The town was located in Great Britain. In that town people of various economic situations lived and worked. One of these people was a doctor. He was known for his faith and excellent care of the sick who came to him for help. Doctor Montgomery was especially mindful of the poor. When a poor patient would not be able to pay the medical bill, the doctor would write “forgiven” in his register, all capital letters and in red ink. Almost every page in the register had this bold marking.
Eventually the doctor died. After his death, the executors of his will thought his estate would greatly benefit if they tried to collect some of the “forgiven” bills. After some failed attempts, the executors sought legal action. During the proceedings, the judge asked to see the doctor’s register. Upon noticing the number of “forgiven” bills, he dismissed the case saying that no court in the land would override the doctor’s clear intention and his mercy.
The mercy shown by the doctor is a type of love. The satisfaction of debt was complete. It was not a delay in satisfaction or a “discount,” it was forgiveness of the debt. The patients who benefited from that mercy were very grateful.
The Gospel reading for Sunday’s liturgy has a similar but even greater story of the power of mercy. The power is not one of lordship or mastery but of gift. The story is commonly called the “Prodigal Son.” We all are probably familiar with the story. A father has two sons. The younger son asks for his share of his inheritance. The request, at the very beginning of the story, signals something is wrong. We know right away that the son is starting down a bad path, for this request is an affront to his loving father who still lives.
The father shows no hesitancy in his generosity. He gives the son his share. The son then goes off and squanders it on dissolute living. As he reaches “rock bottom” he ends up tending swine in the filth of their pen. Recognizing at last the abundant love of his father, he decides to return. Not as a son, he thinks, but as a servant. He admits that he has forsaken his father and “no longer deserves to be called his son.” He makes his way back.
While he is still “a way off,” the father sees him coming. He runs out to meet him. Embraces him. The son expresses his sorrow. The father orders his servants to bring fine clothes and a ring. He further orders them to kill the fatted calf and prepare for a celebration.
The son’s contrition is met with mercy — a mercy that overwhelms and embraces; a mercy that restores and heals; a mercy that rejoices and celebrates. Jesus tells this story inviting his hearers to ponder the power of God’s mercy. He invites us to do the same.
The story is rich in symbol and meaning. In one sense, the younger son represents the whole of humanity who have squandered the riches of the Father’s house through sin. In Adam, mankind turned away from the Father refusing to listen to him. Yet the Father, through his Son, reaches out in mercy to mankind offering everyone forgiveness and restoring them to his household.
The father’s love and graciousness is immense. His love is seen in many ways. He allows his son his share of the inheritance, even though undeserved. Even though the father wants his son to stay with him, he gives his son the freedom to leave. When the son turns to come back the Father runs out to meet him. He rejoices in the son’s return. He pours his generosity on the son upon his return and celebrates his life.
The mercy the father bestows on the son symbolizes the mercy that the Father pours out on us in Christ Jesus, his Son.
St. Paul, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, when he writes of the Father’s mercy recognizes the greatness of this mercy. So much so that he speaks of its effects in terms of a “new creation.” Paul writes: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation; namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
The younger son gives us an insight into reconciliation. He recognizes his guilt and his unworthiness to be called a son. He not only took for granted his father’s love, he squandered it. Yet he comes to recognize what he has done.
With a sincere but broken heart he returns. He recognizes that he “needs” the father. He “needs” to be close to him. He “needs” to be in his house. Unworthy as he is, he also recognizes that his father is generous and kind, so he returns. He goes back, not seeking to be treated as a son but seeking his father’s mercy. He is humbled before the father and restored to life as the father later says to the older son, “he was lost and is found; he was dead but has come back to life.” The younger son’s pride and selfishness led him away from his father; humility and contrition brought him back.
The remaining character in the story is the older brother. He is the one who has remained faithful to his father. He has stayed by the father’s side when his brother left them. Yet something is amiss with this older brother. When the younger son returns home, the older son refuses to share in the joy of the father. He refuses to celebrate the mercy that the father graciously bestows on his brother; in fact, he is angry about it.
The father is disheartened by his older son’s stance. He pleads with him to join in the joy. He asks him to share in his mercy. This is where the story ends. We do not know if the older son went in to celebrate or if he stayed outside. All we know that is at this point he is excluding himself from the father’s house because he will not forgive his brother.
As the passage from Second Corinthians continues, Paul speaks of one of the consequences of our being a “new creation.” He says we are to be “ambassadors of Christ.” We are to be ambassadors of his mercy. In order to represent him we first have to recognize the mercy he has bestowed upon us, and our need for that mercy.
“We implore you on behalf of Christ,” Paul writes, “be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
Recognizing the love the Father has for us demands that we share that love, and mercy, with those we encounter in life; first among these are members of our families. In this way we share in the “ministry of reconciliation.”
The doctor in England forgave the debt of many of his patients. His mercy was clearly gracious, as he had no intention of rescinding his kindness; it was freely given. The father, in the “Prodigal Son,” forgives the sin of his son and rejoices in his return. Our heavenly Father, through the gift of his Son, reconciles us to himself and welcomes us home.
Continuing our Lenten journey we might reflect on this merciful love and the expression of our gratitude considering three questions: Do I recognize his mercy? Do I seek his mercy? Do I share his mercy?
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.