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A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith
Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: February 16, 2019
By Edward C. Dodge
Catholic High School for Boys
Among the most powerful of Pope Benedict’s reflections in his book “Jesus of Nazareth” is on the parable of the two sons, which taught me to read Scripture more critically while helping me to understand better God’s mercy, that faith is a relationship and to beware of legalism.
I’d previously known the story of the prodigal son. It’s familiar to us: a young man rudely demands his inheritance of his still-living father and blows the money quickly, falling into desperation and poverty before crawling home to beg his father’s aid, only for the father to welcome back his son with open arms.
Legalism destroys the heart of Christianity, exchanging a relationship with Christ for Pelagianism, an ancient heresy wherein the individual believes he earns salvation by his actions.
The older brother balks at his father’s mercy, but the father reiterates that, no matter the circumstances, his “brother was lost and has been found,” and that is worthy of celebration.
And while we are grateful that the father forgives so easily, the older brother’s initial response probably resonates a little bit with us. Isn’t his anger understandable? Hadn’t he done everything the father wanted, only to watch his sibling run off to waste his inheritance and now, in the celebration, start using his brother’s half? Hadn’t the younger brother betrayed the father? And hadn’t the elder brother done everything right? Where was his reward? I’d be angry, too, and unforgiving.
Isn’t Scripture multifaceted? This parable teaches us of God’s mercy while also insisting we examine ourselves. It’s a warning against self-righteousness and a reminder that God doesn’t love me more or less because I am good or bad. He just loves me.
Throughout the Gospel, we see Jesus confront the legalism of the Pharisees only to warn the disciples from it as well, and if we are honest with ourselves, we fall into legalism every time we look down our noses at another whose life seemingly does not fit our narrative.
Legalism destroys the heart of Christianity, exchanging a relationship with Christ for Pelagianism, an ancient heresy wherein the individual believes he earns salvation by his actions. It exchanges the value of God’s law in building fruitful relationships for a mere fulfillment of obligations.
In the Greek of his Gospel, Luke uses the word “essence” for “inheritance,” which reveals that by wasting the father’s gifts, the boy had lost his very self in that “far country” away from his father’s house. The son clearly thinks his father’s rules are the basis of their relationship rather than guides to becoming the best man he could be. He believes he should be punished. He hopes for little more than servitude. How could the father love him now? And so he is shocked when the father races to embrace him.
The older son is no better off than his sibling: he has checked all of his boxes, dotted all of his "i’s". He is certainly morally superior to his brother; he followed all of the rules, so the father should love him more. But he’s wrong, and so are we when we think like these boys. Our actions neither earn God’s love nor lose it.
In “Introduction to Christianity,” Pope Benedict wrote, “I do not have God until I no longer have any god of my own but only trust the God who is just as much the next man’s God as mine, because we both belong to him.” And so the father simply loves, destroying the boys’ legalism — and ours.
It’s easy to get caught up in rules, but our response to others is a reflection of our relationship with God. My experience is that reading Scripture critically builds divine relationship, subsequently strengthening human ones. Why not give it a try?