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JESUS and the PRODICAL SON

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JESUS AND THE PRODIGAL SON – THE GOD OF RADICAL MERCY by Brian J. Pierce, O.P, [New York, Orbis Books, 2016] – a review by R. B. Williams, O.P.

     JESUS AND THE PRODIGAL SON – THE GOD OF RADICAL MERCY is a very passionate and personal presentation of the parable classically known as “The Prodigal Son,” read through an “unconventional lens” (cf. Introduction xiii).  It is also a very timely book insofar as it makes its appearance during the special Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis.  The timing may be a matter of good marketing by Orbis Books (Brian’s account of the writing indicates the book was conceived some years before) but in the midst of a tremendous amount of literature being generated on “Mercy” one might feel justifiably bewildered as to where to turn.  Some may return to Henri Nouwen’s classic, THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON – A STORY OF HOMECOMING [Doubleday Image, 1994), which gets a favorable mention from Brian.  For something newer, I would recommend turning to Brian’s book for an emotionally challenging and stimulating understanding of mercy, even if one is not inclined to accept Brian’s interpretation of the parable.  In this regard the title of the book is misleading.  It should be JESUS IS THE PRODIGAL SON, because that is Brian’s understanding of the parable, based on the words of the Father who welcomes back the “prodigal” with the words, “[T]his brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Luke 15:32 NRSV.

     Before I go any further, I need to say that I have known the author since his novitiate days and am acquainted with his way of thinking and, to some degree, with some of the autobiographical material in the book.  In this review I also keep in mind two principles:  the first is the saying, “All stories are true – some actually happen.”  The second comes from my dear deceased older sister who, when recounting family stories would “embellish” or “supply” facts which her younger brothers (this writer particularly) would attempt vainly to correct.  Her reply was always, “Let me tell it my way.”  To enjoy Brian’s book and benefit from it fully, I think one must keep those two principles in mind.  Brian tells the story of the Prodigal Son in HIS way and invites the reader to join him in the story.  This will mean suspending knowledge gained from reading major biblical commentaries on the meaning of the parable.  Anything is possible in a good story and Brian is a good storyteller.  Canonists, systematic theologians, scripture scholars, liturgists and other folks will all find something to wince about, but….it’s a story and not a learned treatise, and such folks could find themselves wearing the black turbans of the Pharisees and scribes [whether ancient or modern] who do get their share of “boo’s” in the story.

     What are the major features of the book?  First of all, there is the interpretation of the parable itself.  In Brian’s story, it is Jesus who leaves the Father and goes on a long journey.  That journey is basically a recounting of the gospel and Jesus’ encounters in mercy with people and situations.  Brian’s descriptions are vivid and we are treated to Jesus’ feelings (“his beautiful and tender Jewish heart”) as well as to “story-facts” like the name of Levi’s wife, “Miriam,” at the banquet following his call by Jesus.  Mercy is clearly the controlling force in all of this and we may be drawn, as in any good story, into characters and situations through Brian’s and our own imaginations.

     A second important feature is the autobiographical material.  Brian puts his own life on review and tells his own story in the process of telling the bigger story about the Prodigal Son.  Sometimes his story includes someone else’s story, such as the story of Roger – a very inspiring story that “actually happened” and would be worth the price of the book alone.  At times, one could wonder how much the parable and Brian’s story overlap.  The Epilogue is confusing because one is unsure who the 33 year old brother really is.  Brian’s own autobiographical material contains significant events in his own life that are instances of mercy.  Some of them, as he says, are “heart- or gut- wrenching.”

    A third important feature of the book is the chorus of quotes.  Brian is known to collect quotes and he shares them abundantly in this book.  At times, the story line seems to get lost because of all the other voices that are telling their own stories of mercy, but the list of personages is impressive: Archbishop Romero, Edward Schillebeeckx OP,  the martyred Dominican bishop Pierre Claverie, and a host of others. The bibliography at the back of the book has a blizzard of references for those who need them.  Thus, mercy is showcased in many ways throughout the book.

     Yes, I do happily recommend the book.  I also recommend keeping the two “principles” in mind in reading it that I mentioned above.  A good story is a good story, and good preaching needs good stories.  JESUS AND THE PRODIGAL SON is a great preaching by a great Dominican preacher.


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