The Good News of Divine Mercy

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

If we were to select one reading that expresses what the good news of the gospel really is in all its mystery, we can do no better than the parable of the prodigal son. It is simply the heart of the good news. This is what our God is all about: absolute mercy. I’d like to call your attention to a number of points just to get a better understanding of this.

The first point is that tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus. They found Jesus appealing. There was something about him that drew them to him. And that is my first point: holiness is attractive. Beauty attracts, and holiness is beautiful, particularly to those who are open to holiness. Not everybody is, of course. Not everyone who is religious is open to holiness. There are some who can come to Church all the time and not be open to holiness, including some clergy. Their outward religious behaviour has the effect of hiding their subtle rejection of God, both from themselves and from others. But many who live nonreligious lives are, in the very depths of their souls, open to holiness.

Consider the Pharisees and scribes who complained and said “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them”. They couldn’t understand how Jesus could do that, because for the Jews, to eat with others was to enter into an intimate communion with them. Food is a source of life, and to share a meal at a single table is to share in a common life. In other words, Jesus wasn’t simply giving them a talk; he was entering into intimate community with them, because he ate with them.

The word “sacred” literally means “set apart”. What is holy is set apart from the profane and ordinary. The Pharisees believed that a holy man is one who is set apart from certain people, and so a holy man would not associate with tax collectors and sinners. But for Jesus, sacred or set apart means extraordinary, in the sense of extraordinary love or charity. Jesus reveals the extraordinary character of the divine love. The love that God has for us far exceeds our expectations; it is truly beyond the ordinary, beyond our ability to fully comprehend or imagine. To illustrate this extraordinary and totally unexpected love of God, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son.

Notice that the younger son says to his father: “Give me a share of your estate that should come to me.” The problem is that his share of the estate should come to him only after his father dies. In other words, he is treating his father as if he is dead. And that is how many people treat God: as if He is dead, as if He does not exist, as if He does not know what we’re doing and is not aware of the sins we’re committing.

The younger son then squanders his inheritance and lives a very pleasurable existence, a life of indulgence. But then his life begins to take a turn for the worse.

And that’s how it works. I always warn my students: if you turn your back on the Lord, if you sell your soul for the goods of this world, if you squander the gifts you’ve been given in Baptism, you might prosper for a time, but you’ll pay later. Things will happen that will be outside of your control, and then you’ll begin to realize that you are dependent and that independence and strength are really illusions that accompany adolescence and young adulthood.

We are born into this world dependent, soon to be diapered, then we outgrow those diapers and begin to feel the exhilaration of being young and strong and we fall for the illusion of independence and invulnerability. Then, slowly, we begin to breakdown, we lose our looks, our hair, our hair color, and we discover that the body doesn’t heal quite as fast as it used to, we can’t remember as well as we did when we were younger, and we begin to see just how little control we really have. Then hopefully we start to pray again and begin to depend upon God, and the rest of our life should be a gradual learning to depend increasingly on Him. Then we leave this world wearing diapers once again. I’ve said it before that life is about learning to depend on God.

Then, the young son finds himself in dire need and goes to work on a pig farm. For the Jews, pigs are unclean animals, and Jesus refers to swine as a symbol for those who have no reverence for holy things. In working with pigs, the son becomes ritually unclean.

In other words, he does not return to his father immediately, but persists in his sin, still convinced that he made the right decision. And so he descends even further into depravity.

Finally, he comes to his senses. Notice, however, that his reasons for returning home are, initially, self-centered. He says: “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger”.

He then plans his confession and makes his move back to his father. He was a long way off and his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion. The father does not wait to listen to what he has to say. Rather, the instant he sees that his son has made a move, he goes out to meet him, and he does not even allow him to finish what he’d planned to say, which was, “…treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers”. Instead, he dresses him in the finest robe and puts a ring on his finger, the signet ring that allows him to sign cheques. The father gives him power over his finances once again.

This is simply unheard of. It is unthinkable. This is forgiveness of such magnitude that it appears almost reckless.

They celebrate a feast with a fattened calf, because “this son of mine was dead, but has come to life again”. To treat God as if he is dead is to die, to be a member of the living dead. To return to God is to find life, to find fullness of being. The human person can only discover himself in God, in his origin. The closer we draw near to God, the more we come to know who we really are. The farther we are from God, the more lost we are, and the less we know ourselves.

Often it takes great suffering for us to finally come to our senses, and when we make our way back to God, it is always, initially at least, for self-centered reasons, and yet that does not particularly matter to God, because it is not about us, it is not about our holiness, sinfulness, worthiness or unworthiness. It is about God’s absolute mercy. We don’t deserve to be adopted children of God, but that’s not the point. The point is that God is absolute love, incomprehensible mercy, and we have to allow Him to love us precisely in our sinfulness. It is His love and His love alone that will draw us out of ourselves.

This gospel is such good news that we can actually talk about the good news of sin. A former ethics professor of mine once told me that it takes a great deal of character to be able to admit that one was wrong. This becomes much harder to do the older we get; for it is one thing to look back a year or two and admit that one was mistaken, but it is a very different matter to have to look back at the last twenty five or thirty years and face the fact that we were wrong about something significant for that length of time.

Humility is a childlike quality, and perhaps that is why this virtue becomes more difficult as we move away from childhood into adulthood. But there is a kind of good news about sin. Our route to great character can be very short, and our own sins, imperfections, and errors can be the vehicle to this new and higher stature. St. Therese of Lisieux, whom Pope Pius X regarded as “the greatest saint in modern times” and who is now a Doctor of the Church, was fully aware of this. She writes: “I am no longer surprised at anything, nor do I grieve at seeing that I am frailty itself; on the contrary I glory in it, and expect to discover new imperfections in myself each day. These lights concerning my nothingness do me more good, I affirm, than lights regarding faith.”

The greatest and most influential human beings in history were precisely those who took this short route to greatness by daring to gaze upon their own sinfulness, imperfections, and limitations and acknowledge them, such as St. Paul, St. Augustine, and a myriad of other great saints. I include in this group one who is probably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Jacques Maritain. He entered into a suicide pact with his wife, but one day he went to listen to a philosophy lecture on St. Thomas Aquinas and it changed his life. He went on to become the greatest Catholic philosopher of this century.

The good news is that there is nothing we can do that God will not forgive, if we make the move back to Him in a spirit of contrition. But there is a clever diabolical temptation that St. Padre Pio warns about, and it is to convince yourself not to go to Confession until you can will to stop the sins you are committing on your own. This illusion is accompanied by reasoning that if I were to go to Confession, I’d be making a mockery of God, so in order to be a good Catholic, I have to stop going to Confession and stop receiving the Eucharist until I can straighten up my life on my own.

The irony here is in believing that we can do it on our own, that we don’t need God, that we can will to stop committing sin without the grace of the sacrament. But the only way we can really be filled with the joy of knowing the mercy of God is to peer right into our own misery and sinfulness and make the move back to God. When He sees us a long way off, He will come to meet us, and He will take over, and our life will never be the same again, and we’ll wonder why we waited so long.