12 September 2010

A Fate Worse Than Death

While it is not our intention to introduce a morbid topic on this twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary time, it does seem worthwhile to consider the "supporting actor" in the drama of the long version of today's Gospel. How often do we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son where the mercy of God, as manifested in the Father's lavish welcome to his errant heir, is the object lesson put before us. Like the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek the lost sheep, the merciful father is an image of God's generosity to the repentant sinner. At times we are reminded to imitate the prodigal son in the way in which he returned to his father. At other times, we are called, when we have failed in fidelity, to return in humility and to ask for and to receive forgiveness. These are both solid truths from today's Gospel.

Between these two lessons, however, is our supporting actor -- the elder brother -- who reveals an uncomfortable truth: to be so self-righteous that we do not need mercy is, perhaps, a fate worse than death itself. No one knows for sure what Our Lord intended to teach us by putting this self-satisfied sibling in the story. We might consider that his sense of complacency is an odious symptom of one who has long looked in judgment upon his younger brother. This canting character, very likely, has weighed himself and his younger brother in his own scales of judgment and has found his brother unworthy of their father's kindness. Perhaps he finds it difficult to watch his father show mercy to his misbehaving -- but repentant -- brother. Perhaps he considers himself so far above reproach that he would never be in need of such gratuitous kindness. Whatever his mindset, it is clear that the pouting big brother is made very uncomfortable -- downright angry -- at the display of his father's mercy.

Mercy -- be it the mercy that we ourselves receive, the mercy that we show to others, or the mercy that we are privileged to witness in the lives of those around us -- should soften our hearts and make them ever more sensitive to the needs of those around us. May we never imitate the elder brother and manifest an aversion to this great gift of God. For there is no one among us, on this side of eternity, who is not in need of mercy. Let us, rather, imitate the younger brother and run confidently to the merciful heart of the Father.

"So then, when you have fallen, lift up your heart in quietness, humbling yourself deeply before God by reason of your frailty, without marveling that you fell . . . . Heartily lament that you should have offended God and begin anew to cultivate the lacking grace, with a very deep trust in his Mercy and with a bold, brave heart."
St. Francis de Sales

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