St. Teresa of Calcutta had her devil’s advocate in the person of the famed British writer and self-righteous atheist, Richard Dawkins. For Dawkins, Mother Teresa did more harm than good, particularly because of what Dawkins referred to as her ‘dogmatic views’ on abortion, contraception, and divorce as well as cozying up to dictators. Dawkins was not alone. He was preceded in his attacks by late Christopher Hitchens who, before his death, expended his last energy to write a book called The Missionary Position and a documentary entitled Hell’s Angel, in which he labeled Mother Teresa as a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer, and an accomplice of worldly secular powers. For the critics, “Mother Teresa had the budget and time to build several world class hospitals but ended up with a basic makeshift hospital without even the most basic medical care or standards of hygiene, dedicating her life to promising help but giving nothing” (Freeman). These “high-minded” critics, like the Pharisees of old, are scandalized that an unknown nun from Albania who picked up the abandoned and dying poor from the gutters of Calcutta did not build world class hospitals for the destitute, and feed them exotic meals. Hiding behind their desks, these critics let insult and calumny fall from their pen. That’s the extent to which some Westerners have smog on them. Poverty and sickness are still with us and I challenge all those Pharisees to do as much as lift a finger to help a poor person. The millions of dollars they rake in from royalties and sale of their books can build a state of the art hospital in Timbuktu. The difference between a saint and a Pharisee is a yawning hole.
Similar to the critics of St. Teresa of Calcutta (whom Pope Francis declared “a model of mercy”), the Pharisees who criticized Jesus in today’s Gospel were “scandalized” that he hung around tax collectors and sinners, implying that he must be like them. This attitude isn’t so anachronistic, after all. You often hear today jabs about the Church cozying up with the rich who provide her with gold and silver vessels as well as magnificent buildings. The suggestion is made that these wealth of the Church be sold and the proceeds distributed to the poor. Sounds like Judas’ idea, doesn’t it? Sold to whom? To rich celebrities who themselves need not care for the poor? These are efforts aimed at undermining the Church, dismiss her charitable activities, and diminish her spiritual credit. Jesus’ accusers today pulled that same punch. In answer, Jesus told three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.
In these parables, Jesus defined in simple terms the divine economy. According to this economy, God is not content with what business calls “a satisfactory percentage.” Every sheep, every coin, every son of the kingdom has equal value. The 99 sheep are not more important than the one; the one coin is as important as the nine. Each is an integral part of the whole and is to be sought with passionate striving until joy follows their return and restoration.
The Return of the Prodigal Son or the Joy of the Forgiving Father is the ensemble of Divine Restoration. Paul alludes to this restoration in his first letter to Timothy: “I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with guile, [but] the Lord has treated me mercifully, and His grace has been granted to me in overflowing measure.” Such appeal for restoration was evident in Moses’ prayer for the Lord to spare His degenerate people whose infidelity led to their undermining everything for which he spent his life. He had every reason to pray for their destruction but chose to pray for their restoration. And to the older son of the Gospel, filled with sadness and envy at the restoration of his brother, I say, swallow your pill and descend from your high horse. To you and me, the message is: condemn not and you’ll not be condemned. Be truly merciful.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo