My grandfather—who loved telling stories and who, in his last years, would endlessly retell the same stories—was particularly partial to the story of the fellow who, condemned to hang for his crimes, was nevertheless permitted a bit of exercise the day before. “In that case,” the prisoner asks the judge, “may I just skip the rope?”
While hardly an exercise in highbrow humor, for sheer cheekiness the story is hard to beat. And clearly it resonates with everyone, because we’ve all been sentenced to hang. (“Nothing so concentrates the mind,” Dr. Johnson used to say, “as the knowledge that one is to be hanged in a fortnight.”) Which means we’re all hoping for a reprieve. Not just from death, mind you, but from the judgment that inevitably follows. Isn’t that what makes the undiscovered country, of which Shakespeare warns, so bloody unwelcome? Suppose we find hellfire on the other side of that bourn?
Why else would the Council of Trent sanction attrition athwart the Lutheran insistence that it was no better than the “repentance of the gallows,” if fear of just punishment for sin is unnatural, and therefore never a sufficient motive to justify absolution? God is not a sadist, nor is he so fastidious that he’ll have us only when our wills are whiter than wool. In other words, God loves us so much that he allows us in even when we fall into his arms out of fear of falling into the other place.
Which brings me to the matter of mercy. And the undeniable, indeed, quite desperate need we all have for it. Like my old grandfather, I love repeating the line one of my colleagues tells his students, that if they just show up for class they’re likely to get mercy. And if they don’t? They will most certainly get justice. Nobody wants justice, you see, and so they tend to show up. Besides, if the future belongs to those who do show up, why wouldn’t they want to?
“Justice is good,” Romano Guardini tells us in his great work The Lord.
It is the foundation of existence. But there is something higher than justice, the bountiful widening of the heart to mercy. Justice is clear, but one step further and it becomes cold. Mercy is genuine, heartfelt; when backed by character, it warms and redeems. Justice regulates, orders existence; mercy creates. Justice satisfies the mind that all is as it should be, but from mercy leaps the joy of creative life.
Which brings me to the Prodigal Son, whose lovely story is so endearing that we never tire of hearing it told. That’s because we’re all in it. And because it turns out so wonderfully, unexpectedly well in the end. So how does it begin? It starts with Jesus surrounded by sinners, whom he not only bids welcome to, but breaks bread with. And those fussy-minded Pharisees, the stern upholders of justice, who, in order to rid the world of sin would wipe out every sinner; they simply cannot abide the seating arrangement. So, as a sort of comeuppance, Jesus tells them the parable of the two sons, whose lives exactly mirror both the poor sinners who have drawn near to Jesus, and the pharisaical prigs who find it simply too much.
The real point of the story, of course, is to let us all in on the secret, which is that both sons are equally in need of mercy. How so? Because the one thinks he’s too wretched to qualify, and the other too good to ask. Yet each stands precisely in need of it. Neither one has a clue, of course, concerning the connection they each have to their father, because for both it is all about justice, about calculating the cost, as it were, of doing business with some guy who owns the farm. And just because the younger son decides to return, thinking he’ll ask the father to treat him as no better than a hired hand, while his older brother, who never left, continues to think of himself that way, it does not follow that their ignorance in any way prevents the father from behaving as all good fathers do. Which means he never stops loving them. Most especially when they least deserve to be loved because love is not a function of justice, but of mercy. And it is everlasting in the sheer strength of its application.
Isn’t this why the creeds always join power to paternity? “I believe in God,” the faith of the Apostles tells us, “the Father almighty.” Here the whole image of God comes into view, says Joseph Ratzinger, juxtaposed so strikingly by the two words signifying the two concurrent realities. “By calling God simultaneously ‘Father’ and ‘Almighty’ the Creed has joined together a family concept and the concept of cosmic power… It thereby expresses accurately the whole point of the Christian image of God: the tension between absolute power and absolute love, absolute distance and absolute proximity…” Then, citing the poet Holderlin, he identifies the distinctiveness of the Christian God as that which can never be “encompassed by the greatest, but will let himself be encompassed by the smallest.” Here is the essence of the thing, the very heart of divinity itself.
There is one final matter, however, which is to ask how we know all this. I mean, how do we really know what happens in the story before the father steps in to stage the great celebration of the prodigal’s return? “And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,” we are told in Luke’s Gospel, “but nobody gave him any.” How does he know this if he wasn’t there? If no one was there to report on what happened? The answer is because Jesus having insinuated himself into the story was there, and is thus able to narrate the tale from the inside. In other words, as the form of the Father’s love, “who goes silently along the way (I am quoting now from Hans Urs von Balthasar) into complete abandonment—suffering with us, truly representing all of us,” Jesus knows all the misery that has marked the fall and degradation of the younger son.
Isn’t this why the father does not merely wait for his return, but sends out himself in the shape of another (the living and eternal Son of God, no less), into the very heart of the other’s desolation? “He (as Balthasar puts it) allows Jesus to identify himself with his lost brother. And by this very power of identifying himself—without keeping a respectable distance—with his complete opposite, God the Father recognized the consubstantiality, the divinity of the one he has sent as his redeeming word into the world.”
Here one cannot help but be reminded of those five riveting lines from Four Quartets, in which the poet Eliot compares the work of Christ to that of a surgeon, who is not only exceptionally adroit in his use of the scalpel, but who agonizes alongside those whose cure await his ministrations. He is no ordinary surgeon of the soul, you see, but broken like those he makes whole.
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
We are all suffering from one distemper or another, and like the two sons whose hunger for mercy can only be assuaged beneath Christ’s bleeding hands, we all have fever charts that need resolving. May these last days of Lent enable us to experience that same sharp compassion. And thus come to the joy of Easter with hearts pierced through and through with the crucified love of Jesus Christ.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Return of the Prodigal Son” painted by Bartolome Esteban Murillo in 1670.