Today’s Gospel (Lk 15:1-3. 11-32) is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus told the story of the son who goes away from the Father almost 2000 years ago yet the message is aimed at each of us today.
One way of looking at this Gospel is to ask whether we have a resemblance to any of the individuals in the Gospel. Surely, each one of us is like the son. At times, we have left our Father and gone away to live without Him. Similar to the son, our initial happiness turned empty and our friends disappeared when it served their purposes. Hopefully, we imitate the son in going back to the Father.
Today’s Gospel demonstrates God’s attitude when we turn back to Him. The father in the story sees the son a far way off and rushes out to him and embraces him. We might think that God takes us back half-heartedly, on trial before we disappoint Him again. But, the Father of Jesus, rushes out to us.
True, our conversion is like some internet connections, on and off – but God continues to welcome us. St, Thomas Aquinas, when speaking of the Sacrament of Penance, observes that we should continue to go to the sacrament even when we repeat our sins: “What sort of a physician is he who knows not how to heal a recurring disease? For if a man is sick a hundred times it is for the physician to heal him a hundred times” (3a. 84, 10, ad 3).
Thomas asserts: “Penance derives its power from Christ’s Passion, as a spiritual medicine, which can be repeated frequently” (3a. 84, 10, ad 5). As we turn to God, over and over, God comes to us just as the father ran out to welcome the son.
This gospel shows us God’s attitude towards us which is mercy. St. Thomas says: “Mercy is proper to God for in mercy His omnipotence is chiefly manifested” (2a2ae. 30, 4).
If we were asked to identify which of God’s works was the greatest work of God, we might assume that it was creation. Thomas affirms: “The justification of the ungodly, which terminates at the eternal good of a share in the Godhead is greater than the creation of heaven and earth, which terminates at the good of mutable nature” (1a2ae. 113, 9).
Among the individuals in this Gospel passage, at times, we might be like the elder brother who resents the father’s generosity. The elder son is angry because he thinks that the son deserves to be rejected and sent away. The elder brother’s attitude may be installed in our minds as the collection of the negativity of those people who dismissed us for our mistakes and weaknesses. The voice of the elder brother may also be in us as a scolding voice insisting that we have exhausted God’s mercy and God can only give us what we deserve.
Can we exhaust God’s mercy? Thomas asks whether God’s mercy conflicts with His justice: “God acts mercifully, not by going against His justice but in doing something more than justice … when one pardons an offense committed against him, he is said to bestow a gift… mercy does not destroy justice but in a certain sense is its fullness” (1a. 21, 3, ad 2).
There is another elder brother whose actions in our world moves us to believe in God’s mercy. Paul tells us in today’s reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ He is a new creation. All this has been done by God who has reconciled us to Himself through Christ” (2 Cor 5:17).
United with Christ, in Baptism and the Eucharist or by prayer, we become “new creations.” St. Thomas explains that a creation is a change from nothing. Our first creation is our creation by nature but our “new creation” is a “renewal by grace.” St. Augustine taught, “For sin is nothing, and men become nothing, when they sin.” Thomas reflects, “It is clear that the infusion of grace is a creation…” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, 192)
Our reconciliation is initiated by the Father and brought about through Christ: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them …” (2 Cor 5:18-19). Other passages echo Christ’s work of reconciliation: “Whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20); “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10).
Thomas reflects: “… the whole world was reconciled to God… God the Father, who reconciled us to God, i.e., made peace between us and God. And this is by Christ, i.e., by the Incarnate Word” …” (Commentary on Second Corinthians, 197).
We can also be like the father in the parable: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). We can be ministers of reconciliation. Thomas Aquinas comments: “As if to say: he has given us the mystery of reconciliation in this way, namely, that he has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation, i.e., he has given the power and has inspired in our hearts to announce to the world that this reconciliation was made by Christ. By doing this we induce men to conform themselves to Christ by baptism” (Commentary on Second Corinthians, 198).
Thomas wonders why we need to be reconciled if God has reconciled us: “Therefore, if he reconciled us, what need is there to be reconciled? For we are already reconciled. I answer that God reconciled us to himself as efficient cause, namely, on His part, but in order that it be meritorious for us, it is necessary that reconciliation be made on our part, namely, in baptism and in penance. And then we cease from sins” (Commentary on Second Corinthians, 199).
We are reconciled to God, freed from our sins by the sacrifice of the one who knew no sin: “He gave us the power to live justly and abstain from sins. By doing this we are reconciled to God. Hence he says, for our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin. As if to say: you can be reconciled to God, because he, namely, Christ, who knew no sin: “He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips” (1 Pet. 2:22); “Which of you convicts me of sin?” (Jn. 8:46) (Commentary on Second Corinthians, 199).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection.