Sunday 31 March 2019: Lent 4
His Name is Mercy
Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
By Dominic Robinson
Parish Priest of Farm Street Jesuit Church in London; UK Director of Landings Programme for Returning Catholics; Lecturer in Dogmatic and Pastoral Theology, Allen Hall Seminary
Context: Sunday Mass in a contemporary urban setting with a varied, committed congregation
Aim: to give encouragement and stimulation to the hearers to live out their faith in daily life
Can you think of a time when you’ve asked for something, got it, but later realised your request had been unfair? Maybe bullying someone into something, pushing past someone to get a job or favour or even something more serious like the break-up a relationship? Well, this is the first big mistake of the younger son. His request for his share of the estate seems to be a totally selfish request without any thought for the good of the family as a whole. He is in it only ‘for me’, not ‘for us’, not for the family. The first big mistake.
And from this comes the slippery slope. We know about the life of sin he then follows. Debauchery, taking pleasure in personal gratification, distancing himself from his father’s home. If we’re basically good people – not great sinners who fall into that position in the far country – we might find it difficult to connect with that kind of seriously going off the rails. But we can understand where it starts. He is turned in on himself and distances himself from the family, from his brothers and sisters, his father, the rest of the body to which he belongs.
But what about the elder son? Perhaps we might connect with him more clearly. His attitude to the whole episode is especially dangerous too. Here I am, basically good most of the time, maybe with occasional lapses, but I’m nothing like him, nothing like that unforgivable reprobate, his younger brother. That youngster has squandered everything, he’s broken up our family, he’s a disgrace. We can easily just fall into the old trap of arrogance at missing the planks in our own eyes and lives. An attitude that’s all too easy of course in a world where many in the public eye – be they politicians, celebrities or religious professionals – are frequently exposed for their failings and sin. And in many cases that’s needed. As long as it doesn’t lead to an elder son syndrome.
So, what does God do about all this? What does the Father do? Well, he does three things as soon as the son comes back from the far country:
Firstly, the robe. He covers the younger son in his best robe. Note the total contradiction in this. The younger son has been a total outcast when he’s been away from home, even to the point of living in the pig pen – that’s the total ignominy of a good Jew, living in the depths of dirt. But now a robe is placed around him and all that dirt, all those sins are covered. Just as the Lord had promised in the Old Testament prophecies his sins are washed white as wool. They are covered by the robe, invisible, eradicated. They are thrown behind the Father’s back.
Secondly, the ring. The son who has cast himself out of the family home is never abandoned in the Father’s mind and heart. You might expect he would at least be disinherited. But it’s exactly the opposite. As the ring is placed on his finger all the authority of his sonship, with all the privilege that entails, is completely restored. In fact, it has never been lost. He’s right back in there as though he’s never been away.
And thirdly the fatted calf. The restoration – or confirmation – that this son of mine is totally forgiven – is not a hush hush, private matter. Rather we’re called to a very public party. We’re all called to share in the rejoicing that he’s returned to the fold.
How sick does it make us feel? If you’re like me, it’s quite disturbing. You keep the slate clean and you get no reward. A terrible sinner comes back from the depths of depravity and he’s given a party as though nothing has happened. It’s shocking. But the Gospel is shocking. And if it does shock, then there’s probably a lesson there for me who’s often more concerned about ‘me’ and less about ‘us’, our family, and service of our neighbour for the common good. Because God’s mercy is boundless because his love is boundless, infinite. Whatever we’ve done, if we truly repent, he welcomes us back because in his arms is where we belong. We are made in his image and likeness and nothing we do will ever lead him to separate us from him. His name is mercy. And that is what we are called to party about, to present joyfully to the world around us through our words and more so through our actions towards others.
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