Sunday, March 10, 2013

God is Rich in Mercy

Jesus never gave a title to his most famous parable which we hear proclaimed today. It has come to be known as "The Prodigal Son" because of how thoroughly the son wastes his father's inheritance. Many scholars, however, have suggested that the parable should be called, "The Forgiving Father" because Jesus goes to such lengths to describe how joyful the father was upon seeing his son home and how ready he was to welcome and forgive him.

However, most of us listening to this parable today will most readily identify not with the prodigal son nor with his forgiving father but with the other son who stayed behind. We can feel his disappointment and anger when he learns that his brother has come home and that, instead of getting scolded or being made to pay the money he squandered back, his father is actually throwing a party for him. We feel the hurt in his voice when he says, "For years I have slaved for you, and you have never given me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends." He reminds us of ourselves at times when we felt overlooked and unappreciated despite our best efforts. If it were up to us, the parable would not be titled "The Prodigal Son", nor "The Forgiving Father" but rather, "The Forgotten Son."

Most likely, Jesus intended the overlooked son to be at the center of his parable of mercy. However, he might have described him as "The Unforgiving Son" or "The Ungrateful Son."

Let's remember why Jesus told the parable in the first place. The Pharisees had been grumbling that Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and prostitutes - not only speaking with them, but going into their homes and eating with them. He did what no good and pious Jew of his day would ever dream of doing - making friends with those who broke the laws of their ancestors.

Now, the Pharisees of Jesus' day were very good and sincere people. They prayed and fasted much more than the law required them to do. They set up synagogues so that those who could not travel to Jerusalem would have a place to worship. They gave generously to the poor. In their minds, they were the epitome of what a good Jew should be just as the son in the parable believed himself to be the kind of son his father wanted.

However, Jesus was a curiosity to them. He spoke with authority and worked miracles giving sight to the blind and raising the dead. But, at the same time, he ate with public sinners. In their minds, if he were truly a prophet or the Son of God, he would know to avoid the company of tax collectors and prostitutes. Also, he would be telling the Pharisees how good they were and would be holding them up as an example for the people to follow. Instead, he criticized the religious leaders, frequented the homes of sinners and invited fishermen to be his disciples.

The Pharisees were truly good people. However, their religious observance filled them with pride. It gave them a sense of entitlement and superiority. It made them judgemental. They forgot that they too were sinners who were forgiven because of God's mercy. Because of this, they were unable to forgive and show mercy to sinners. They were the ungrateful and unforgiving sons who would miss out on the celebration because they could not share their father's joy that the prodigal son had finally returned home.

We find ourselves about one month into our Lenten observance. Some of us have been able to keep our Lenten sacrifice up without falling. Some of us may have cheated a little here and there but are doing our best to keep it up. Still others of us have given up on it all together. The success of our Lenten sacrifices, however, is not in showing how disciplined and determined we can be. It is not an exercise of will power. Rather, the success of our Lenten observance will be the effect it has on our hearts. Are our prayers, fasting and sacrifices making us more loving and more forgiving? Are our hearts growing in compassion for others? Are we recognizing the face of Christ in everyone we meet, especially those who are difficult to love? If so, then our Lenten practice is having a good effect in our lives.

If, on the other hand, our success at staying away from sweets for forty straight days is making us grow in pride and causing us to be judgmental of others, then we have not learned the lesson of God's mercy. What God wants more than perfect discipline and perfect obedience is perfect love. Whenever we feel a sense of superiority or a judgmental spirit coming upon us, we must fly to God and ask him for the gift of humility so that we can grow in the knowledge of his mercy. Otherwise, we will find ourselves out in the cold, like the unforgiving son who did what his father asked of him but who never really knew how good, forgiving and merciful he was.

Jesus suffered and died for each one of us. There is no one who is so good that Jesus did not have to die for him or her. We are all in the same situation - sinners who have no other hope except in the mercy of God. Today, Jesus continues to welcome sinners and eat with them. We are those sinners, and we gather around this table to receive his body and blood. It is a celebration of mercy and forgiveness that has gone on for centuries. It is a celebration which is repeated in heaven whenever people repent of their sinful ways. With the knowledge that we are truly unworthy but loved nonetheless, let us go from this place to put into practice the tender mercy of our Heavenly Father.

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