The Parable of the Merciful Father

In the parable of the of the Merciful Father, we find a son who was in his father’s house, the younger of two brothers, who was loved and lacked nothing; and yet who wants his part of the inheritance while his father was still alive.

His father acquiesces, though it saddened him greatly. The son takes off with his inheritance and squanders it all, hitting rock bottom when he was the most distant from his father possible. When he is at his lowest, he misses the warmth of the father’s house and the privileges afforded to him when he was in it, and he goes back.

And the father? Had he forgotten or disowned the son? No, never!

He was ardently waiting for him every hour of every day, desperately yearning for him. The son was always in his father’s heart, even though he had left him, even though he had squandered his whole inheritance, his freedom. The father, with patience, love, hope, and mercy had never for a second stopped thinking about him, and as soon as he sees him still far off, he runs out to meet him and embraces him with tenderness, the tenderness of God, without a word of reproach: his son has returned! God is always fervently waiting for us; He never grows tired of waiting.

One of the causes, perhaps the main one, for people’s alienation from religion and faith today is the distorted image they have of God. What is the “predefined” idea of God in the collective human unconscious? To find that out, we only need to ask this question: “What ideas, what words, what feelings spontaneously arise in you without thinking about it when you say the words in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘May Your will be done’”?

People unconsciously link God’s will to the constraining of individual freedom and development. It is somewhat as though God were the enemy of every celebration, joy, and pleasure—a severe inquisitor-God, in control of every minute detail of life and history, good and bad. This is the cause of fear and at times hidden resentment against God, a vestige of the pagan image of God that has never been entirely eradicated, and perhaps cannot be eradicated, from the human heart, that of a God who intervenes with divine punishment to re-establish the order disrupted by evil.

Christianity needs to restore the true image of the biblical God who not only has mercy but is mercy. This bold assertion is based on the fact that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16). This love is a free concession; it is grace and mercy. The sin of human beings does not change the nature of this love but causes it to make a qualitative leap: mercy as a gift now becomes mercy as forgiveness. 

But what about the justice of God? Has it been forgotten or underestimated? St. Paul answered this question once and for all. The apostle begins his explanation in the Letter to the Romans with this news:

“Now the righteousness of God has been manifested” Rom 3:21

We can ask, what kind of righteousness is this? Is it the righteousness that gives each person his or her due, and distributes rewards and punishments according to people’s merits?

There will of course come a time when this kind of divine righteous justice that gives people what they deserve will also be manifested. The apostle in fact wrote shortly before in Romans that God will render to every man according to his works: “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” Rom 2:6-8

But Paul is not talking about this kind of justice when he writes, “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested.” The first kind of justice he talks about involves a future event, but this other event is occurring “now.” What the apostle is saying is, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption, which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

In other words, God shows his righteousness and justice by having mercy. This is the great revelation. The apostle says God is “just and justifying,” that is, He is just to himself when He justifies human beings; He is in fact love and mercy, so for that reason he is just to himself; He truly demonstrates who He is when He has mercy.

Our image of God is warped if we do not know exactly what the expression “the righteousness of God” means. The righteousness of God is that by which God makes those who believe in his Son Jesus acceptable to Him. It does not enact justice but makes people just.

“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy”

Titus 3:4-5

“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our own trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”

Eph 2:4-5

Therefore, to say “the righteousness of God has been manifested” is like saying that God’s goodness, His love, His mercy, has been revealed. God’s justice not only does not contradict His mercy but consists precisely in mercy!

God’s love, patience and mercy calls forth in us the courage to return to Him, however many mistakes and sins there may be in our life. Someone may think; my sin is so great; I am as far from God as the younger son in the parable. I don’t have the courage to go back, to believe that God will welcome me and that He is waiting for me, of all people.

But God is indeed waiting for you; He asks of you only the courage to go to Him. We hear many offers from the world around us; but let us take up God’s offer instead: His is a caress of love. Even if we are sinners, we are always the apple of His eye, and will remain so for eternity.

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