The dance of “mercy versus justice” continues to be argued within a Church in turmoil. Certainly the arguments presented by our dear Augustinus provide an interesting reflection of this ongoing discussion.
We struggle with our understanding of God because most of us want to see God through our own, distorted lens. This is perhaps the biggest lesson in the Gospel story of the prodigal son. Each key figure in the story experienced it through their own filter which was defined by their own interests and personal history. Let’s examine the characters, just a bit:
- The youngest son did not feel badly that he took his inheritance and set out on his own, but he felt very badly that he failed. He prayed for mercy and headed home because he didn’t have a lot of choices. He was a screwup and he knew it as he practiced the lines he would say to ask his father to take him back in.
- The oldest son saw the situation as unfair. He felt slighted that he never received the reward he expected for his obedience. Clearly, he did not want to stay home and work the family farm any more than his younger brother. He stayed because it was his duty to stay, and he expected something in return for his obedience. He also expected his younger brother to get the payback he deserved and suffer the consequences of his actions. It was only fair.
- The father saw the situation from an entirely different perspective. He clearly felt badly that his younger son left. He just wanted his family to be together again. Fairness, justice or mercy was not part of the equation to him at all. They were overshadowed by the desire for communion. He just wanted his child back.
In the Gospel message of the prodigal son, Jesus points out that God’s response does not always fit nicely into our notion of fairness. Understanding this is key to growth in discipleship. It is our recognition that when we try to define God on our own terms, by trying to make him fit the filters we have chosen, we don’t see the whole picture. Growth only comes when we abandon our own interests, open our hearts and simply listen. This is the test of faith.
Perhaps then, the best way to understand justice and mercy in the Catholic Church is simple prayer and reflection over the prayer Jesus taught us: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. In this line, Jesus tells us that we need to work to receive mercy through active forgiveness of others. It is not what we want to hear and does not fit nicely with out notion of fairness and reward for obedience hierarchical rules, but it is the heart of the Church.