Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Have mercy on me, O God"

Our readings for this Sunday are dominated by, and rightfully so, Jesus' telling the story of the Prodigal Son. Of course, we can all relate to the prodigal because, in a real sense, we are him. But what about the older brother, who, quite understandably, takes exception not so much to his father welcoming back his errant brother, but the lavish manner in which he does it? This is the aspect of this parable that is usually passed over silently. Yes, the older brother is wrong, as Jesus' words convey, but his feelings and expression of them are understandable, very reasonable. The father in the story is gracious and merciful to his dutiful son too. He urges him to join in the celebration even while reassuring him that his faithfulness will be rewarded. It is a summons to joy. Whether the faithful son continued to brood, or, accepting his father's reassurance, joined the party and rejoiced both at the return of his brother and his father's love, Jesus does not tell us.

There are two things Henri Nouwen observed in his book on this stunning parable that I think are worth handing on, two things that shed some light on the choice faced by the faithful son at the end of the story: "You don't think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking" (echoes of the inaugural words of the Lord's ministry, "Be repenting and be believing"?- Mark 1:15) and "Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day."

In His Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus not only highlights the fact, set forth in our second reading, that He "came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15), but gives us deep insight into how He accomplishes what He came into the world to do.

Our Responsorial Psalm today is Psalm 51, known as the Miserere mei deus (i.e., "Have mercy on me, O God"), the first Psalm of Morning Prayer each Friday, a day of penance. The Psalm begins:

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.

While it easy for many of us to over-identify with the prodigal and to ignore the tendency we have to act and think like the older son, it is even easier to miss the larger point, which is the great love the father has for them both, which results in his gratuitously dispensing such amazing grace. If that does not cause you to rejoice and at least desire to live in a new way, I don't know what will.

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