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Exploring God's Mercy  
Suzanne M. Lewis  

Children delight in the inexhaustible riches that the parables afford. Thus, the parable of the lost sheep from the beginning of Chapter 15 of the Gospel according to Luke provides a perfect catechetical opportunity for exploring the theme of God's mercy. When children are given the space and time to meditate slowly and deeply on this parable, they begin to grapple with the mystery of God's loving forgiveness, which exceeds and triumphs over all human weakness.

While preparing to read the word of God with children, consider how sacred scripture is approached during the Liturgy of the Word. Prepare the catechetical space so that it is free of distractions. Use liturgical colors to decorate, and provide a beautiful image or statue of Mary or Christ as an object for contemplation. Give the Bible a place of honor, on a book stand or propped on a pillow. Consider having a short procession with the children before reading. Processing signals to the children that the word of God is of "regal" importance; it is also an activity that helps them to quiet their movements as an aid to listening. Before you begin to read, light a candle. The first reading of a parable should be a solemn reading, modeled on the method lectors use during Mass.

After the first solemn reading, discuss any words that might be a challenge to the children. Explain that when the shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness, he does not leave them unprotected. Shepherds would have a sheepfold in the wilderness where the shepherd can leave the sheep. Then ask a series of questions that aid in comprehending the parable: How many sheep did the shepherd have? What happened to the one sheep? What did the shepherd do? And after he found the sheep, what did he do? Did he tell the sheep that he was bad for wandering off? Did he punish the sheep? After he got back home, what did he do? Make sure that the children absorb the shepherd's rejoicing so joyfully that he cannot keep it to himself but invites others to join him.

Read the parable again, this time exploring more deeply. For this second reading, invite the children to open their Bibles and read along. Ask them more penetrating questions such as: How does the shepherd feel about these sheep? How important are these sheep to him? Does he ever give up his search? What is it like to be lost? Why can't the sheep find his way back by himself? Why does he need the shepherd to find him? Does he know that the shepherd will look for him? What else does he know about the shepherd? How does the sheep feel when the shepherd finds him? What is it like for him to ride on the shepherd's shoulders? Is he surprised to see how happy the shepherd is to see him? What is it like at that party that the shepherd has? Do you think that the sheep enjoy the party, too? How do the other sheep feel about the return of the lost sheep? Do they also rejoice? Point out that Jesus told us, "I am the Good Shepherd." Does this change the way we think about this parable? Remind the children that parables are simple stories that reveal a deeper meaning; through these stories Jesus tells us about who God is and who we are. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then who are these sheep? What does the parable reveal about how Jesus feels about his "sheep"? Is this surprising? Is this how we usually understand God? What is Jesus trying to tell us?

If some of the children in your group are preparing for the sacrament of Reconciliation, ask the children if anything about this parable reminds them of the sacrament. Be gentle and discreet, allowing the children to discover connections at their own pace. Knowledge acquired through such discovery remains more lasting and meaningful than what is spoon fed. If the children cannot make the connections, save this meditation for another day, after the children have had further opportunity to meditate on the Rite of Penance. The examination of conscience will begin to resonate with the moment in the parable when the sheep realizes that he is lost. The moment when the sheep is found will begin to inform an appreciation for the experience of confession. The strength the sheep feels when lifted onto the shepherd's shoulders may remind them of the prayer of absolution, when the power of God transforms them.

Finally, the feast that the shepherd prepares and to which he calls others can recall the Eucharist, that moment of celebration when all the sheep have been returned to the fold. This understanding can lead to a profound hunger for first Holy Communion, the next step on the journey.

Suzanne M. Lewis
is a formation leader with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and author of Children's Daily Prayer 2006, published by Liturgy Training Publications.
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