In the stories that Jesus tells in the gospel, I can only find the word “Must” happening twice. [Perhaps there are more, but I couldn’t find them…] And the word ‘MUST’ appears only once when spoken from the ‘God’ character. That once happens in today’s gospel of the prodigal son, from the lips of the “Father” figure. Since the stories of Jesus reveal to us who he knows his God to be, then any time the God figure uses the word “must”, it seems prudent to pay attention.
To the oldest son he says: “But now we MUST celebrate and rejoice, because you brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and now he has been found.” Couldn’t he have said: We should celebrate? It would be a nice thing, really. What a joy it would be if you came to the party? Instead, the word he uses is “MUST”. There is not an option or a choice on this. So, what was so crucial to the older son’s salvation (and all who think like him) that Jesus uses that imperative “MUST”?
I think it is because of this: It is so easy for us humans to get caught up in the logic of justice. Don’t get me wrong. Justice is a good and necessary thing. It is about righting wrongs, about restoring balance. The logic of justice is something we kind of instinctively know. If you do something good to me, then I am in your debt. If you promise me something that has not been given, then I expect repayment. If I wrong you, then I am in your debt. If you wrong me, then you are in mine. THIS is the world that the oldest son lives in – a very tit for tat world and ultimately, a very unforgiving world. Look how that plays out: “All these years I served you and not once…” He is counting what is owed him in the logic of justice. That logical world quickly becomes a judgmental world of who is righteous and who is unrighteous. And he is so caught up in that world that he can’t even use the word BROTHER, when he speaks to his father about the prodigal. Instead, we hear “this son of yours.”
What Jesus needs the Pharisees and Scribes (and all the “Older Brothers”) to whom he addressed this story) to understand is that beyond the necessary world of justice, there is a world of mercy. If you hear these three stories according to the logic of justice, they make no sense. It is disastrous for the shepherd to leave the 99 in the wilderness, and seek out the lost one. What if a lightning strike scatters them? Or a wolf. He would be toast if he had to explain to the owner of the herd why he only has one sheep left. So, too, the crazy woman, who turns her whole house upside down looking for the equivalent of a PENNY. Why waste all that time for something that has so little value. And who throws a party for a son who only comes home because he is hungry? And who, like the older brother, is also caught up in the logic of justice – “If I work for my dad, then he’ll have to feed me. There is no contrition in the boy’s speech, no desire for a relationship with his dad – just his hungry belly.
In telling these stories, Jesus is trying to save all of us who become trapped in that world of justice, of meriting love – by introducing us to the logic of mercy. Put simply, it means this: God puts extreme value on those who are lost. God VALUES all who are lost.
If God is ruled ONLY by justice, then the seeking after the sheep, the coin, the lost younger AND older brother makes no sense. But mercy trumps justice, doesn’t it. Mercy is the choice by God not to hold us in our mistakes and ‘lost-ness’, but rather to see us ONLY through his desire that we be found, that we come home. Mercy sees us, not through the eyes of justice but through the eyes of an eternal desire that we might know LIFE.
That is the ‘logic of mercy’ – it is never about what we deserve, but rather about what God desires. And in these most powerful stories that Jesus tells, we hear the only thing that God must do to be God – he MUST seek us out so that he can rejoice when we are found.
If this is what God MUST do – to seek out those who are lost and rejoice when they are found, then, we must do the same. So, a few possible simple responses:
• When that annoying pan-handler comes up to you in the Walgreen’s parking lot, give them a smile as well as money for a cup of coffee. Make sure you ‘meet them’ and value them as God values them.
• Take some time this week to see where YOU are lost – where you have stumbled into sin, or wandered away from grace and bring that the place where God rejoices: the confessional.
• Seek out someone you know (and we all know someone) who is a little ‘lost’ – perhaps they don’t trust their own goodness; perhaps they have enjoyed the freedoms of college a bit too much. Perhaps they have hurt you or you have hurt them and now there is a distance. Invite them back to the party that is your life – let them know, by a note, a shared cup of coffee, some time spent, that they MATTER to you.
There are only a few things that God MUST do. If we are ever to understand and enter in to the mystery of this altar, then we MUST celebrate each and every prodigal’s return, we must welcome each least and last and lost among us, so that together all might be found…