One of the dangers inherent in trying to live out a life of Christian fidelity is that we are prone to become embittered moralisers, older brothers of the Prodigal Son, angry and jealous at God’s over-generous mercy, bitter because persons who wander and stray can so easily access the heavenly banquet table.
But this isn’t unique to faithful churchgoers. It’s part of the universal struggle to age without bitterness and anger. We spend the first half of our lives wrestling with the Sixth Commandment and spend the last half of our lives wrestling with the Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill! Long before anyone is shot by a gun, he is shot by a word, and before he is shot by a word, he is shot by a thought. We all think murderous thoughts: who does he think he is? And it becomes harder and harder not to think them as we age.
Ageing without bitterness and anger is, in fact, our final struggle, psychologically and spiritually. The great Swiss psychologist Alice Miller suggests that the primary task of the second half of life is that of mourning; mourning our wounds so as not to become bitter and angry. We have to mourn, she says, until our very foundations shake, otherwise our ungrieved wounds will forever leave us prone to bitterness, anger and cold judgments.
At the end of the day there is only one remaining spiritual imperative: we are not meant to die in anger and bitterness. And so as we age we can progressively slim down our spiritual vocabulary to one word: forgive, forgive, forgive. Only forgiveness can save us from bitterness and anger.
Indeed, there are few Gospel texts as sobering as the story of the Prodigal Son. As good commentaries on this text are quick to point out, the central character of this story is not the Prodigal Son, but the father, and the central message of the text is his over-generous mercy. He is a father who is trying to get his two sons into his house (his house being an metaphor for heaven). But the younger son is, for a long time, out of the house through weakness, while the older son is just as effectively outside the house through a bitterness and an anger that have soured his fidelity. Unlike the father, who is grateful and joyous because his wayward son has come home, the older brother is angry and bitter that the father has not withheld his mercy and that his errant brother was not first punished and made to meet certain conditions before he was welcomed home.
Now, there’s an older brother of this sort in all of us. We see it, for instance, in the fierce resistance many wonderfully faithful churchgoing Christians express apposite certain people receiving Communion at the Eucharist. Granted, there are legitimate ecclesial issues here, to do with public forum and scandal, which need to be sorted out, as the recent synod on family life tried to do. But that synod also highlighted the resistance that many feel towards persons that they deem unworthy to receive Communion at the Eucharist.
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