What would the Church look like if Jesus did not welcome sinners? What would our world look like if God was wrathful and responded to sin in the ways that we think it deserves? Jesus gives us a beautiful parable today – that of the Prodigal Son, or the Merciful Father – but imagine if the younger son had returned home and was met first by his older brother!
This would have been a very different story, wouldn’t it?
Would that wounded, repentant son have ever made it to the Father? Would he ever have experienced the joy of reconciliation with his Father and the renewal of his status as a beloved son? Would he have known the consolation of being wrapped in the cloak or the taste of the fatted calf? What would the encounter with his brother have been like?
Do we really have to wonder about this? We know the answer, don’t we? That bitter brother would have had harsh words of judgment and anger for his little brother. There is no way that the young man would have made it to the front porch, let alone into the home. Rather, he would have been turned away; and his assumptions about his own lovability and the possibility for reconciliation and wholeness would have been confirmed. He would have gone away, knowing that he was unloved and that his home was not a place of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.
This is what we believe about the Church – that we are a place of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness – that we are a place where people are at home and that they are loved as the children of God that they are. However, is that what we as members of this house project to others? What is the attitude of the older brother in us, that we need to identify and remove?
The older brother, certainly, has remained faithful to the Father in outward appearance; but within, he is boiling with his own sins that also keep him from fully experiencing the incredible goodness of the Father’s love. It’s useful to identify them, because we can be guilty of them sometimes, all the while looking like “good Catholics.”
First, the older brother is mired in self-righteousness. He believes that he has done everything right and has therefore “earned” more than others – certainly more than his little brother. Self-righteousness causes us to become proud and blinds us to the goodwill of others who are trying to negotiate their own relationship with God. They are more interested in “fairness” rather than mercy, and that pride can cause them to resent the love that God so freely shares with all His children.
The older brother is also judgmental. That tendency to judgment is a common criticism of people of faith, since we are all wounded and tender about what other people’s opinion is of us. However, the only opinion that matters is that of God, and like the Father in this parable, He is searching for every one of His straying children – ready to embrace them in mercy. Judgment is a barrier to true openness and understanding that allow a community to grow.
The brother also exhibits a sad self-pity. This attitude calls more for people’s sympathy than for forgiveness and mercy. It leads to a victim mentality that fails to accept that we are responsible for our own lives and the relationships in them. Often, this is a manifestation of fear, and fear leads us to anger, hatred, and a desire for more control rather than trust.
Finally, and at the heart of this story’s tragic element, the older brother is not forgiving. He has decided that he is the arbiter of mercy and judgment and has written off his brother. When we exhibit the sin of unforgiveness, we declare that people are “just the way that they are,” and that repentance and conversions are impossible. This lack of forgiveness, ultimately, is what leaves the brother outside of the feast while the household rejoices.
Friends, Jesus tells us these parables today to teach us about the Father’s unconditional love and mercy. There is nothing like it in our world because we are all broken and in need of God. The brothers show ourselves to us; the father shows God to us.The Church is the Father’s house – not the older brothers, nor the younger’s. It is a place where the sinner finds mercy, forgiveness, and renewal. It is where those who are broken find the comfort of God’s grace.
Is this what people encounter when they come into our community? Or do they encounter suspicion, cliques, or outright judgment? Do they encounter the Father and His tender love; or do they meet bitter, self-righteous members? DO we reflect the joy of having experienced the generous presence of Christ, or are we wallowing in self-pity because we mustfollow rules? There are correct answers to these questions!
Our Parishes must be places where we are regularly celebrating the return of prodigals, the discovery of lost sheep, and the reclaiming of missing coins. This is the only way that we can be sure that we are in the Father’s house – and not waiting outside.