More than forgiveness, please

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Today’s first reading and Gospel both illustrate God’s mercy. In the first, God shows himself willing to forgive the Israelites for worshipping a golden statue of a bull, in clear violation of his instructions. In the Gospel, Jesus tells a story about a father who welcomes home a ne’er-do-well son who has squandered a good deal of the family property.

But what happens after these incidents? What effect does God’s mercy have on those who received it?

The Israelites go on complaining their way across the desert. Eventually, they completely reject God’s directions to proceed toward a new homeland in Canaan. The divine judgment fits the crime. Very well, God says, if you don’t want to go to Canaan, you won’t; you will perish in the desert.

In the end, God’s mercy ran up against the Israelites’ unwillingness to cooperate with him, and that was the end of their relationship.

About the son, we have no after story. But we can see that he’ll have to do more than just take up residence in his old bedroom. He will need to outgrow his youthful excitement-seeking and accept the responsibilities of family life. Will he? Can he?

The author of today’s psalm is painfully aware of his sins and asks God for mercy. But he knows that the mercy he needs involves not only forgiveness but the power to change. And so at the center of his prayer, he makes this appeal: “A clean heart create for me, O God.”

The psalmist realizes that the changes he should make in his life require a degree of humility, courage and strength that he just doesn’t have. As I am, I can’t be what you want me to be, he tells God. So make me different.

The psalmist calls on the Creator, who brought the galaxies into existence and has designed every fruit and flower, to do a new work of creation -- to create in him willingness to say yes to God in times of temptation, desire to cooperate with God even when it is hard, power to carry through on his intentions to change.

Isn’t that what each of us asks God to do when we stand at Mass and pray, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed”?