The heart of the Gospels is the mercy presented as the mandate of Jesus’ mission in the parable of the merciful father in Luke 15:11-32, a parable usually entitled by the one receiving that mercy, the prodigal son, though the one most in need of mercy, to whom mercy is also offered, is the elder son, who, in his own heart, insists on living in the darkest of existential peripheries to which Jesus is especially sent. So, just where is it that one is to find this prodigal mercy in the Year of Mercy? If you don’t know why it is that that’s the wrong question, then know that you’re a self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian who is more in need of a revolution in tender mercy than ever. :-)
Decades into my own lifelong search for mercy, not knowing that the very search was, in itself, keeping me away from the profoundest of mercies, pretending to myself that I, with merely my own cleverness, could somehow find mercy, I used my years at the Pontifical Biblical Institute to put Lk 15:11-32 to a relentless scientific analysis. I discovered logistical anomalies in the papyri and codices written in whatever language and century and location, with those copyists’ versions predating and influencing some important Patristic commentary that could only confirm Pelagius in his Promethian perspective, but which also was the occasion for Saint Augustine, in answer to such dark self-absorption, to come up with a theology of grace that was to inspire Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent and so many who have since been declared to be the Doctors of the Church because of their commentary on the spiritual life to be put into action for all those still trapped in the darkest of existential peripheries. It all comes down to mercy, which we would do well to appreciate with all due justice.
Discovering this birthing of theological development in the days of yore, I was entrenched all the more into thinking I could find mercy. I then subjecting the inspired words of the Holy Spirit to more philological, linguistic and literary analyses, more forays into historically and archeologically verified Sitz im Leben, more of all that is… more. Only after all that personal work, I then read pretty much all there is to read in whatever language or century or location of whatsoever author about Lk 15:11-32 in all of its various contexts and levels thereof, whether in commentaries, studies, articles, Festschriften, theses, archived class prep notes of famous professors, et alia, whatever was available in the best Scripture libraries throughout Rome, Jerusalem, New York, and so many monastic libraries, I was set to put all this to the test with independent courses and seminars and exam research papers for various professors, and did, so that Maurice Gilbert, SJ. – past rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in both Rome and Jerusalem, and who consulted for Saint John Paul II’s encyclical on mercy, Dives in misericordia – said that I knew more than anyone alive today about Lk 15:11-32, which statement, after having also done the licentiate thesis with the then rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, Klemens Stock, SJ – who was later to become Secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission – I might agree, unfortunately entrenching myself all the more into the idiocy of thinking that I myself under my own power and with my own cleverness might find mercy.
There I was, living a life like the prodigal son, ζῶν ἀσώτως (without salvation: Lk 15:13), hotly desiring to shove the carob pods of the pigs down my throat but not being able to ask for the same, enslaved to the world to which I had sold myself. I had made my clever plan to eat my cake and have it as well, thinking I was back with our Heavenly Father but still staying away like those not in the family, remaining ‘in control.’ I went through all the motions to come back, but did not find any mercy. Jesus points out the disconnect:
“You analyze the Scriptures, because it seems to you that you have eternal life in them, and they are bearing witness to me, but you do not want to come to me so that you may have life” (Jn 5:39-40).
But then, despite myself being a self-absorbed Promethian Neo-Pelagian, there it was, a “revolution in tenderness,” a turning of the tables wrought by our Lord, I not finding His mercy, but He finding me by His mercy, His misericordia, His misery of heart by which He takes my need into His own Heart and fulfills that need as if it were His own, sacrificing His Heart in this way for me. The word used for Jesus’ mercy here and reserved elsewhere in the Gospels only for Jesus is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (His Heart was sacrificed).
Overwhelmed by His love, His invitation, the embrace of a loving Father for his son, I was unable to continue with my planned confession, with my being in control. I simply let myself be loved by Him. No more trusting in my own strength which I don’t have anyway. It is to be immersed in the joy of the Holy Spirit to take note of the Lord’s ironic use of our weakness for our sanctification. This joy has us be totally at ease, not at all getting nervous with the effects, the weaknesses brought about by original sin, by our own stupidity, weakness of mind, weakness of will, emotions all over the place, sickness, death, those things being merely the cross used to follow our Lord, seeing clearly just how far He had to reach to get us, and humbly thanking Him for this, rejoicing in this being brought back to life from a life without salvation, a living death now thrown aside not by us but by Him. Do I still sin? Daily. Do I still go to Confession? Frequently. Is our Lord good and kind? Very much so.
But entering into the celebration, over which the angels themselves rejoice, I cannot but pray to the Father in anguish that he go out to the darkest of existential peripheries once again, to invite my “elder brother” back into the celebration. I follow Him out to the field hospital, to my brother, well within a stone’s throw, then right there, at the ready with gauze and bandages and splints and blood and a bit of whiskey for pain… We’ve all crucified the Son of the Living God. He’s redeemed all of us. We must be in anguish until the many are brought into the celebration of salvation. But it’s a bit of a fright: “This, your son.” “This, your brother.” Ferocious.
P.S. Did I convert from being a lifelong entrenched conservative to being a new-born liberal? No. Yuck. Conservatives can sin you know. And not just with impatience and arrogance and judging oneself to be better than others. Conservative or liberal? One is as good as the other. See Romans 7. More on that later. And more on Mercy based on Justice later. It’s O.K. to be thankful for Jesus’ mercy. Take note: this is about being invited by Jesus to know His Life, His Truth, His Goodness, His Kindness, His Mercy, His Joy, His celebrating of mercy received. It’s all about Him. Jesus is the One. Only Jesus.
THE UPSHOT: Mercy in the year of mercy after the Synod on the Family is all about showing the kind of mercy to others that will let them know that they are the loved sons and daughters of God, bringing them by this invitation to joy right into the loving embrace of our Heavenly Father, right into the Family of Faith. It’s not about people finding mercy. It’s about finding them with mercy, with the love of Jesus, the joy of Jesus. Only the Mercy of Jesus.
UPDATE: See Father Gordon J MacRae’s article entitled: “Pope Francis Has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother.” Also, witness the incredible story of mercy of Pornchai Maximilian Moontri at Mercy to the Max.
– Father George David Byers