A reflection on the readings for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 11, 2022.
“Filled with compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”
The parables of mercy, three of which we hear today, are meant to awaken deep within us the truth about God’s love and mercy.
There are two extremes we can fall into when it comes to understanding and experiencing God’s love and mercy. On one extreme are those who struggle to accept God’s love and mercy because they are too focused on their sins, believing God’s love and mercy are conditional. On the other extreme are those who feel no need to repent or no need for God’s mercy because they rarely consider the fact that they commit sin.
Those who struggle to accept God’s mercy can tend towards scrupulosity. They may go to confession several times a week, or to keep confessing their past sins over and over again, even though the priest has tried to help them understand that God has forgiven them already. Even after confession, they may continue to beat themselves up—obsessing about their sins and how they’ve offended God, even though they’ve just received his healing mercy. They cannot accept God’s mercy. This attitude can tend toward the sin of despair.
Those who don’t acknowledge their need for God’s mercy or who don’t consider their own sinfulness can tend towards laxity. They never feel the need to go to confession. They don’t consider the ways in which they have offended God’s love. In fact, when told that they should consider returning to the sacrament of confession, they may respond simply by saying that they don’t do anything wrong and that confession is for sinners, not for good people like themselves. In truth, this is the sin of presumption.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that virtue observes the mean, meaning that virtue lies in the middle of two extremes. As Christians, we don’t want to be on either extreme when it comes to understanding and experiencing God’s love and mercy. We want to avoid being scrupulous, excessively focusing on our sins and believing that we’re unforgivable; and we certainly want to avoid believing that we don’t need God’s mercy and that we don’t need to be concerned about our sins.
So how do we avoid these extremes? By contemplating God the Father’s love for us. Jesus tells us that “filled with compassion,” the father “ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” Knowing God’s love just as the prodigal son knew his father’s love frees us from scrupulosity. We realize that there’s no such thing as an unforgivable sin, and can come to understand that God’s love for us is not dependent on our behavior. Our sins are no obstacle to the Father’s love and mercy. His love for us is unceasing, and we can always be forgiven.
When we know God’s love as the prodigal son knew his father’s love it also leads us to sorrow for the ways that we offend His love. We see ourselves in the light of God’s love and therefore we realize that we are sinners in need of mercy for our failings. As we contemplate God’s love, repentance for our sins wells within us—not out of fear of punishment, but because we understand that we’ve turned away from His love by our sins.
The Lord desires that we experience his compassion, his embrace, and his kiss. As we contemplate these parables of mercy may we be freed from both despair and presumption, and may we open our hearts more and more to be transformed by our Father’s unconditional love and mercy.
Image: Sr. Maria-Magdalena R. on Pixabay.