian congregation,” says one Christian father. “For days, weeks, even months afterward, I felt a gnawing pain in my body. It was worse than death.” It is indeed distressing to see a loved one stray from the path of pure worship. Have you had such an experience? If so, you will be comforted to know that Jehovah has empathy for you. (Exodus 3:7; Isaiah 63:9) But how does he view such erring ones? The Bible shows that Jehovah mercifully invites them to be restored to his favor. He implored the rebellious Jews of Malachi’s day: “Return to me, and I will return to you.”—Malachi 3:7.
2. How does the Bible show that mercy is an intrinsic part of Jehovah’s personality?
2 God’s mercy was highlighted for Moses on Mount Sinai. There, Jehovah revealed himself as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth.” (Exodus 34:6) This declaration emphasizes that mercy is an intrinsic part of Jehovah’s personality. He “desires all to attain to repentance,” wrote the Christian apostle Peter. (2 Peter 3:9) Of course, God’s mercy is not limitless. “By no means will he give exemption from punishment,” Moses was told. (Exodus 34:7; 2 Peter 2:9) Nevertheless, “God is love,” and mercy is a large facet of that quality. (1 John 4:8; James 3:17) Jehovah will not “hold onto his anger forever,” and he is “delighting in loving-kindness.”—Micah 7:18, 19.
3. How did Jesus’ view of mercy contrast with that of the scribes and Pharisees?
3 Jesus was a perfect reflection of his heavenly Father. (John 5:19) His merciful treatment of wrongdoers was not a condoning of their sins but an expression of the same tender feelings he manifested toward the physically ill. (Compare Mark 1:40, 41.) Yes, Jesus placed mercy among the “weightier matters” of God’s Law. (Matthew 23:23) In contrast, consider the scribes and Pharisees, whose legalistic notions of justice usually eliminated mercy altogether. When they saw Jesus having dealings with sinners, they complained: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1, 2) Jesus answered his accusers with three illustrations, each of which underscores God’s mercy.
4. What two illustrations did Jesus relate, and what was the point of each?
4 First, Jesus told of a man who left 99 sheep to search for one that was lost. His point? “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who have no need of repentance.” Next, Jesus told of a woman who searched for a lost drachma coin and rejoiced upon finding it. His application? “Joy arises among the angels of God over one sinner that repents.” Jesus related his third illustration in the form of a parable.* It has come to be regarded by many as the finest short story ever told. A consideration of this parable will help us appreciate and imitate God’s mercy.—Luke 15:3-10.
A Rebellious Son Leaves Home
5, 6. How did the younger son in Jesus’ third illustration display a shocking lack of appreciation?
5 “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the part of the property that falls to my share.’ Then he divided his means of living to them. Later, after not many days, the younger son gathered all things together and traveled abroad into a distant country, and there squandered his property by living a debauched life.”—Luke 15:11-13.*
6 The younger son here displayed a shocking lack of appreciation. First, he demanded his inheritance, and then he squandered it “by living a debauched life.” The expression “debauched life” is translated from a Greek word that means “riotous living.” One scholar says that the word “expresses the utmost abandonment of character.” With good reason, the young man in Jesus’ parable is often called a prodigal, a word that describes a person who is recklessly extravagant and wasteful.
7. Who today resemble the prodigal, and why do many such individuals seek independence in “a distant country”?
7 Are there people today who resemble the prodigal? Yes. Sadly, a relatively small number have left the secure “home” of our heavenly Father, Jehovah. (1 Timothy 3:15) Some of these feel that the environment of God’s household is too restrictive, that Jehovah’s watchful eye is more of a hindrance than a protection. (Compare Psalm 32:8.) Consider one Christian woman who was brought up according to Bible principles but who later became involved with abuse of alcohol and drugs. Looking back on that dark period in her life, she says: “I wanted to prove that I could make a better life for myself. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I did not want anyone to tell me differently.” Like the prodigal, this young woman sought independence. Tragically, for her unscriptural practices she had to be expelled from the Christian congregation.—1 Corinthians 5:11-13.
8. (a) What assistance can be offered to those who desire to live contrary to God’s standards? (b) Why should one give sobering consideration to one’s choice in the matter of worship?
8 It is truly heartbreaking when a fellow believer manifests a desire to live contrary to God’s standards. (Philippians 3:18) When this happens, elders and others with spiritual qualifications strive to readjust the erring one. (Galatians 6:1) Nevertheless, no one is forced to accept the yoke of Christian discipleship. (Matthew 11:28-30; 16:24) When they come of age, even youths must make a personal choice in the matter of worship. Ultimately, each one of us is a free moral agent who will render an account to God for himself. (Romans 14:12) Of course, we will also ‘reap what we sow’—a lesson that the prodigal in Jesus’ parable was soon to learn.—Galatians 6:7, 8.
