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Suffering and Mercy
Saturday of the Second Week of Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them he addressed this parable. “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”
Opening Prayer: Lord God, author of our redemption, thank you for never giving up on me. No matter how far I have strayed, you have welcomed me back. I praise you for your saving mercy! When I suffer, please stay with me. Your grace is enough!
- The Mystery of Suffering: The younger son’s decisions caused everyone in this parable to suffer. He suffered because, after he had spent all he had, a mysterious famine griped the land, putting him in dire straits. He found himself “dying from hunger.” The father also suffered, although he had done no wrong. He did nothing to deserve the betrayal of his own son. The older son suffered when his brother left, and perhaps even more so when his brother returned. The parable repeats itself among many of today’s families broken by infidelity, addiction, or dysfunction. “Within each form of suffering endured by man, and at the same time at the basis of the whole world of suffering, there inevitably arises the question: why?… And he suffers in a humanly speaking still deeper way if he does not find a satisfactory answer,” says St. John Paul II. We may not answer the question “why” (in this life), but when we unite our suffering with Christ, “the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful” (Salvifici Dolores).
- Unmysterious Suffering: Suffering (and even death) is the natural consequence of sin, unmysterious and predictable. The prodigal son took very specific actions to achieve his goals, and these actions, being sinful, bore in themselves the seeds of suffering. He unjustly demanded his inheritance, abandoned his family, squandered his funds, and lived hedonistically. Life admits only two models: first the fast, then the feast—or the other way around. Now, our conscience warns us that living from feast to feast, indulging our selfishness and egoism, is unsustainable. Famine will come, and we know it. The Scriptures testify to this by the manner in which the younger son began his path of conversion–by “coming to his senses.” His was taking stock of the nature of his suffering, of its self-evident causes, which led him to change his behavior. We, too, must be ready to turn away from our sins this Lent; when we do, we may find some of our suffering relieved.
- Indiscriminate Mercy: The greatest figure of the parable is the merciful father. His mercy was indiscriminate, showered on older son and younger son alike. Though he himself suffered, he was able to forgive the sins of his children and thereby alleviate their suffering. Perhaps it was precisely through his own suffering that he comprehended theirs. Now, God does not suffer as we suffer. But we can say, according to our human mode of speaking, that his greatest pain is to see us fall into sin. He knows that sin will not make us happy; he knows that to sin is to tend swine. And so, being the good God that he is, he has mercy on us. We are always welcome back home.
Conversing with Christ: Lord Jesus, preserve me from all sin today. Help me to avoid the suffering I can avoid, and to accept (by your grace) the suffering I cannot.
Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will pray a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, invoking his aid in my struggle against sin and the evil one.
For Further Reflection: Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son.
written by Br. Erik Burckel, LC