“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!" - Luke 15:25-30
In the story of the Prodigal Son, told by Our Lord in St. Luke's Gospel, we most oftentimes will find ourselves connecting with the son who squandered his inheritance in a life of sinfulness, but by the grace of God returned to his father and sought reconciliation and security of his father's home and was welcomed with open arms (as we touched upon in We the Prodigal Sons: When Seeking Reconciliation). But how often would we admit that we find ourselves in the shoes of the elder son?
There is a temptation to judge that can foster within our hearts towards others when we see them turning their life to Christ. The bigger the sins of the sinner in our eyes, the more intense the temptation can be. This can come in the form of judging the sincerity of someone's conversion or change of heart, or we ourselves will judge the Creator, deeming any forgiveness that may or may not have been bestowed as unjustified. We may scoff at a person's reverence during mass when we are privy to information about their personal lives deeming that their reverence is for show and nothing more. We may see a jail-cell conversion, such as with the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, and spew uncharitable words, professing that they don't deserve forgiveness, or that it was a disingenuous conversion, as if we are omniscient. We roll our eyes at the idea of someone who committed heinous crimes as being someone who can, by the grace of God, enter into eternal life. But, in doing so, we lose sight of Our Lord's Passion and the lives of the Saints.
We would do well to remember St. Paul,
who, before converting, was a zealous activist against the rising Christian phenomenon. Paul partook in the stoning and jailing of Believers, persecuting the earliest form of the Church. But what did Our Lord do? What did the Apostles ultimately do? He came to be counted among the Faithful, ordained an Apostle of the Lord, and author of majority of the ratified New Testament canon. Are we to say that Christ had no right to appear to Paul or to offer him any grace which led to his conversion?
St. Paul tells us:
For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
- Romans 3:22-23
Are we to forget that the great St. Augustine was a pagan cultist who struggled with lust and who fathered a son out of wedlock with a concubine before his conversion, who then went on to become one of the most influential saints in all of Church History? Are we to forget that St. Peter denied Christ three times publicly, yet still the Spirit was bestowed on him order that he could lead the Church in the Great Commission as pope and vicar of the Lord? Are we to forget Mary Magdalen who lived a life in prostitution, who Christ in turn protected from stoning; or St. Matthew who was a greedy extortionist who collected taxes for the Empire and Christ called to follow him regardless and was ordained an Apostle; or St. Dismas who was crucified justifiably for his crimes alongside Jesus and who Our Lord promised paradise to regardless? The list could go on. But probably the most important question, are we to forget our own transgressions against others and the Lord which we ourselves have taken into the confessional with the joyful hope of absolution and reconciliation?
Indeed, times and situations like these, when we find ourselves observing someone else's conversion, reversion, or apparent change of heart, we should approach it with grace, and allow it to be a time of self-reflection. This is not to say we must immediately accept anyone's word and thus abandon reason, but we should abandon rash judgment within our hearts. We should reflect on all that the Lord has forgiven of us when we have gone to Him, and we should reflect on the Mercy of the Lord and not presume that the boundaries of God's Love and Mercy stop at the bounds of our own sins. For in the same way that we hope for ourselves in our sinfulness, so we should hope for others; and to the extent of mercy and forgiveness we wish to see granted to us, in like manner we should extend and grant towards others.