Pope Francis and the Gospel of Giving Things to Those Who Aren’t Worthy
If all we have to live by is justice, we’re doomed already. Doomed to cruelty, to absurdity, to isolation. This occurs to me again and again as I watch the relentless criticism of Pope Francis, and in particular the indignation displayed by certain groups at his Amoris Laetitia.
Such aggressive hostility toward a uniquely pastoral message led me to reflect on a theme which recurs throughout the Gospel, most notably in parable of the Prodigal Son, but also in the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). It is a theme which seems to appear whenever divine mercy manifests itself in the presence of human righteousness. And it is never pretty.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is so familiar I won’t cite any of it, but I’ll repeat the second parable here, emphasizing a few lines:
The kingdom of heaven is like to an householder, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And having agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour, he saw others standing in the market place idle. And he said to them: Go you also into my vineyard, and I will give you what shall be just. And they went their way. And again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did in like manner.
But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing, and he saith to them: Why stand you here all the day idle? They say to him: Because no man hath hired us. He saith to them: Go you also into my vineyard. And when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard saith to his steward: Call the labourers and pay them their hire, beginning from the last even to the first. When therefore they were come, that came about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first also came, they thought that they should receive more: and they also received every man a penny.
And receiving it they murmured against the master of the house, Saying: These last have worked but one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us, that have borne the burden of the day and the heats. But he answering said to one of them: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny? Take what is thine, and go thy way: I will also give to this last even as to thee. Or, is it not lawful for me to do what I will? is thy eye evil, because I am good?
The first lesson here is that the master is free to give generously should he desire to do so. That tells us something about God. The second lesson, however, tells us about man, and what it tells us about man is being illustrated today in the ongoing attack on Pope Francis’ papacy.
The lesson is this: that there is something in human righteousness that cannot bear to see rewards given to those perceived as unrighteous. Unjustified benevolence offends the merely just—and by “merely just” I mean those who measure all things by a legalistic code and nothing else.
That is the difference between human righteousness and divine. Human righteousness tends to measure everything—even the love it gives—by its own standard. Men see their own righteousness first and foremost, and they measure the love they give others by that standard. Of course, the problem with looking to our own righteousness first is that things always look bigger when seen from close up, and nothing is closer to us than ourselves. Thus, we always have an exaggerated opinion of our own merits. But second, even if we could see ourselves properly, it is a dangerous thing to measure our love by this standard—to love according to a moral calculus. Love is not a moral calculation.
Divine love is something quite different. It does not work by a process of moral calculation, indeed it could not possibly work this way or else no man or woman could ever be loved by God. And yet we are. We all are. In a very real way, we are all receiving a day’s wage for an hour’s work. Truth be told, most of us did not even work an hour. And even so, we are loved, because divine love always gives gratuitously, to those who deserve and to those who do not.
The critique of Amoris Laetitia comes in the form of outrage at the prospect of the Church giving something to someone who may not deserve it. From this point of view, the outrage aimed at Pope Francis is the same as the outrage aimed at the prodigal son by the righteous son. It is the same outrage that was aimed at the master who paid his laborers gratuitously. It is the same outrage that was aimed at Christ throughout his life. It is the outrage of man at the Gospel of gratuitous love. The Gospel, then, comes under attack not just from human evil, but from human righteousness as well.
It was his capacity for gratuitous love, and not his “moral superiority,” which made Christ what he was. Yes, he was sinless. But that would have meant damnation for mankind if not for the fact that, over and above his righteousness, Christ had loved. We are not saved by Christ because his righteousness outruns ours (even though it does) but because His love outruns even His righteousness. Divine love loves us in spite of our unrighteousness.
Does this mean that sin does not matter? Or that divorce is not a social evil? Or that we ought to throw all of our standards out the window for the sake of everyone’s emotional satisfaction? No, of course not. What it means is that the moral calculus which tells us that adultery is indeed a serious sin is not the only factor to be taken into account in the life of the Church. It tells us that things are not that simple. It tells us that God desires more for us, and that Pope Francis shares in this desire.
Hence, the Prodigal Son is not given what he deserves but what the love of the father desired to give him. And it is given to him in full, from the first moment that he becomes capable of receiving it.
There will always be “righteous Catholics,” standing guard to make sure that no one gets anything that he or she does not deserve. Crusaders for moral legalism, disciples of the Letter. Pope Francis is far more concerned with the Spirit. Which is appropriate, since we were promised that it would be the Holy Spirit who guided him. The same Holy Spirit that guided his predecessors for the last 2000 years, the same that will guide his successors until the End of the Age.