Ordinary Time 24, Year C
- For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5)
The parable of the prodigal younger son, the forgiving father and the enraged elder brother has an open ending. The story does not say the elder brother finally entered and took part in the celebration. Nor does it say that he insisted on refusing to enter.
That the parable is left hanging so tells me that I am not to close the door so quickly even on someone who appears to want to be among those first who will be last (cf. Lk. 13:30). Should I rush into judgment about the elder son, and all those he stands for, and consider their ill fate close to being a foregone conclusion, would this not mean another reversal of status? Would I too not be like someone ending up last after he had become first? Even if earlier I had drawn near, like the tax collectors and sinners, to listen to Jesus, I would end up, I am afraid, not unlike those who complained, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” the moment I pass a similar judgment before the appointed time even against such complainers. I ought really to wait for the Lord’s coming, when he will then bring to light what is hidden in darkness and manifest the motives of our hearts (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5).
Indeed, I cannot give up even on those who are said to complain and murmur repeatedly, anymore than I can give up on my sinful self. I cannot allow self-love or anger, masquerading as zeal or enthusiasm, to impel me to act harshly toward both sinners and myself (Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission, XII, 11). God himself does not deal harshly with us sinners nor does he give up on us. He does not treat us as our sins deserve; rather, he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness (Ps. 103:8, 10). He sent Christ Jesus into the world to save sinners and teach everyone that the Father does not rest until he finds the lost sheep or the lost coin, and that he keeps looking out for the lost son, rejoicing exceedingly when the lost returns. God, after all, wills everyone to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). Not even a blasphemer or a persecutor is beyond the reach of his mercy and forgiveness. A case in point, of course, is his relenting in—or, “repenting of” in the King James Version—the evil he had threatened to inflict on his stiff-necked people. And if a good deed deserves another, then divine repentance—God’s turning away from punishment to pardon, his making an about-face—deserves human repentance, not continued human arrogance.
I should not try then, in arrogance, and ignorance too, to be a God who does not want to have anything to do with sinners. True repentance on my part implies gentleness and humility of heart, without which I will surely tend to treat people harshly and sharply, and in so doing I will only polarize rather than mediate (cf. Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission, II, 6). The spirit of lowliness that characterizes the blessed poor should make me realize, if I am imbued with it too, that I am neither infallible nor incorrigible, as St. Vincent de Paul noted (P. Coste, I, 528), and that, therefore, I must be both repentant of my sins and errors and hopeful of God’s grace that overflows even more where sin increases (cf. Rom. 5:20). With such repentance and hope going hand in hand, rather than become haughty, I will stand in awe instead, ever mindful that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:20, 29).
And if this Pauline saying’s primary application is to those who are first but seem headed to being last, God forbid that I return to praying for the “perfidious Jews” so that God may remove “the veil from their hearts” and they be delivered from “blindness” and “darkness.” For such a prayer, it seems to me, will put me at risk of losing the first place yielded to tax collectors and sinners and of putting an improper closure to the parable of the prodigal younger son, the forgiving father and the resentful elder brother, and rejecting its true teaching.