daily biblical sermons


HOW GOD CAN GIVE MERCY RATHER THAN JUSTICE TO REPENTANT SINNERS
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Saturday, Second Week of Lent, February 27, 2016
Micah 7:14-15, 18-20, Psalm 102, Luke 15:1-3, 11-32


Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.

 

"But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry" (Luke 15:22-24).


This is how his father treats his prodigal son who returns home repentant after squandering his father's money in loose living. His father is filled with love for him and shows him mercy, not justice. But how can this be? Is not God as all just as he is all merciful? Why does this father, who represents how God treats repentant sinners, only treat his sinful but repentant son with mercy, and not also with justice?


It is true that he experienced God's justice in being hungry and having to feed pigs, but this was to bring him to repentance, that is, to changing his mind and leaving off his sinful life and returning to his father, confessing his sins and begging forgiveness. But once he has resolved to do this and returns home, even before he is able to say anything to his father, his father runs and greets, embraces and kisses him.


There is now no more question of punishment for him. He is given only mercy and love. He is dressed in the best robe, with a ring of authority on his finger, and shoes, showing high status, on his feet, an unusual celebratory meat meal is prepared for him, and there is music and dancing to joyfully welcome him home.


This is the earthly equivalent of the joy among the angels over one sinner who repents. "Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10). And we note that the Greek word used here for "repent" (metanoounti) means "change one's mind" and ways. It does not mean "do penance." The angels were not rejoicing because this sinner was doing penance (for he was not doing penance), but because he returned to God.


But where is God's justice here? Does God only treat repentant sinners with mercy once they return to him, confessing their sins, which they have abandoned? His older brother also plants the same question. "He was angry and refused to go in" to the feast (Luke 15:28). He says to his father, "When this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf" (Luke 15:30).


The older son sees the lack of justice here and is offended. This is not right, he thinks. This should not be. What kind of justice is this? Why is he not made to do something to make reparation for his sinful way of life and for squandering his father's money with harlots? Why is he only treated with mercy and not also with justice? This is unjust! It is not right! I don't want to have anything to do with it. I'm not joining in in this feast.


We remember that this is Jesus' parable of how God treats repentant sinners. So what is the answer to these questions? Is God really not all just after all? Is he only merciful? Is that what this parable is teaching? But how can this be right? How can this be just?


The answer is that Jesus, who died a slow painful death on the cross in just punishment for our sins to make reparation for them, is the one telling this parable. It is only after his death and resurrection that this parable becomes clear. Because of Jesus' death for our sins, justice is done in the case of repentant sinners. But their just punishment is taken out on Jesus rather than on the sinner himself. Jesus is the sinner's sin offering, killed in place of the sinner for his sins, so that God can justly forgive him without inflicting any further punishment on the sinner.


As a sin offering is killed instead of the sinner for his sins, so the incarnate Son of God is killed as a sin offering for our sins, to make atonement for them. He takes our sins upon himself (2 Corinthians 5:21) and suffers the just and necessary punishment for them instead of us suffering it. Justice is therefore done. God remains all just, and the repentant sinner is treated with mercy, as the father in this parable treats his repentant prodigal son.


This is a tremendously important point. It is the whole New Testament message of salvation, namely that Christ saves us sinners, by means of his death on the cross for our sins, when we repent and believe in him. This forgiveness comes to us from God's mercy. Christ's death for our sins takes care of God's justice for us.


The way to get this mercy is through faith, which has two parts: 1) turning away from sin, changing our mind and ways, and 2) turning toward God. The first part we call "repentance," and the second part we call "faith." The work is Christ's on the cross. Our faith connects us with his work so that justice is done for our sins by his death, and mercy can be shown to us.


We don't have to do any work to earn God's forgiveness. He simply treats us with mercy, because of Christ's work on the cross, if we turn to Christ in faith. Our faith connects us with Christ's work so that it is counted by God as just reparation for our sins. Therefore we have no further reparation to make for them. There is no further penance that we have to do for them. And God can simply treat us with mercy, as the father in this parable does to his sinful but repentant son. So will we be treated by God, if we repent and put our faith for our salvation in Christ.


This poor prodigal son certainly had no good works to show for himself to win his father's forgiveness. That is why St. Paul constantly preaches that we are justified by faith, not by our works. Justification is by faith "apart from works" (Romans 4:6). This is the basic gospel message that we are sent to preach. It is the good news of Christ. Simply turn away from your sins and believe in Christ, and you will be justified without any works, but only by faith, because of Christ's work of reparation for our sins on the cross. This is the basic Christian message that many Christians even today still do not understand. They have not really understood the good news of the New Testament, the basic gospel message, that once we put our faith in Christ, we will be justified and made righteous (Romans 5:19) "apart from works" (Romans 4:6).


But then, once justified by faith "apart from works" (Romans 4:6), we must live a new life of good works. We are accepted and made a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our reparation for our sins has already been done for us by Christ on the cross, but now we need to grow in holiness and the love of God with all our heart by renouncing the unnecessary pleasures of the world, so that we can focus all our attention on the Lord alone with all the love of our heart, with an undivided heart. Christian growth or progressive sanctification is what we are to spend the rest of our life on.

 

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