By Sister Mary Anne Nolan
Note: We shared a shorter version of this reflection during Advent. Today, the Sunday on which the parable of the Prodigal Son is the Gospel reading, we are sharing Sister Mary Anne’s reflection in its entirety.
For the past 18 years, Sister Marie Michele Donnelly and I have been co-directors of Mercy Spiritual Ministries, a mobile ministry that engages individuals and groups in ongoing spiritual development.
Every year in the fall and in the season of Lent, Michele and I offer a retreat to our lay folks at the Convent of Mercy in Merion, Pennsylvania. This year, having reflected on the perilous state of our Church, our country and our world, we decided on the theme of “Our Need for Mercy.” We knew we wanted to use the parables of Mercy and also the healing miracles of Jesus as the basis for our reflections.
Reflecting on the Prodigal Son
I chose the parable of the Prodigal Son. I am assuming that most of you are familiar with the parable, so I am only going to comment on one part of it.
When the son returns home after squandering his father’s inheritance,the scriptures say:
“The father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on my son; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.’”
Recently, I heard someone speaking about the ring and the sandals that the father gave to the son. The common ring in those days, even in the Hebrew Scriptures, was a signet ring. A signet ring served as the personal signature of its owner. The father having given this ring to his son was, in fact, saying to him that he had access once again to his father’s wealth and heritage and that he could legally act on behalf of his father at any time. To me, this is an over-the-top example of the father’s mercy and generosity.
But he also gave him sandals. Symbolically, this could mean that the father was not taking away his freedom, that he was leaving him free to run away with his wealth yet again! Someone described this as “wildly inordinate Mercy” and I totally agree. The father welcomes his son back into the bosom of the family with all the accompanying rights and privileges and yet leaves him free, free to be faithful to the father’s love or free to sin again. Such wildly inordinate Mercy.
If truth be told, what are the chances that the son is going to get restless and leave again? As I think about my own sins, when I confess them to God, I say with all sincerity that I will never do that again. But… The God of wildly inordinate Mercy knows this and still envelops me in mercy and compassion even though God knows I will sin again.
Contemplating the first part leaves me with a sense of awe and wonder at the unbounded mercy of God for us sinners.
The Self-Righteous Older Brother
The second part, about the older brother, I find very challenging.
“The older brother said to his father, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’”
The elder son is furious at his father’s loving and merciful response to his wayward brother. He not only does not want to forgive his brother’s transgressions, he does not even want to acknowledge him as his flesh and blood. When he talks about him to his father, notice he says, “your son.”
The father challenges the son as also are challenged to change our self-righteous attitude and come to love with great mercy those whom we think do not deserve it. It takes much reflection and prayer to recognize our own self-righteousness and our failure to love those who have not been as good as we think we have been or who fall far short of what we expect of one who leads a Christian life.
Mercy for All?
I raise this question in our time: Does God’s mercy extend to all people? To those who have been sexual abusers? To those who have covered up the abuse in our Church? Does God’s mercy extend to those in government leadership who seem to have no moral standards, who seem to exhibit no sense of integrity, who seem to have no concern for the most vulnerable members of our human community?
There is an image of God that has stayed with me in my times of outrage when humans are so cruel to each other; I can’t remember the source. The image is of an angry God who is furious about how his people are treating each other. (And I do believe that God is angry and sad at our inhumanity to each other.) But instead of responding with anger and revenge, God holds the anger within and converts it into compassion for all of his people—the oppressed and the oppressor—and sets about seeing what God can do both to raise up the oppressed and to heal the oppressor. I find that image very challenging.
Gladdening God’s Heart
As I have been reflecting on this parable, another sense of God has come to me. The psalmist says, “There is a stream whose runlets gladden the city of God. God is in its midst…”
Though sinners, we are part of the stream whose runlets gladden God’s heart. God sees our hearts. God sees how deeply we desire to hold God close to us, how we struggle to be compassionate to those who harm God’s beloved ones, how we try to assist God in whatever way we can to free the oppressed and to heal the oppressors. We gladden God’s heart.
I remember the movie from years ago called “Dead Man Walking.” Sister Helen Prejean said to the man who was going to be executed, “When you look out on all the observers, look for me. I will be the face of love for you in the crowd.”
I would like to imagine that when God looks out at the world, God sees our face of love and mercy and it warms and gladdens God’s heart.