It is an ancient belief of Catholics that God revealed himself gradually over time, first in the beauty and splendor of creation, then to our Jewish forebears in a variety of ways and finally (and perfectly) in the person of Jesus Christ, whom we encounter in the scriptures and the living tradition of our Church. An example of this progressive unfolding of our knowledge of the Lord and his will is found in today’s readings.
In the first reading from the book of Exodus we hear God say to Moses: “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.” The people of Israel of whom God speaks are not even fully aware of their transgression, and so Moses intercedes for them, saying: “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people”. Moving from partial ignorance to painful awareness, in the First Letter to Timothy St. Paul recognizes his own guilt acutely, writing: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost”, but he also recognizes the mercy that he has received: “But for that reason I was mercifully treated so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life”.
In light of our knowledge of God discovered in Christ we cannot help but realize our status as sinners who stand under the gaze of a merciful Father. This realization should be especially on our minds in the present “Year of Mercy” declared by Pope Francis, and should encourage us to seek reconciliation with the Lord and with our sisters and brothers through sacramental confession. In Christ we see the perfection of humanity to which we are called, and which sin obscures, as well as the perfection of divinity, to which we gain access through the Father’s mercy.
This is spelled out beautifully in today’s parable of the prodigal son. We all know the story: the profligate son goes off with his share of his father’s estate and squanders it on an immoral life, suddenly finds himself destitute, and repents and resolves to return home asking for the lowest place in his father’s household. Instead of this reception however, he receives far more, immediate forgiveness—before he can even ask for it—restoration to a place of privilege within the family, and the unalloyed love of his father.
When we are feeling as though our choices have put us beyond the reach of God’s mercy, or on the other hand when we withhold mercy from someone who has deeply offended us, it would do us a world of good to consider the prodigal son and his merciful father. The son’s mistakes were his freely chosen sinful life and his hesitancy to seek forgiveness, thinking he was not worthy of it. The father overcame all of this not by forgiving his son on account of worthiness—in which department we all fall short—but on account of love.
This is what Moses saw in a brilliant flash of insight: God ultimately does not forgive us because we deserve it but because he loves us, and love triumphs over all objective assessments of worthiness since love is the very essence of God himself.
Setting aside any notion of earning God’s love, we who have received the full revelation of God in Christ can live in the freedom of those who know that we are sinners called to repentance and renewal, and children of a merciful Father who gives us every gift we need to complete our return to him and rejoice in him whose patience leads us to eternal life.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.