When Jesus preached the parable of the prodigal Son he gave a powerful reminder concerning the nature of God’s mercy. An example that needs to be pondered by the church as we approach the Synod on the family in October, threatened as it is by anti-family agenda of the modern relativists. Those using the excuse of “mercy” to promote change in church teaching regarding morality.
In the parable the younger son falls into sin rudely demanding a share of the family inheritance, which he then blows on fast living. Yet he is not the villain for he later comes to his senses having hitting rock bottom- there is nowhere more degrading for a Jew to be found than living amongst unclean pigs. Full of remorse he courageously vows to return to the Father. And there is no doubting his regret and shame for he decides he can no longer live as a son but must now be content with a role as servant.
The father is having none of it. There is to be no lecture on “why did you do that?” nor punishment of any sort. Far from it. The father, as soon as he witnesses a sincere change of heart, runs with open arms to the son and embraces him. He calls for a feast in his honour telling everyone his son was lost but is now found.
Meanwhile a grumpy older brother, who never squandered a penny, refuses to share the joy for he is full of resentment. He excludes himself from the feast proving himself the real villain. It transpires he never worked for the father out of love but only from a begrudging sense of duty. His relationship was as broken as his brother’s despite being hidden. But, unlike his brother, he never found his way to saying sorry and therefore ends the story out in the cold…
Obviously the father represents God. The younger son the sinner who comes to God in confession. No matter what he may have done forgiveness is possible so long as he is sorry. Meanwhile the older brother represents the religious hypocrite closed in on himself, being overly judgmental and lacking charity.
So to the Synod. Those pushing for radical change in church teaching imply that any who oppose it are playing the role of grumpy older brother. A judgemental attitude lacking charity. They see themselves as being in tune with mercy- the mercy shown by the father. But there is a major fatal flaw in their argument. For the mercy they propose does not reflect that which God reveals in sacred scripture, the sort requiring a sincere change of heart. Rather it is based on secular understanding in which all do as they please without question.
Yes, in direct contradiction to the teaching of Christ in this parable, they want to apply mercy but without any need for repentance. A mercy that asks no questions and does not seek the change in heart, the remorse at the folly, the desire to return to the former way of life. They would have us change the parable so that the father follows the son to the pigsty and simply tells him, over the fence if you like, that he is loved but without bringing him out of squalor and into the heavenly feast.
What the church must do in October is avoid both pitfalls in applying mercy. She must not be so strict and judgmental that the path to mercy and renewal is made impossibly hard. But nor must she peddle the modern false mercy that does nothing to address sin and merely accepts the broken state of the family within modern society. True mercy will be found where grace is given freely not cheaply. Christian faith is liberating and gentle to sinners… but it necessarily makes demands on us all. Demands that we conform to Christ and not to the way of the world.
I don’t see the father in the parable chasing after the son with pathetic desperation and caving in to his demands. Nor must the church, therefore, chase the ways of world and give in to its demands. But that is exactly what is being proposed by the relativistic Cardinals who seem more enamoured with political ideals than Gospel values. For them we must pray- they seem to have lost their faith- and we must hope that the Holy Father is not duped by their machiavellian plotting or party to their game. Otherwise I shudder to think of the damage that will be caused.
The artist Rembrandt would have understood this. For when he painted his wonderful image of the return of the prodigal son he chose to give the Father mismatched hands. One is smooth and soft and the other hard and gnarled. This was done to represent the crucial link between God’s justice and his mercy. You cannot have the one without the other. And that is the point being missed by so many in the modern world today as we move towards the Synod.