Bishop of Lake Charles
Immaculate Conception Cathedral
March 14, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Lent
“Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus.” Luke 15:1
God’s mercy is infinite. This is a truth that humans find difficult to understand. They find it difficult because we do not realize that God’s mercy cannot enter a heart that is either in despair or too proud to admit the need of that mercy. This is the dilemma, and we encounter its reality in the Gospel today.
So often we call this Gospel the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is indeed the prodigal son because he squanders his inheritance. However, it is also the story of a prodigal father who lavishes his mercy on that son. The mercy exists. It is there waiting to be taken advantage of.
The Pharisees and angry brother cannot understand that mercy. The Pharisees and scribes can only complain against it. Of Jesus they say, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). They are self-righteous, they are haughty, they are filled with their own esteem, and they are hardened to the very existence of a God who would tolerate the presence of sinners in an effort to reach their hearts and convert them.
The angry brother is also closed to God’s mercy. He is not a “bad” person. He does his work. He seldom asks for anything in return. His problem is his jealousy. He cannot tolerate God’s mercy, shown in the father’s love, because he thinks it is not fair. “It isn’t fair.” Have we heard that response before? It is a vintage modern American complaint.
So whether out of self-righteousness or jealousy, hearts can be closed to mercy. What opens the heart, we might ask. For this we must look at the prodigal son.
I want you to notice what the prodigal son thinks when he repents. He has just wasted his inheritance on a luxurious life. He is broke, and he is feeding pigs. What does he say? “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘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’” (Luke 15:18-19). The repentance is imperfect. He is sorry but not because he has offended the father’s love. He is sorry because he is starving.
Even with this imperfection, the father receives the son generously. The father does not wait for him to finish what he has to say. He orders him reconciled. What is lacking in the repentance of the son will be compensated by the prodigious mercy of the father. Is the father thinking that it doesn’t matter if the son isn’t entirely sincere? Maybe his love will more fully convert the son’s heart.
That is the Father's love for us. Let the self-righteous say what they want. Let them think they are saved and cut themselves off to God’s mercy. Let the jealous be jealous. But when we come as sinners to God’s mercy, even when it is not motivated by a perfect love but imperfectly fed by fear, then let the mercy of God convert what is missing.
A wise spiritual director once wrote this of the “little” and humble way that leads to God’s mercy: “Sins of frailty or weakness, whether they be light or grave, if they are repented of immediately, do not stand in the way of God’s love for us or our love for God.” The operative word here is “repented.” God cannot refuse, in the dying words of St. Thomas More, “a soul that is so happy to go to Him.”