Despair in a Distant Country
9, 10. (a) What change of circumstance did the prodigal experience, and how did he react to it? (b) Illustrate how some today who abandon true worship experience a plight similar to the prodigal’s.
9 “When he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred throughout that country, and he started to be in need. He even went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to herd swine. And he used to desire to be filled with the carob pods which the swine were eating, and no one would give him anything.”—Luke 15:14-16.
10 Although he was destitute, the prodigal did not yet consider returning home. Instead, he met a citizen who gave him a job herding swine. Since the Mosaic Law stipulated that pigs were unclean animals, such employment would likely be unacceptable to a Jew. (Leviticus 11:7, 8) But if the prodigal felt any stirrings of conscience, he had to stifle them. After all, he could not expect his employer, a local citizen, to be bothered with the feelings of a down-and-out foreigner. The plight of the prodigal is similar to the experience of many today who abandon the straight path of pure worship. Often, such ones become involved in activities that they previously would have considered degrading. For example, at the age of 17, one young man rebelled against his Christian upbringing. “Immorality and abuse of drugs erased years of Bible-based teachings,” he admits. Soon, this young man found himself in prison for armed robbery and murder. Although he later made a spiritual recovery, what a heavy price he had to pay for “the temporary enjoyment of sin”!—Compare Hebrews 11:24-26.
11. How was the prodigal’s dilemma compounded, and how have some today found the world’s allurements to be an “empty deception”?
11 The prodigal’s dilemma was compounded by the fact that “no one would give him anything.” Where were his newfound friends? Now that he was penniless, he was as if “an object of hatred” to them. (Proverbs 14:20) Likewise, many today who stray from the faith discover that the allurements and views of this world amount to “empty deception.” (Colossians 2:8) “I suffered much pain and heartache without Jehovah’s guidance,” says one young woman who for a time left God’s organization. “I tried to fit in with the world, but because I was not truly like others, they rejected me. I felt like a lost child who needed a father to guide me. That is when I realized that I needed Jehovah. I never wanted to live independent of him again.” The prodigal in Jesus’ illustration came to a similar realization.
The Prodigal Comes to His Senses
12, 13. What factors have helped some today to come to their senses? (See box.)
12 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many hired men of my father are abounding with bread, while I am perishing here from famine! I will rise and journey to my father and say to him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he rose and went to his father.”—Luke 15:17-20.
13 The prodigal “came to his senses.” For a time, he had been indulging in pleasure-seeking, as if living in a dreamworld. But now he became keenly aware of his true spiritual condition. Yes, even though he had fallen, there was still hope for this young man. Something good could be found in him. (Proverbs 24:16; compare 2 Chronicles 19:2, 3.) What about those who leave God’s flock today? Would it be reasonable to conclude that they all are beyond hope, that in every case their rebellious course proves that they have sinned against God’s holy spirit? (Matthew 12:31, 32) Not necessarily. A number of them are tormented by their wayward course, and in time many of these come to their senses. “I never, even for one day, forgot about Jehovah,” says one sister, reflecting on the time she spent away from God’s organization. “I always prayed that somehow, someday, he would accept me back to the truth.”—Psalm 119:176.
14. What resolve did the prodigal make, and how did he show humility in doing so?
14 But what can those who have strayed do about their situation? In Jesus’ parable the prodigal decided to journey back home and beg for his father’s forgiveness. “Make me as one of your hired men,” the prodigal resolved to say. A hired servant was a day laborer who could be dismissed on a day’s notice. This was even lower than a slave who was, in a sense, like a member of the family. So the prodigal did not have in mind asking that he be restored to his former status as a son. He would be quite willing to accept the lowest position in order to prove his renewed loyalty to his father day by day. However, the prodigal was in for a surprise.
A Heartwarming Reception
15-17. (a) How did the father react upon seeing his son? (b) What is signified by the robe, ring, and sandals that the father provided for his son? (c) What is shown by the father’s arranging for a feast?
15 “While he was yet a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was moved with pity, and he ran and fell upon his neck and tenderly kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quick! bring out a robe, the best one, and clothe him with it, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fattened young bull, slaughter it and let us eat and enjoy ourselves, because this my son was dead and came to life again; he was lost and was found.’ And they started to enjoy themselves.”—Luke 15:20-24.
16 Any loving parent would long for the spiritual recovery of a child. Hence, we can just imagine the father of the prodigal gazing each day down the path in front of his house, anxiously hoping for his son’s return. Now he catches sight of his son coming up the path! The lad’s appearance was undoubtedly altered. Still, the father recognizes him while he is “yet a long way off.” He sees beyond the tattered clothing and the dejected spirit; he sees his son, and he runs to meet him!
