Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Prodigal Son and Mercy Misunderstood

Doing my morning readings/studies, I noticed a trend of mercy and love in the varied works I read (Scripture, Patristics, Catechism, Saints, Church documents) that are synched together like well crafted gears (which makes sense, considering Who designed the system). It starts with God’s love for us, even though we misuse our free will for evil. God wants us to be reconciled to Him and He pursues us to bring us back to Him, knowing what will make us truly happy—though He never violates our free will. Even in the Old Testament, so often misinterpreted as having a harsh and vindictive God, shows God pleading with His people to cease sinning and turn back to Him so He can forgive them and give them His blessings.

Unfortunately, our responses do not match His generous and unselfish love for us. He calls everyone to turn to Him and follow Him, but it seems that we want to put conditions on that call. Those conditions either want to limit the requirements for us personally being His followers or put limits on who else can turn to Him. In other words, we can sum these two mindsets as:

  1. “I want God’s mercy without having to be sorry!”
  2. “I don’t want those people here unless they’re as good as ME!”

Both positions make a mockery of God’s mercy and create a perverted image of God that non-believers can point to and mock. (And I should note here that it is quite possible for us to be in both categories at once).

“I Want God’s Mercy Without Having To Be Sorry!"

Loving and following Our Lord requires changing our lives in order to be like Him (John 14:15, 1 John 5:1-5). God created us to seek out the greatest good—Himself. He gives us free will because He wants us to love us by His own choice, not as mindless drones. He has designed us in such a way that living in accordance to what is good benefits us, and living in opposition to that good harms us—even if it pleases us in the short term. Understood like that, people who want the Church to change her teachings are wanting the impossible. They want what God has forbade as evil to be redefined as good, as if the labels of good and evil were arbitrary decisions a human being chose to apply to behaviors at a whim.

Sin is something real. It destroys our relationship with God. It can condemn us to hell. It is something so serious, that Our Lord died on a Cross so we could be saved from it. His action is a gift we can either choose or reject. Accepting His salvation means we need to turn our life around and live as He calls us to live, and when we fall into sin, we need to change direction and turn back to God, trying to the best of our ability to stop doing what separates us from God, praying for His grace to do so, and making use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

That behavior is exactly the opposite of the person who demands that the Church change her teachings. That’s not metanoia. That’s demanding that reality change to suit the individual—in other words, putting the self above God and saying, “I’ll follow God, but He (or his Church) has to change to suit me.” It’s as if the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) returned home and expected to be treated as normal, like nothing ever happened, thinking he was still entitled to the Father’s inheritance, despite the fact that he’d squandered it. What they want is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, which wants the benefits of Jesus dying for us without the call to take up our cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24-27).

The thing is people who are becoming increasingly hostile to Christian teaching—especially those who try to claim that it is against what Jesus would want—is that such hostility fails to understand what the mercy of God is. This mercy is creating a way for each sinner to be brought back to God. This way is not mean that anybody who thinks “Jesus was a nice guy” is allowed to do whatever he or she wants to do. This way is making it possible for the sinner who repents to find forgiveness for his or her sins.

We see this in the Gospels. Sinners who have done wrong change their hearts and their ways and find forgiveness. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more (John 8:11). We are to go and sin no more. If we do sin and again break our relationship with God, He has created the Sacrament of Reconciliation (John 20:23) that our relationship with God may be healed anew as often as we seek Him with a sincere heart. THAT’s mercy!

“I Don’t Want Those People Here Unless They’re As Good as ME!"

In one sense, critics of the Church have it right. There are people who do act judgmentally towards sinners. They are people who get scandalized when the Pope reaches out to an atheist or someone flaunting their same sex behavior. They get scandalized when bishops speak about treating illegal aliens with human dignity. They believe the proper response to the sinner should be strong warnings and excommunications, assuming all people who have a sin they do not are people of wickedness, worse then them and therefore not welcome in the Church.

What we’re doing here is seen in the parable of the merciless servant (Matthew 18:21-35), the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) and it’s the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It presumes that so long as we are not as bad as the people we presume are worse than us, we have no reason to change our behavior. It presumes that we should be praised and those not like us should be condemned.

The problem with that view is it overlooks the fact that we are in the Church and trying to live faithfully in the first place because of God’s grace and the people God put into our lives to bring us about. It also overlooks the fact that we are not perfect people, but still sinners in need of salvation. But mainly it overlooks the fact that Jesus did die so that we might be saved. So every person—the illegal alien, the pro-abortion politician, the same sex activist—falls into the category of people we need to be reached out to. Even when we are spurned and hated, we cannot give upon trying to reach out to them. Even the penalty of excommunication is aimed at showing the sinner the need to turn back and repent—it is NOT intended to be an amputation of a sinner to be eternally cut off from God.

Ultimately, this mindset forgets Jesus’ words to St. Peter about how many times we are to forgive. Seventy times seven—that doesn’t mean a limit of 490 times but always (Matthew 18:21-22).

It’s Not About “The Other Side,” It’s About Us.

Of course, people get defensive about such things. It’s easy to see such behavior in others, but if someone dares say our own behavior is going wrong, we get outraged and point to the behavior of others. This is why I said above that it is quite possible for us to be in both categories at once. We are shown that our behavior is wrong and we start getting angry: How dare you judge me! I’m much better than those people!

But that’s to miss the point. None of us here can claim to be without sin. So we cannot look down on others who are in sin. They are our brothers and sisters who need our love even as we stand up for the truth. On the other side, none of us can claim that we know better than the magisterium what the teaching of the magisterium should be. So maybe we’re not openly supporting changing the Church teaching on sexual morality—but are we willing to be obedient to the Church on her social teaching? Or is our approach Mater Si, Magister No?

Essentially, we need to be certain that we are open to the Church and willing to obey her, and at the same time, be willing to reach out to the sinner. We must neither refuse to repent nor refuse to reach out, even if the person we reach out to refuses to turn back to God. That’s the message of Pope Francis, the message of the Church and the message of Christ.

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