Mercy or Justice - Lessons from the Prodigal Son

I recently saw a picture of a Church sign outside of Philadelphia that said: Bible Quiz. In the Bible, how many times do we read about eagles, and how many about the patriots? Eagles 33 Patriots 0. I took delight in this sign, and texted it around to all my patriot friends. But yesterday, one of these friends texted me back with a Church sign here in New England. It said, Bible Quiz 2. In the Bible, how many times do we read about eagles, and how many times do we read about goats. Eagles 33 GOATs 42! It looks like I have to be afraid of Tom Brady in today’s Super Bowl!

Well, I thought about basing my sermon on some aspect of the Super Bowl, but since today is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, one of the most beautiful stories in the entire Bible, I felt the need to focus on this message instead!

Justice or Mercy? Think about these two words and what they mean.  Justice or Mercy? Which is greater? Which, do you think, better represents God? Justice or Mercy?

St Isaac the Syrian offered these challenging words: “Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is the equality of an even scale, for it gives to each as they deserves… Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it offers compassion to all. Itt does not punish a person who is deserving of evil, and to the person who is deserving of good it gives a double portion… As grass and fire cannot co-exist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul. As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy.”

This comparison of justice and mercy is what we encounter in today’s Gospel story of the Prodigal Son, or we can call it the Parable of the Loving and Merciful Father.

Let’s briefly recall the story: A father has two sons. The younger son greatly offends and shames the father by asking for his inheritance long before his father dies. Basically, he is burying his relationship with his father. You are dead to me, he says, and I want to have nothing else to do with you!

Yet because of the Father’s unfathomable and incomprehensible love, he respects the freedom of his younger son, and grants him his request. The Father understands that true love can only come where freedom exists, so he allows the younger son to take his inheritance and run away to a far, distant land. The younger son seems to enjoy his freedom initially, but ends up wasting his inheritance and becoming utterly lost and depraved, living among pigs and coming close to losing his humanity.

When the younger son finally realizes, though, that he lives in a self-imposed hell, he comes to his senses, turns back to his father in extreme humility and deep repentance, asking only to be accepted as a servant. The Father, who is the image of our loving God in heaven, not only welcomes his prodigal and lost son back, but even receives him with unquestionable love and mercy. The Father rejoices because his son was lost and is now found, was dead and is now alive! Infinite mercy and grace, joy and love, abound in the Father’s spirit towards his fallen and sinful son!

As the Father welcomes the younger son back, and begins to celebrate and feast over his resurrection from death to life, the older son returns home from working in the fields. Now we need to remember that the older son had never left the side of the father. He had been the dutiful one, staying close to his father, obeying his father’s wishes. The only problem, however, was that even though the older son had physically stayed close to his Father, he never adopted or understood the Father’s spirit of divine mercy and grace. The older son obeyed his father out of duty, not out of love. The older son focused more on the rules and regulations of what an older son should do, instead of striving to understand and imitate the Father’s heart, striving to become like the Father, with the same spirit of joy and love. Although outwardly the older son never rejected his Father and left his Father’s house, as the young son did, the older son’s spirit departed from the Father long ago, becoming hard, cold, and unloving.

As the Father rejoices that his younger son has returned safe and sound, the older son expresses self-righteous anger, because he wanted justice to play out. His good-for-nothing brother shamed the family name, offended the father, and wasted all his inheritance on prostitutes and prodigal living. He thought his brother deserved justice, not mercy, a beating, not a feast in his honor!

In the Father’s actions, we only see joy and happiness, for he understood clearly that his son was dead and had come back to life. The Father offered complete restoration to his lost son because that’s what mercy is all about. The older son expected justice, which would entail punishment for the wrongs of his brother. The Father only offered mercy – undeserved and unexpected, but that is precisely what mercy is. It is God’s love and grace offered freely, and completely undeserved!

Last week, Pres. Faith and I went to go see a musical entitled “Amazing Grace.” It was all about the life and conversion of John Newton, the author of the popular hymn “Amazing Grace.” What many people don’t know about this beautiful hymn is that before John Newton wrote it, he was a captain of two slave ships, bringing hundreds of slaves from Africa to either their death, or their miserable existence as slaves in England and America. His conversion, however, eventually led him to become an Anglican minister who came to understand his terrible sins. He caused the death of many slaves, and treated them horribly. He knew he was a condemned sinner, and no justice could ever save him. Instead, he came to understand God’s amazing grace, not his justice, as he wrote the hymn “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind and now I see.”

John Newton experienced, like the prodigal son, the undeserved and immense mercy of God, and through God’s grace he was given a new life. He became a new person. He understood that he was no longer the terrible, sinful slave trader, but a child of God, beloved and cherished by his Creator.

This is the unfathomable mercy of God, and this is why St. Isaac the Syrian could say, “Mercy is opposed to justice… As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy.”

The older son in today’s story did not understand his Father’s mercy. He didn’t want to understand his Father’s mercy. He preferred to live by justice, because he thought of himself as self-righteous. Yet, last Sunday, we heard about the dangers of self-righteousness in the story of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. Jesus warned us that no one is righteous in the eyes of God, and anyone who thinks of themselves not needing God’s mercy is living a life of self-deception. “God be merciful to me the sinner” is the prayer that we all need to offer.

Our only hope rests in God’s mercy and grace. And God expects all of us to imitate His spirit of mercy and grace in our own lives. We aren’t called to bring people to justice. We are called to bring them to God’s mercy, and help them discover a new life in Him!

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