Tag Archives: The Prodigal Son

Unblemished, Unqualified Mercy

But when a man with all his resolution rises up from his sins and turns wholly away from them, our faithful God then acts as if he had never fallen into sins.  For all his sins, God will not allow him for one moment to suffer.  Were they as many as all men have ever committed, God will never allow him to suffer for this.  With this man God can use all the simple tenderness that he has ever shown toward created beings.  If he now finds the man ready to be different, he will have no regard for what he used to be.  God is a God of the present.  Meister Eckhart, Counsels on Discernment (Counsel 12).

My Dominican brother, Meister Eckhart, lived from around 1260 to about 1327.  A teacher, a preacher, a mystic and a theologian, he wrote on the subjects of metaphysics and spiritual psychology.  Along with St. Bede the Venerable and St. Anselm, he serves as an icon of the intellectual spirit of the medieval period.  Like many who challenged the Church to think in fresh ways, he paid a heavy price for his ideas.  The Franciscan-led Inquisition charged Eckhart with heresy, although he apparently died before the verdict.

In this passage, Meister Eckhart writes about the stunning nature of God’s forgiveness, offering us an appropriate Lenten reflection.  Most of us are accustomed to thinking of forgiveness the way it works in the world.  The forgiveness of our brothers and sisters is often reluctant, half-hearted, and  incomplete.  Eckhart assures us that God’s forgiveness operates immediately and without reservation.

We often struggle with this notion, just as we strain against the idea of the “good thief” who was crucified alongside Jesus.  Jesus assured him, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Luke 23: 43.  There’s something about this last-minute conversion that we really struggle with.  After an entire lifetime mired in sin, as death approaches, the notion that one can turn things around upsets our sense of fairness.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) similarly challenge our notion of equity.  Like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal, this just doesn’t seem right to us.  As Eckhart points out, however, God will not refuse those who repent with all their resolution.  Our instinct tells us there’s got to be some penalty for all that history of sin and disobedience.  Meister Eckhart answers that God is just not interested in “all that history.”

Mother Teresa said, “We need lots of love to forgive, and we need lots of humility to forget.  It is not complete forgiveness unless we forget also.  As long as we cannot forget we really have not forgiven fully.”  We pray for God to forgive us as we forgive those who’ve harmed us.  As we live into the Christian life, we encounter in God’s kingdom something much richer and more loving than fairness or justice.  We find mercy and grace.  If we will only place our feet in this water, the river of forgiveness will sweep us away.

Most of us will find this notion of complete forgiveness terribly challenging.  We struggle to let go of past wrongs and insults.  We strain to share the grace of the present moment.   It’s not an easy way; it’s the way of the Cross.

Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Laying Down Our Arms

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Luke 15: 18-19.

Without a doubt, the story of the Prodigal Son is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, in part because it provides a well from which I can always drink.

In the last post, we considered the many ways we try to bargain with God. I believe our sin provides one of the clearest examples of this. We try and dicker with the Almighty: “Well, I may have fudged on my taxes, but look at how often I’ve gone to church.” Or, “I may have driven my car when I was drunk, but no one got hurt, and that’s not something you really care about, is it God?” Part of the problem here is that we’ve begun to see sin as doing something naughty, or as a minor punch list item that we need to tend to before we can consider our lives complete. That vision of sin overlooks its fundamental nature: sin separates us from God. We need to re-think the nature of sin, regarding it as something that moves us further away from the source of our lives, making it harder and harder to return home.

The story of the prodigal son teaches exactly that lesson. The son wrongfully asks his father for inheritance while the father is still living. (In the culture of that day, such a request would amount to telling your father, “I wish you were dead.”) The son then goes to “a distant country.” I don’t think that’s a coincidence, nor do I think Jesus is just using a narrative device. I think Jesus is teaching us something fundamental about the nature of sin. Our sin always drives us away from our heavenly Father. And one of the truly horrific things about sin lies in how easy it is, once we’ve taken that first step, to keep moving further and further away. We find ourselves in places where it seems truly impossible to ever get back home.

But Jesus teaches us about the way home in the story of the Prodigal Son. It starts with his recognition, while still in that distant country, that he nothing about his life works anymore, and that he has become a stranger even to himself. He tells himself to get up and return to his father and tell him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son….” The recognition of his own betrayal of his father leads the prodigal to a humility and a recognition of broken bonds. He makes no excuses for himself; he offers no defenses for what he has done.

The parable teaches us that the path back home begins with the recognition that our sins aren’t minor flaws that require a few slight adjustments. Rather, as Newman observed, through the sins which separate us from God, we have become rebels and must “lay down [our] arms.” As Newman also noted, “The most noble repentance (if a fallen being can be noble in his fall), the most decorous conduct in a conscious sinner, is an unconditional surrender of himself to God—not a bargaining about terms, not a scheming (so to call it) to be received back again, but an instant surrender of himself in the first instance.” J.H. Newman, Parochial & Plain Sermons (vol. 3, Sermon 7).

There’s nothing easy about this. None of us wants to give up on the notion of defending ourselves, of building a case for what we did and why. We want to convince God that it wasn’t so bad or that we had good reasons for what we’ve done: that we really are good people. That’s part of the reason why the Church has stressed the virtue of humility for centuries. It’s the only way we’ll learn to trust God, and trust that He will always take us back. The Psalmist noted that we can’t bargain or dicker with God; we can’t earn our way back into our home with our sacrifices. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. ” Ps. 51.

My prayer for you and for me is that we learn to trust God and lay down our arms. What would the world look like if we did that? I suspect it would look a lot more like the Kingdom.

Pax,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis