Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Mercy is Gratuitous

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C

This is a story of Napoleon Bonaparte, the great general and Emperor, who almost conquered the whole of Europe, styling himself as the new Charlemagne or Alexander the great. Napoleon was known to be brilliant battle strategist as well as a stern leader who understood the importance of swift justice in order to maintain the morale of his troops. He had a practice of sending out a battalion of troops to hunt down and arrest any run-aways and defectors. The captured soldier would then be summarily executed the following morning. On one occasion, the captured run-away awaiting death row happened to be his own cook’s son. The poor old woman came before the general pleading for the life of her son. The great general told the distraught mother, “You son does not deserve mercy. He deserves to die.” The old woman replied, “Sir, you are right. It would not be mercy, if he deserved it.” The emperor was so touched by the astute response of the mother that he pardoned the soldier unreservedly. Yes, mercy is never deserved or earned. It is a gratuitous gift given from the heart. If we truly get what we deserve, it is justice.

However, so few understand this simple principle. We are a society which has grown acutely sensitive of our rights and sense of entitlement. Older people feel entitled to certain benefits from the government. Middle-aged people feel entitled to generous health and retirement benefits from their employers. Younger adults feel entitled to immediately enjoy the same standard of living their parents took years to achieve. And young people feel entitled to whatever material luxuries they desire. It surely seems appropriate in our culture where we believe we are now entitled to a whole host of things in life. Church going people are no different. Many Catholics believe that they are entitled to a whole range of benefits just by being members of the parish.  Any perceived curtailment of any of these rights or the denial of entitlements and you may have a riot on your hands.

Today’s gospel presents us with three very different perception of mercy, and by extension justice. Both sons in today’s famous parable had the impression that their father’s inheritance was a sort of entitlement. In their eyes, mercy is getting what they thought they deserved. The younger son's sense of entitlement is obvious: he demands his inheritance so he can live as he pleases. He is claiming his birth ‘right’ – his argument is based purely on the strength of lineage. But the older brother displays a similar sense of entitlement in his condemnation and rejection of his brother. He believes that his hard work and good behaviour had earned him the right to the economic benefits and stability of his father's love. Both felt that the father ‘owed’ it to them. Both were deeply flawed.

Competition, bitter rivalry, envy and destructive conflict often arises from this entitlement mentality, the mentality that believes the world or someone or something owes it to us. People often fail to recognise that whenever the discussion of any issue descends to the level of mere assertion of personal rights, we often find ourselves trapped in a selfish self-serving delusional world blind to the needs of others. It is literally saying that our needs are more important than those of others. Few people understand that when someone asserts a right to something, very often someone else’s right is infringed. For example, let’s say that you and I are neighbours. You lead a group of rock musicians who can practice only in the evenings; while I, on the other hand, enjoy nothing more than quiet evenings. Presumably, you have a right to pursue your musical career, and I have a right quietly to enjoy my property. The problem is that your right is incompatible with mine. As a priest having the care of two large parishes with a multitude of parishioners with conflicting interests, I often find myself caught in endless debates about entitlement. The conversation often gets so wrapped up in the championing of rights and entitlements that we quickly lose sight of grace.

This leads us back to consider the beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son, and especially the character of the father. The father expresses the gratuitousness of mercy – it is given to those who do not merit it nor earned it. It is wholly the gift of the father; he does not ‘owe’ it to his sons. The “Father” in this story is undoubtedly characteristic of our Heavenly Father who forgives and restores us back to relationship with Him. Thus the gospel helps us understand who God truly is. He is the Merciful Father who in Jesus loves us beyond all measure. To the world, the father seems like a foolish foggy old man madden with love for his two sons – one an ingrate wastrel and the other, a resentful and reluctant worker. The errors committed by his sons do not corrode the fidelity of the old man’s love for them. In this way, he provides for us the example of how to liberate ourselves from the entitlement trap. We do so whenever we begin to consider the needs of the other, apart from our own rights and entitlements. The father invites us to move from a ‘give me’ mentality to that of personal responsibility. While there's a time and place for discussing rights, what's most helpful is the reminder that we need to extend grace to others, even to those who don’t seem to deserve it.

During this season of Lent, the Heavenly Father invites us to return home, Holy Mother Church pleads with us to return home.  Let us make this inner pilgrimage freely and without reservation. Christ wishes to set us truly free from the bondage of sin, of selfishness, of material illusions and addictions. We come without pretences, acknowledging that we are undeserving, not entitled to the graces we ask from him. We come with humility recognising that only when we have returned to the Father, both inwardly and outwardly, can we experience true freedom of the soul. Let us come to him to celebrate the feast prepared for us, for the one who is lost is now found, the one who is dead is now alive once more.

It is God’s great mercy that leads us to salvation.  It is His mercy that, through the cross of Jesus Christ, saves those who deserve hell.  His mercy works in us to make us a part of His living covenant community, the Church.  God in His mercy sent Jesus to seek and save the lost and that is what He does.  So, never say that someone does not deserve mercy. Mercy is never deserved. If it were, it would be justice. And yet, it is mercy which Jesus now offers us and we are forever grateful for that.

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