Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Where Justice and Mercy meet

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C

The parable of the prodigal son is perhaps the most moving of all parables in the gospels. The experiences and life of the two sons serve solely to reveal the heart of the Father. He is the true protagonist of the story. Nowhere else does our Lord portray His Heavenly Father more vividly or plainly. Most people would of course look to the conclusion of the story to see its climax and no one can deny the magnanimity of the father in welcoming back that ingrate of a son.

But actually, the impressiveness of the story begins already at the very start, with the fact that the father grants the son’s request and hands over to him his portion of the inheritance, an inheritance he did not earn, nor an inheritance that was due to him. Being the younger son, he would have just received one third of his father’s wealth. But the troubling thing is that all inheritances get passed on to the next of kin only after the death of the one who bequeaths it. The request seems to suggest that the younger son wishes his father dead. And yet here we see the father offers this most generous gift to the younger son, even though it was not his legal right.

For us a portion of God’s inheritance is our existence, our freedom, our intellect, our immortal soul, and saving grace – all of these are the most sublime goods imaginable, goods that only God could give us. That we waste it all and end up in distress like the younger son in our story, is not really as significant as the father’s vigil, compassion, extravagant greeting, refurbishing of the prodigal, and the feast announced in his honour. He had already squandered his inheritance, now the father does the unimaginable, accords him more with the risk of losing everything.

But the magnanimity of the father is not confined to the younger wayward child, but also to the seemingly dutiful older boy who chose not to leave home. His reaction to the father’s seeming lunacy suggests envy and still the father does not have a harsh word for him – he is merely reminding him of this simple truth: whoever sticks by the father possesses everything in common with the father. The elder son who believes that he is denied his inheritance because it had been squandered by his younger brother and his father’s misguided sense of love, is himself actually the misguided one. You see, our inheritance is never diminished, when God chooses to share it with others. God does not withhold our inheritance from us, not even when we are undeserving, not even if we have squandered the portion that had been allotted to us. We are meant to be ‘at home’ in the Father’s house, all He has is ours, and He shares this with us without holding anything back. “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.”

What is today’s Gospel parable really about? This story isn’t just about the generosity of God the Father, but there is a far more profound message which our Lord wishes to convey to His audience. The clue is to be found in the first three verses of the Gospel. The Pharisees were appalled at our Lord’s actions for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The strict Pharisees would not eat with sinners for this would bring about ritual contamination. And thus our Lord begins to tell a series of parables, this being the first. Mercy is clearly the central theme in this parable. The father is lavish in His mercy. The younger son receives more mercy than he expects. The elder son is guilty for thinking that the mercy shown is excessive and unfair on him. The parable expresses this maxim ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’

But the parable also teaches about the relationship of mercy to justice. It reveals the true face or rather, the heart of the Father. Putting the focus on God will allow us to discover the truth about ourselves. God makes change possible, more than we sometimes dare to hope for.

The first dimension of God is that He is a righteous God, a God of justice; a point too often forgotten when we over emphasise His mercy to the exclusion of justice. If God is good and powerful, then God simply cannot overlook evil and injustice. To do so, is to fail to be good. God is so good that scripture speaks of Him as full of wrath, wrath for sin, wrath for everything that keeps us away from Him. In other words, God’s passion for justice and to overcome evil is such that in His wrath, which is His passion against sin, evil and injustice, will burn up sin, evil and wipe out injustice, and reward the just. The wrath of God arouses fear but also hope in those who thirst after justice.

But God’s goodness also means that He is merciful. This is the second important lesson from the parable. God, in His abundant Providence provides us with all we need. His is our inheritance. And this is not lost even when we lost our original innocence, when we fell. This means that God in His mercy for what He has made, continues to bind Himself to us with a faithful and ongoing concern, like that of a father for a child, even a wayward child. His mercy leads Him to keep helping us in our plight. He keeps waiting for us to repent and to return to Him. His mercy prompts Him to forgive and offer grace to help us to be righteous again. Forgiveness is like a fresh start. And then God gives us the ultimate fresh start. God does not merely restore the old Creation marred by sin. God makes a New Creation by the gift of His Eternal Son, who took on our human nature. Christ assumed our human nature so that we may now share in His divine nature. He did this to begin a new humanity, a new creation, as shown clearly in His resurrection. Paul has explained this wonderfully in our second reading.

So, the Justice of God is not opposed to His Mercy, and neither is His Mercy a cancelling out of His Justice. Mercy is the means by which the goodness and wisdom of God establish justice and wipe out evil and injustice. We see this in the parable. The younger son receives mercy, far more than he thinks he deserves or that even an indulgent and kind father can exercise without making a mockery of his justice. He is restored as a son, not just a slave or a house servant. But he then has to act as a son should, working justly for his father in his company. The elder son is challenged by his father to see how justice is not compromised by mercy. He has not lost out on his reward and inheritance for being just. He needs to remember that his inheritance is not due to his hard work but due to the generosity and goodness the father has shown to him. The father takes all the credit, not him. And because the inheritance that both the younger son and the older received is wholly due to the father’s generosity, no one could claim entitlement. It was the father’s right to give to whomever he chooses.

Both sons were surprised by the mercy of their father. We should be too. Let us never take God’s grace and mercy for granted. We, like the two sons, are invited “to taste and see that the Lord is good”, immeasurably more good than any earthly parent could ever be. And rather than begrudge God’s goodness, patience and mercy shown to others whom we personally feel are undeserving, this should be an invitation to “celebrate and rejoice” at their good fortune. Let us never forget that we too are undeserving of those graces and mercy; none of us are. Whatever we have received, none of us have earned it, none of us are deserving, and it is all due to the merciful gratuitousness of God. Yes, the story is always about the Father, never about us. And the Father shows His love through His only begotten Son. So therefore, let us always rejoice in this truth and in the wonderful saving work of Christ, knowing that it is by the gift of His life on the cross, the one who is dead, has come to life, the one who is lost is found.

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