Sunday of the Prodigal Son

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

To the Lord faithful love and judgment are one; mercy and justice are one. The Psalmist declares: “I will sing of faithful love and judgment, to you O Lord, I will make music.” (Ps. 101: 1)

To us faithful love and judgment, mercy and justice, are at odds. They are like estranged brothers. 

But if we are to bear the image and likeness of God, if we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect then we must learn to be merciful as he is merciful. 

Mercy, faithful love, and judgment must be reconciled within our hearts. 

To the Lord mercy, faithful love and judgment are one.  

He created the cosmos in mercy and judgment: According to one Rabbinical tradition, the Lord, knowing that humanity was destined to fall, in mercy hid this knowledge. For the angels would have been scandalized by the thought that the Lord would still create man in his image and likeness while foreseeing that not only would man take that image for granted, but that he would even reject it in favor of his own self-will.  The Lord hid this knowledge and fashioned humanity in mercy and judgment, with faithful love and justice. He predestined that his Son would take flesh to be offered - to offer himself - for the life of the world.

In the Gospel of John we read that,  “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world…” (Jn. 3: 19a)  The ultimate expression of the love of God, the Son of God taking flesh, is at once mercy and judgment. 

We can also consider the end of the age, the last judgment. Certain fathers of our Church, when they considered the immortal love of God for humanity, proposed that perhaps even in the last judgment, when the sheep are separated from the goats, there is still mercy. That it is the all-consuming fire of the love of God that washes over everyone alike, both saints and sinners. The same love: to some great joy, to others torment, but to all mercy and judgment. 

To us faithful love and judgment, mercy and justice, undermine each other.

Mercy and judgment are like estranged brothers. To see our brother favored provokes envy, to see mercy shown him provokes our judgment. Mercy and judgment may still be inextricably related, but among us they are bound in a fratricidal conflict.  

Think of Cain whose face fell to the ground, darkened at the news of his brother Abel’s having found favor before the Lord. Cain, who was devoured by his own keen sense of justice. He couldn’t bear to see the grace of God given to his brother without some justification. (Gen 4: 1-16)

We hear the same demand for justification, for a right restitution, in our parable today. We can hear an echo of Cain’s voice in the elder brother’s interrogation of the father: ‘What has this son of yours done to merit such favor?’  

To us mercy, grace, is not fair, it is a grave injustice. 

But if we are to bear the image and likeness of God, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We must become merciful as he is merciful. Faithful love and judgment, mercy and justice must be reconciled within our hearts, and we must be reconciled with our brother. 

In order for us to see judgment and mercy in our life reconciled to the great mercy and judgment of our God, we must humble ourselves. (Ps. 25: 9; James 4: 8-10) In order to be reconciled to our brother, we must learn humility. 

We have to take to heart that just as our younger brother has devoured our father’s life with prostitutes, we too have wasted our life away from our father in the fields, so that while we may indeed bear an inheritance from the father, we do not yet bear the father’s heart. We bear the inheritance, but we are nothing like our father. Our brother was reduced to tending unclean animals in a foreign land, while we willfully tended the pigs in the foreign land of our heart. 

We ought to be struck by how urgent it is for us to be reconciled to our brother when we call to mind the first letter of John the Theologian: 

“For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother […] [For] If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him that he who loves God should love his brother also.” (I Jn 3: 11-12, 20-21) 

How can we love our brother if every time mercy is shown him it provokes our envy? If every time the Lord reveals his faithful love and judgment for our brother it fills our eye with the darkness of sin? (Mt 6: 22-23) 

If we ask with the Psalmist, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in the foreign land [of our unmerciful hearts]?” (Ps. 137: 4) “How shall we acquire a merciful heart?” The answer is to remember our Father who so loved the world as to have in mind its redeemer before the world’s foundation; (I Pt 1: 20-21) who wounds only in order to heal; (Hos. 6: 1-3) who is faithful in his love for man to endless ages; whose thoughts are not our thoughts, for his mercy and judgment are beyond the scope of our calculations. (Isa. 55: 8-9) The answer is to sing of faithful love and judgment; (Ps. 101:1) to remember our Father’s house and leave the pigs that we have been tending, the lusts of the flesh that tether us to envy, behind; to rise and go back to our Father’s house; to repent of our hardness of heart; to realize that we have so much more to learn from our father who accepts the younger son back from the dead and invites us to rejoice in the great mystery of salvation; and, as the Church teaches us in its hymnody, to take up the voice of the prodigal as our own: 

“Make haste to open unto me your fatherly embrace, for as the prodigal I have wasted my life. In the unfailing wealth of your mercy, O Saviour, reject not my heart in its poverty. For with compunction I cry to you O Lord: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you!” (Sessional Hymn of the Third Ode, Sunday of the Prodigal Son)

And here and now, this day, the very body and blood of the Lord is given in mercy and judgment. And if we would be judged righteous, let us receive the mystical food as the nourishment of ever growing humility; as prodigal children coming home, forsaking the desires that would keep us estranged from the Lord’s table, receiving now, as a foretaste, the gift of life unto ages of ages. Amen. 

© Deacon Jeffrey Frate 2012