4th Sunday of Lent C

Mercy is more than a celebration. It is a challenge.  It asks us if we can fully give our yes to God’s offer of forgiveness, peace and wholeness.  Because God is everywhere, mercy confronts us everywhere and we sometimes fail to grasp exactly the gift God has given; sometimes mercy makes us choose even the painful in order to love.

The great parable of the Prodigal Son gives us three characters confronted by mercy and their response to it is not always clear cut.  Since we have all walked in the shoes of the father and the younger and older brother, we can gage how we confront mercy in our lives.

For the younger son, mercy is a gamble. He has rudely asked for his share of his inheritance and defiantly left home, intending it to be forever.  Now he has run out to money and is starving as he tends pigs in a foreign land.  He comes home not be reconciled, but to eat.  He even rehearses a speech all the way home.  “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”  His strategy is to come home to receive a modicum of mercy; just enough to stay alive.  He does not deserve to be called a son; his father owes him nothing, but for the sake of what they had had been to his father, perhaps a little mercy would still be available.

How overwhelmed he must have been then when his father saw him from a long way off and ran up to him and embraced him?  How shocked he must have been to have a fine robe put on him, a ring on his finger and to have the fattened calf slaughtered in his honor and a feast declared.  He just wanted a little bit of mercy, but he ran to a father who does not know how to give small gifts or forgive only a part of the way.  Divine mercy is an everything experience.  I wonder how he accepted it.

Of course we know the older brother’s reaction was disgust at the celebration for his younger brother.  His mercy is constricted by his idea of justice.  The younger brother of course does not deserve the feast, but who wants only what they deserve.  The older one is so busy about griping about his years of servitude, never having even a goat to share with his friends that he cares not that his long lost brother is alive; had been lost and is now found.  With the same keen eye that saw his younger son coming home, the father notices his older one missing.  He tries to persuade him to come into the feast.  We never know if he did.

Finally, there is the mercy that is easy to spot in the father –the care for both his sons, the call for a celebration.  But he shows mercy in the shadows of the story as well.  There is the mercy shown to the younger son when he asks for his share of inheritance treating his father as if he were already dead and his loving father agrees.  The merciful letting go of an uncaring son.  The hundreds of nights searching down the road when the younger son did not come home and the view of his back when he left down that same road forever.  This is the face of hard mercy – a mercy which endures and surrenders and is only bounded by love.

Celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation for 24 consecutive hours was an exercise in mercy.  I was amazed at how many came (130) and how far they came from, but what most surprised me was how many people who had been away from the sacrament for 5, 10, 20 or 30 years came.  Somehow they saw this is a special invitation to be finally confronted by mercy.  To see if God could truly rid what they had held onto for so long.  Could God’s light truly penetrate the darkest places of their life?  And it turns out that we cannot hide from divine mercy. God was in the abortion clinic; God was there when they harmed their marriage; God was there in the midst of their addiction, not to justify or condone, but to heal, to make the broken whole and to find again those who had been lost.

To know our God is to know a love unlimited and a compassion unbounded.  To know our God is to know a God who does not forgive reluctantly or in half measures.  To know our God is to accept the wild imprudence of giving us more than what we deserve.  To know our God is to be given the freedom to fail and to be welcomed back in open arms.  To know our God is celebrate the light that reaches our darkest places.  To know our God is to know that God is mercy.

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