17 When the father reached his son, he fell upon his son’s neck and tenderly kissed him. Then he commanded his slaves to provide his son with a robe, a ring, and sandals. This robe was not merely a simple article of clothing, but “the best one”—perhaps a richly embroidered vestment of the sort presented to an honored guest. Since a ring and sandals were not usually seen on slaves, the father was making it clear that his son was being welcomed back as a full-fledged family member. But the father did still more. He ordered a feast to celebrate the return of his son. Clearly, this man was not forgiving his son begrudgingly or simply because the return of his son made it obligatory; he wanted to extend forgiveness. It made him rejoice.
18, 19. (a) What does the parable of the prodigal son teach you about Jehovah? (b) As shown in his dealings with Judah and Jerusalem, how does Jehovah “keep in expectation” of a sinner’s return?
18 Thus far, what does the parable of the prodigal son teach us about the God whom we are privileged to worship? First, that Jehovah is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth.” (Exodus 34:6) Indeed, mercy is a salient quality of God. It is his normal way of reacting toward those in need. Then, Jesus’ parable teaches us that Jehovah is “ready to forgive.” (Psalm 86:5) He is on the lookout, as it were, to observe any change of heart on the part of sinful humans that would provide a basis for him to extend mercy.—2 Chronicles 12:12; 16:9.
19 Think, for example, of God’s dealings with Israel. The prophet Isaiah was inspired by Jehovah to describe Judah and Jerusalem as ‘sick from head to foot.’ Yet, he also said: “Jehovah will keep in expectation of showing you favor, and therefore he will rise up to show you mercy.” (Isaiah 1:5, 6; 30:18; 55:7; Ezekiel 33:11) Like the father in Jesus’ parable, Jehovah ‘watches the path,’ as it were. He keenly anticipates the return of any who have left his house. Is this not what we would expect of a loving father?—Psalm 103:13.
20, 21. (a) In what way are many today being drawn by God’s mercy? (b) What will be discussed in the following article?
20 Each year, Jehovah’s mercy draws many to come to their senses and return to true worship. What joy this brings to their loved ones! Take, for example, the Christian father mentioned at the outset. Happily, his daughter made a spiritual recovery and now serves as a full-time minister. “I’m as happy as a person can be in this old system of things,” he says. “My tears of sorrow have been changed to tears of joy.” Surely, Jehovah rejoices as well!—Proverbs 27:11.
21 But there is more to the parable of the prodigal. Jesus continued his story so that he could contrast Jehovah’s mercy with the rigid, judgmental stance common among the scribes and Pharisees. How he did so—and what this means for us—will be discussed in the following article.
Parables and other illustrations related in the Bible did not necessarily take place in actuality. Furthermore, since the purpose of these stories is to teach a moral lesson, there is no need to seek a symbolic meaning in every detail.
The prophetic significance of this parable is discussed in the Watchtower issue of February 15, 1989, pages 16, 17.
□ How did Jesus’ attitude toward mercy contrast with that of the Pharisees?
□ Who today resemble the prodigal, and how?
□ What circumstances brought the prodigal to his senses?
□ How did the father show mercy toward his repentant son?
[Box on page 11]
THEY CAME TO THEIR SENSES
What has helped some who were once expelled from the Christian congregation to come to their senses? The following comments shed light on the matter.
“In my heart I still knew where the truth was. Years of studying the Bible and going to Christian meetings had made a major impact on me. How could I turn my back on Jehovah any longer? He had not left me; I had left him. Finally, I admitted how wrong and stubborn I had been and that Jehovah’s Word was right all along—‘you reap what you sow.’”—C.W.
“My baby girl began to talk, and that touched my heart since I wanted to teach her things like who Jehovah is and how to pray to him. I could not sleep, and late one night I drove to a park and just cried. I cried, and I prayed to Jehovah for the first time in a long time. All I knew was that I needed Jehovah back in my life, and I hoped he could forgive me.”—G.H.
“When the subject of religion would arise, I would tell people that if I were to choose the religion that taught the truth, I’d have to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then I’d say that I used to be one, but I couldn’t live up to it, so I left. Realizing this, I often felt guilty and unhappy. I finally admitted, ‘I’m miserable. I need to make some drastic changes.’”—C.N.
“Thirty-five years ago my husband and I were disfellowshipped. Then, in 1991, we had the pleasant surprise of being visited by two elders who informed us of the possibility of returning to Jehovah. Six months later, we were overjoyed to be reinstated. My husband and I are 79 and 63 years old respectively.”—C.A.