XLIV. Pope Benedict now turns to the older brother in the “Prodigal Son” story, or again, better labeled “The Parable of the Two Brothers.” The story is known well enough – the older son’s return to the farmstead only to find a party for his brother, and his response is anger and bitterness. His life of work and loyalty seems to count for nothing, and he is enraged by the injustice. He knows nothing of the younger son’s repentance and transformation; he can only view all this through how it affects him. As the Pope notes, this anger reveals that he is envious of his brother, that he too wants freedom and so feels betrayed by his own loyalty – what did it achieve for him? Though the father tries to have him share the joy of his brother’s return, he fails, and the parable ends.
Of course, Jesus uses the story not as an abstract moralizing but as a commentary on what is happening right then in his ministry: the Father is welcoming sinners back through Jesus, and the scribes and Pharisees are scandalized. At the same time, the story has perennial application, since God continues to call the sinner to be reconciled, to build a community rooted in love and mercy.
Whenever we view this dynamic simply through the lens of justice and obedience, we too can be scandalized by God’s gracious forgiveness. Then it seems like obedience doesn’t really matter, since God forgives anyway, and the rules have no consistent logic. If we complain that God is too merciful, then we convict ourselves of not yet fully understanding God’s will, no matter how obedient we are in our own conduct. But if we can see justice and mercy as God does, we realize these are not in opposition or incompatible, as though we must choose one or the other. Rather, God’s mercy encompasses but surpasses justice. If justice is to render another what is due, mercy renders more good than is due. God’s mercy does not ignore sin and injustice. Indeed, so real and pivotal are they in salvation that they led the Son of God to the Cross. God judges the world; and the judgment is mercy paid for by the Blood of the Son.