I feel for the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Don’t you? All his life he has given obedience to his father, yet he has to stand by and watch his perfectly awful brother, who has broken every rule in the book, celebrated with the sacrifice of a fatted calf. And the reason: “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
It looks mightily to me as if God is something of an eccentric: he is actually rather fond of sinners. He goes around looking for them so that he can have the pleasure of forgiving them and showing mercy.
St Paul tells us how this started: “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
Today we have a new apostle of God’s mercy. Pope Francis has said many things, but he so often returns to this theme. He tells us that we are likely to get tired of asking for forgiveness long before God tires of giving it.
If we look for a personal motivation in this perhaps it lies in Francis’s own experience. When he led the Argentinian Jesuits, he had a reputation as a staunch conservative. He was opposed to liberation theology, and appeared to be altogether too friendly to the military junta. But his later experience as a bishop and archbishop converted him to his apostolate of the poor – to the wonder of those who had known his old self. Quite simply he had repented and changed direction. So he has experienced the mercy of God at first hand.
Of course this is no surprise to us. We are aware of the emphasis that the Gospels put on forgiveness, and we remember, from the Our Father, that our willingness to forgive is a condition of receiving God’s forgiveness.
But I now detect a change of attitude within myself towards sin. The idea, which many of us older ones experienced in our youth, that God might catch us out by allowing a bus to cross our path while we happened to be in a ‘state of mortal sin’ is simply wrong. God will go to the ends of the earth, indeed to the ends of eternity, to ensure that we get to Heaven. He has paid too high a price by far to allow his work to be wasted. As the old saying has it: “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground is mercy sought and mercy found.”
Yet this is not a reason for complacency. We are reminded that we do not know the place nor the hour when we will face judgment. Rather, our knowledge of God’s infinite extension of mercy to us calls all the more for a loving response to his goodness.
I remember from many years ago an occasion when one of my children behaved very badly. And he appeared to be stuck in his defiance. I found myself being ready to accept even the slightest sign that he was sorry, so anxious was I to forgive him and restore our real relationship. And God can do better than me.
If we are weak, and continually fall back in little things, and sometimes in big things, perhaps we should remember how the Lord spoke to St Paul “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” and Paul concluded “…for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” The one prayer which God answers with full heart is: give me the grace of repentance. No sooner said than done.
([I base my description of Pope Francis’s change of heart on the Tablet summary of Pope Francis: Untying the knot by Paul Vallely. (10 & 17 August.])
You may see a very different point of view, expressed by Fr Dwight Longeneker (Will many be saved?) at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2013/08/will-many-be-saved.html
Contributed by Singalong.