As the Church makes her way through Lent, she draws from the Sacred Scriptures and reminds us of what it means to follow the way of the Lord Jesus. We are called to die to ourselves and live for him.
There are many ways in which our spiritual death is to be lived out, but few of them compete with the command to give mercy.
Today we are reminded of the summons to forgive others. The Church presents the popular story of the Prodigal Son from Saint Luke’s Gospel. The story is a strong refutation of self-righteousness. It reminds us of our own pride and fallenness, as it calls us to forgive the sins and fallenness of our neighbors.
The story is well-known to us: a man has two sons, the younger one asks for his inheritance early, receives it, and lives a life of dissipation. In time, a famine takes his livelihood away. He is destitute and undergoes a conversion.
He recognizes that his father’s servants are better treated then he is. He decides to return home and beg for his father’s mercy, so that his father might at least allow him to be one of his servants. Meanwhile, the other son has remained dutiful and worked hard on his father’s estate.
As the younger brother is returning home, his father sees him and runs to him, rejoices over his return, and orders a large celebration. In the meantime, as the older son returns from work, he hears the party. He doesn’t understand and is told by a servant about his brother’s return. He is upset and does not enter the party.
The older brother is refusing to forgive and will not celebrate his brother’s return. When the father hears of the older son’s refusal to come into the celebration, he goes to his son. After an initial exchange, the father’s words ring out: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
It is clear by his words that the father loves both sons. He wants his family to be united. He wants the older brother to forgive and to come and celebrate with him. But the older son is wounded, feels slighted, and is indulging self-righteousness.
The older brother, who has been with his father the entire time, should share his father’s spirit and allow himself to rejoice over his younger brother’s return. But he is obstinate. Stuck in confusion and self-pity.
The story certainly rocks the boat. It exposes both the “younger brother” in our hearts and the “older brother” in our souls.
The spirit of the younger brother is oftentimes easier to recognize. It can be more dramatic or blatant to us. The spirit of the older brother, however, is sly and deceptive. It canonizes itself behind goodness and makes claims to righteousness arguments. It lies to us and gives us an incomplete or false sense of justice.
It is staggering to think that the living God, who gives the moral law to us and teaches us how to live, will readily welcome murderers, thieves, and prostitutes to his table, but he will not invite the self-righteous and those who refuse mercy to be with him.
The disciples of the Lord Jesus are defined by mercy. We have received mercy and we are called to give it. There are no conditions and no exceptions. We are a people of the Prodigal Son. We are called to be a people of mercy.
Pope Francis emphasizes this point: “There is no Christianity without mercy. If all our Christianity does not lead us to mercy, we are on the wrong path, because mercy is the only true goal of every spiritual journey. It is one of the most beautiful fruits of charity.”
The call to mercy has been given to us. In the parable, we are not told whether the older brother ever enters the celebration. The story ends with the exchange between father and son. It was left open-ended for the initial hearers of the parable, just as it has been left open-ended for us.
Will we recognize our own sinfulness and continue to seek forgiveness? Will we die to our self-righteousness and rejoice over the return of others to the family of God?
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby