Probably every one that cares about being a good person feels guilty about the ways in which he or she has not been good in the past or in the present.
The three parables in today’s Gospel (Luke 15:1-32) are God’s answer to our guilt.
The shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep and goes after the lost one until he finds it. The shepherd puts the sheep on his shoulder and brings it back joyfully. The woman searches the house until she finds a misplaced expensive coin. Then she calls her friends to rejoice with her. The father sees his ungrateful son at a distance; he rushes out and throws his arms around the son’s neck. He calls for a fatted calf in order to celebrate his return. Each of the parables shows God’s initiative. He clearly wants us!
In his letter for the “Jubilee of Mercy” in 2016, Pope Francis declared that mercy is “the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us.” God comes to meet us!
This letter has the Latin title Misericordiae Vultus, “The Face of Mercy.” Pope Francis announces that “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” Jesus in His life, His actions and in His words makes visible the mercy of the Father. The Pope writes, “These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith.”
Pope Francis recalls St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching: “It is proper to God to exercise mercy, and He manifests His omnipotence particularly in this way” (2a2ae. 30, 4). We might think that mercy softens His power but according to Thomas God “manifests” power in mercy.
Thomas goes back to the root of the Latin word, misericordia, (‘mercy’) which is composed of miserum (sad) and cor (heart). Thomas reflects that mercy is “a compassionate heart for another’s unhappiness” (2a2ae. 30, 1). This, Thomas insists, is especially “proper” to God.
According to Thomas, when we look on another person’s difficulty as our own, we are “united by love.” we might feel pity on a person’s difficulties for various reasons, but, for God, the reason is that we belong to Him: “God takes pity on us through love alone in such a way as He loves us as belonging to Him” (2a2ae. 30, 2, ad 1).
God’s Mercy has been with us from our beginnings. Thomas reminds us that God freely gave us our very existence and everything we need through His mercy:
To possess hands is due to a human on account of the rational soul; and the rational soul is due to him or her that he or she may be human; and being human is on account of the divine goodness. So in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy.
In all that follows, the power of mercy remains, and works indeed with even greater force; as the influence of the first cause (God) is more intense than that of second cause (other people). For this reason does God out of the abundance of His goodness bestow upon creatures what is due them more bountifully than is proportionate to their goodness (1a. 21, 4).
The “abundance of God’s goodness” has been poured out “more bountifully” that we expect. Thomas reminds us: “Whatever God does, He does to show His goodness” (Commentary on First Timothy, 44).
Sin is our deliberate choices against God’s will. We leave the Father as the son did and go off to a far country. Christ came for us!
In the three parables, the shepherd, the woman and the father went to find what was lost. Despite our particular sins, our continued resistance and even indifference to God’s overtures, God comes for us.
St. Paul was particularly conscious of God’s goodness that was poured out on him: “You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief. But for this reason I have obtained mercy: that in me first Christ Jesus might show forth all patience…” (1 Tim 1:15-16).
Although we think that we initiate the process of turning back to God, actually God initiates the process. St. Thomas explains that when we turn back to God, God is drawing us to Him: “God forgives sins on account of [our] love though He Himself has mercifully infused that love (1a. 21, 4, ad 1). God initiates the process by stirring up in us the love with which to love Him.
Even though God seeks to draw us, he does not force our free will but draws us to Him by His grace, even giving us the disposition to want His grace, as Thomas demonstrates:
The entire justification of the sinner consists as to its origin in the infusion of grace. For it is by grace that free-will is moved and sin is remitted… God, in order to infuse grace into the soul, needs no disposition, save what He Himself has made. And sometimes this sufficient disposition for the reception of grace He makes suddenly, sometimes gradually and successively… Since the Divine power is infinite, it can dispose any matter whatsoever… and much more our free will (1a. 2ae. 113, 7).
God starts the process, even when we don’t desire union with God or to let go of our sins and faults or desire to live in peace and charity with others. In our emptiness and our resistance, we can ask God even for the desire itself. Our asking for the desire is caused by God. God does not force our will and we can always say “no” but He attracts us and draws us.
We might think that although God comes for us and restores us in His love at one particular turning point in our lives, God eventually gives up on us.
St. Thomas recalls an early Christian heretic, Novatian, who taught that sin can only be forgiven once, in Baptism. Thomas says that Novatian and his followers were not only mistaken about sin, “but much more were they mistaken against the infinity of Divine mercy, which surpasses any number and magnitude of sins… God’s mercy, through the Sacrament of Penance, grants pardon to sinners without any end” (3a. 84, 10). Divine mercy is “infinite.”
We might think that God takes us back “on trial” but Thomas affirms: “He recovers his principle dignity, whereby he was counted among the children of God, and this he recovers by the Sacrament of Penance, which is signified in the prodigal son, for when he repented, his father commanded that the first garment should be restored to him, together with a ring and shoes” (3a. 89, 3). As the Gospel says: “There is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than the ninety-nine who have no need to repent” (Lk 15:7).
It is possible, writes Thomas, that we actually come to greater grace by our turning to God: “The intensity of the penitent’s movement may be proportionate sometimes to a greater grace than that from which man fell by sinning, sometimes to an equal grace, sometimes to a lesser” (3a. 89, 2). Surely, whether our grace is less, the same or greater is to some degree tied with our response to grace
According to Thomas, after returning to God, we may come to be more stable in grace: “The more careful and humble he is, he may abide more steadfastly in grace” (3a. 89, 2, ad 1).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas’ Commentary on the First Letter to Timothy are taken from the website: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/
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.