Friday, March 9, 2012

"Be compassionate, as your heavenly Father is compassionate" (A reflection on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Sat. 2nd Wk of Lent, Lk. 15:1-3,11-32)

There’s a fascinating story in the Jewish Talmud of the angels in heaven rejoicing after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was drowning. They wanted to sing their song of praise and rejoicing, but God instead commands them to be quiet.

"Be silent", he tells them. "The work of my hands, my children, are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing a song?" (Megillah, 10b)

The parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading arose out of a very concrete situation, namely, the Pharisees disdain for sinners, which Jesus contrasts with God’s compassion and forgiveness, and his love, even for sinners. The first reading from the book of Micah expresses it in these words:

"Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency."

There are three characters in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son: the younger son who squandered his father’s wealth; the elder brother who sought to live a life of righteousness; and the father who showed nothing but love and compassion to both his sons.

It would not be correct to think that Jesus was praising the younger son in the gospel—as if sinning and then repenting were the way to go. God may be a loving and forgiving father, but he does expect us to live in righteousness.

And neither was Jesus saying that the younger son was better than the older one. No, there was nothing wrong with the elder son’s seeking to live an upright life.

The older brother's problem was not that he was good; his problem was that his goodness had made him harsh, unforgiving, and lacking in compassion. In the same way, it wasn’t the Pharisees righteousness that made them unacceptable to Jesus, it was their self-righteousness.

The problem with self-righteousness is that it can really mask either of two things.

First, the harshness and lack of compassion one has for others is often a reflection of the same harshness one shows towards oneself, and the disdain one has for others, especially those upon whom one looks down on account of their "weaknesses", is often a sign of a deeper disdain for oneself.

Second, self-righteousness is, most often than not, a façade, a smokescreen that hides something more troublesome. Jesus pronounced woe upon woe on the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, referring to them as "white-washed tombs".

The parable of the prodigal son is not only a reminder for us to be compassionate towards others, especially the weak and sinful. It also contains a warning. Harshness, lack of compassion, self-righteousness, and a judgmental attitude are like bricks that slowly but surely, build a wall that hides our true selves, from others, from God, and eventually even from ourselves.

Our only safeguard against such an unfortunate outcome is to heed the words of Jesus in another part of scripture: “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate”. For when we do so, we eventually discover that by being compassionate, forgiving, merciful, and kind to others—the very person we are showing compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and kindness, is none other than ourselves.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)