Two books. Two authors. One story. The two books are “The Railway Man” and “Crosses and Tigers.” The two authors are Eric Lomax and Takashi Nagase; one became a prisoner, the other a tormentor. Both, however, were trapped by the same horror of war and violence.
The one story is about reconciliation and the power of mercy. The story centers on the experience of both men during World War II in the Pacific Theatre. Eric was an officer in the British Army. Takashi was an interpreter in the Japanese military. Both came to know each other during the construction of the “Death Railway” between Thailand and Burma. Eric was a prisoner of war, Takashi was his captor, interrogator and torturer. Both men were devastated by the war. Eric suffered the effects of imprisonment and torture for years after the war and his return to England. Takashi was tormented by the evils he had committed against prisoners of war.
While peace eventually came between the nations, the inner turmoil brought on by the war persisted in these two individuals. They would not be resolved until one could forgive and one could accept forgiveness. Such is the story of these two books. A documentary film of this story was made in 1995 called “Enemy, my Friend?” and the 2013 movie “Railway Man.”
Jesus tells the parable of the two sons in the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy. Two sons are asked to work in the vineyard. The first says: “no” but then changes his mind (literally translated “repents”) and goes. The second son says “yes,” but never goes. Jesus asks the chief priests and elders to whom he was speaking, “Which of the two (sons) did his father’s will?” They reply, “the first.” Then Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
The parable is addressed to the “chief priests and elders.” These are they who have heard Jesus’ words and witnessed his deeds. He calls them to life in the Kingdom but they refuse to enter, they refuse to believe, they turn away and they eventually turn against Jesus.
Jesus uses “tax collectors and prostitutes” as a contrast to the “chief priests and elders.” “Tax collectors and prostitutes” were considered public sinners. The tax collectors were collaborators with the Roman authorities, and generally they had a reputation for corruption. Prostitutes likewise were sinners who violated the law of God by selling themselves for money. Why would Jesus compare this group with the first son — the one who originally said “no,” but then changed his mind and went to the vineyard?
Perhaps the answer lies in the power of divine mercy and the life that flows from it. Tax collectors and prostitutes knew they were sinners. They also knew the effects of sin in their lives — they were outcasts. The tax collectors were accepted neither by the pious Jews nor the Roman authorities. Prostitutes as well were excluded and isolated from the community.
When the tax collectors and prostitutes heard the preaching of John the Baptist and his call for repentance, something stirred within them. His words were a call to a better life. His words calling for repentance were an invitation to experience the mercy of God. His preaching of “the way of righteousness” (as Jesus refers to it in today’s Gospel passage) was a call to life. The lives of the tax collectors and prostitutes were turned around because they experienced the mercy of God.
The “chief priests and elders,” however, present the contrasting position. These were the ones who should know the need for repentance in their own lives and the availability of God’s mercy of which John preached, for it is based on the law and the prophets. Yet they refuse to heed the Baptist’s call. Rather than walk in the “way of righteousness” they were consumed by their own “self righteousness.” Hence when Jesus comes they reject him. They cannot see beyond themselves.
Perhaps they are not aware of the power of God’s mercy because they do not think they need it. Recall Jesus’ words to the same group: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity, these you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Perhaps their faith became so superficial that the invitation to life in the Kingdom which Jesus was offering was rejected.
The tax collectors and prostitutes become a symbol for disciples of all times who hear the call of Christ and accept his invitation to life. At the heart of this invitation and response is mercy. Christ Jesus calls everyone to work in his vineyard, in other words, to life in the Kingdom. This is essentially an act of mercy for no one on their own merits this life, it is freely given by the Father through Christ Jesus. Recognizing the need for mercy and the willingness to repent and accept that mercy is the path to life in the Kingdom.
The responsorial psalm for today’s liturgy is “Remember your mercies, O Lord.” The response is a plea from the heart for a renewed experience of God’s mercy in the forgiveness of sins and the deliverance from evil. The psalmist prays: “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.”
At the heart of God’s ways is mercy and compassion. The psalmist knows this yet is distracted by his own sinfulness. He seeks to be renewed in and by that mercy: “Remember that your compassion, O Lord, and your love are from of old. The sins of my youth and my frailties remember not; in your kindness remember me, because of your goodness, O Lord.” The “paths” of which the psalmist earlier speaks is perhaps a two-way road. The experience of the Lord’s forgiveness is only fully realized when one learns to accept that forgiveness and to share it with others. In this interchange, God “shows sinners the way. He guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his way.”
God’s way is of mercy and compassion. One who is a victim of another person’s evil actions or one who strives to do good in the midst of evil very well may cry out, “The Lord’s way is not fair!” as the people did to Ezekiel in the first reading. All the while we remember, as last Sunday’s first reading reminds us, that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts nor his ways our ways (cf. Isaiah 55: 8).
So the Lord replies to the Israelites: “Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?” While the unrepentant may die in their sins, mercy is always available for those who seek it. Thus the Lord says: “But if he (the sinner) turns from the wickedness he has committed, he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” The mercy of God leads to life. It opens the path for conversion of heart. It puts one on the path to righteousness and leads one to peace.
The mercy of God culminates in the redemption offered to mankind through Jesus Christ. The passage from Philippians is a reminder to us and a call for imitation. Jesus willingly humbles himself in obedience to the Father, becomes one of us, dies a horrific death on behalf of us and is raised in glory. Jesus’ self-offering is one of mercy. Through this outpouring of love we experience the mercy and compassion of God and through it are lifted up with Christ in life.
St. Paul uses this early Christian hymn in his Letter to the Philippians with an exhortation; by this Christ’s humility becomes not only the source of our salvation but an example to be followed. Paul writes: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others. Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus….”
The story of Eric Lomax and Takashi Nagase is a dramatic representation of the need for and the power of forgiveness. The story is only one of numerous similar stories that illustrate the power of mercy. God’s love, whether recognized or not, is at the heart of these stories. God is love and mercy itself. He invites us to share in his life through mercy.
The recognition of our need for forgiveness, thanksgiving for being forgiven, the ability to forgive and the willingness to accept forgiveness are all part of the stories. They are aspects of God’s mercy and his path to life. He invites us today to walk this path and to experience the richness of his mercy in the story of our life.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Morrisville.