You might call this a Part 2 of the article I wrote in the last edition of Totus Tuus, concerning mercy and justice. The idea that Christian mercy can sometimes seem unjust requires to be qualified, with emphasis on the word ‘seem’. Of course, ultimately, mercy is incompatible with injustice; it is more that we sometimes fail to see the pure nature of either justice or mercy when some self-interest is at play.
It is true that, in the story of the Prodigal Son, the father appears to breach the principles of justice – certainly in the eyes of his elder son – in unconditionally welcoming back his ne’er-do-well younger son after he has squandered his inheritance. The faithful son confronts his father with these words: ‘‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!.” Really the elder’s son’s response is grounded in insecurity and fear: fear that some condition of caprice has descended on his father and that, as a result, he may now stand to lose his own entitlement. That would indeed be unjust, and it would be wrong to accuse the elder son of peevishness or intolerance were that really to be the position. But the father responds to the elder son’s remonstration: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In other words, ‘Relax: I have not gone mad.”
We can instantly see that what the father is saying – and therefore what he is doing – has little in common with some of the interpretations of concepts like mercy and compassion now so much in vogue. Whereas the current tendency is often to berate the faithful one as a Pharisee, to demand that he stand down his expectations of security and peace for himself and his dependents, the father in the story was not doing this. He was not saying that the feckless son shall immediately become the ‘equal’ of the faithful one, or that he should swallow his own expectations in order to appear ‘compassionate’.
In contemporary discourse – including in the Catholic context – it often seems that synonyms of words like ‘mercy’ and ‘compassion’ are used as weapons to bludgeon the faithful into silence. If we do not accept that we have no right to say that our country ought to belong to those who were born in it, that fringe groups be given the run of the public square to enforce their ideologies and demands, that women ought to be permitted to kill rather than suffer the slightest inconvenience, then we are nothing but Pharisees and worse. We are told that we must abandon legalism and scripturalism in order to be ‘pastoral’, which seems to be a code for abandoning both Scripture and the law. In effect, what we are being asked to do is vacate the law in favour of an ideological laissez faire: whatever the most powerful ideological interests demand, that shall be the whole of the law.
The story of the Prodigal Son does not support such travesties of truth and justice. It elevates generosity of spirit but not anarchy. It advocates forgiveness but not forgetfulness. It proposes mercy but not transferring the burden of penance from the wrongdoers to the righteous. And it does not seek to justify injustices with accusations involving a conflation of the terms ‘righteous’ and ‘self-righteous’. The faithful son was not being self- righteous in asserting his concerns; he was not deserving of being called a Pharisee. He was simply checking to see if the wheels of justice were still on the rails.
Written by John Waters