08 November 2012

Wincing at easy mercy

31st Week OT (Th)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

We are all familiar with the Prodigal Son, the one lost sheep, that misplaced coin, and johnny-come-lately vineyard workers. They are the stars of Jesus' parables. The ones who got away but came back and found themselves joyfully received and forgiven! The gospel lesson being that no matter how lost, how gravely misplaced, or late to the party a sinner may be, Christ will welcome him back. Well, good for the sinner. What about the Good Son, the other 99 sheep, and the coins that stayed put? Julie Stoner wrote a poem about them: “We ninety-nine obedient sheep;/we workers hired at dawn’s first peep;/we faithful sons who strive to please,/forsaking prodigalities;/we virgins who take pains to keep/our lamps lit, even in our sleep;/we law-abiding Pharisees;//we wince at gospels such as these.” This makes me smile b/c I've seen the Good Son, the Everyready Virgins, the 99 Responsible Sheep wince when preachers ignore their obedience and lavish praise on the reckless sinners who taunt God and then come crawling back whining for a second chance. None of the Good Souls want God to refuse them His mercy, of course; but, you know, maybe He could make them suffer just a little more for being so presumptuous? 

Perhaps you've thought something like that yourselves at some point: why is repentance and forgiveness made easy for those who have spent their whole lives rebelling against God? Murderous Mafia dons who receive absolution on their deathbeds. Serial killers who discover Jesus before their executions. Given the severity of their sins, shouldn't something else be required? Something more substantial in terms of penance? Maybe a public flogging, or a chance for their victims' families to poke them with sharp sticks. I'm sure that none of us have ever even thought that God should withhold His forgiveness. But it seems only fair to those of us who've been Good Sons and Daughters all our lives that it should be more difficult for especially notorious sinners to repent and receive mercy. That would make them appreciate God's mercy more, right; and it would give us Good Folks reason to keep on being Good. As reasonable as this scenario might sound, there's a big problem with it. As sinners ourselves, we don't get to put obstacles in the way of God's mercy, nor do we get to decide who can repent and how. And for that, we should be thankful. 

It might sound strange to hear but the truth is: it's often easier for a notorious sinner to repent than it is for a casual sinner. The further away a soul gets from loving God, the more acutely it feels sin's emptiness. A sinner's soul can reach the point of despair, a point where there seems to be no way back. The next horrible sin seems easier than the last. The harder that soul pulls away from God's love, the harder God loves. This why when a truly notorious sinner comes back to God, he is usually a zealous witness for the Gospel. A casual sinner creeps away from God, little sin by little sin, never really feeling the distance. As things start to go wrong, it's resentment toward God rather than despair that flairs up. God still loves, always. But the casual sinner doesn't feel love as love, he feels it as an intrusion, suffocating his freedom. The more restricted he feels, the more he rebels until his sins are no longer minor. It's the casual sinner who often looks at the notorious sinner, and says, “He shouldn't be able to repent and receive mercy so easily!” What he's really thinking though is: “I wish I had his courage to repent.” This is why those 99 Sheep and the Good Son wince when they see their lost brothers repent. It hurts when your conscience give you a swift kick in the rear. 

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1 comment:

  1. You're the second Dominican who's brought tears to my eyes today (Fr. Lawrence Lew was the first)...stop it already!! ;-)

    Really liked your build up to the final paragraph, which I found to be excellent (especially the first 6 sentences of that paragraph). "point of despair"..."acutely feels sin's emptiness"..."the harder God loves"..."courage to repent". In the study group I facilitate at our Parish, we discussed this one evening and I was surprised at the reticence with which some accepted this teaching, and that some did not want to accept it at all -- for me, having been at the "point of despair", I must accept that God's mercy is free to all who will accept it...for if it is not, then what hope is there for me?