IV. Have mercy
“While the son was still far off, his father saw him
and was filled with compassion.” (Luke 15)
Today I want to take up a wholly unoriginal topic: mercy. Not only are we in the midst of what the Catholic Church is observing a Holy Year of Mercy, but Pope Francis has already had quite a lot to say about it as of late.1 And even before Francis, there were already quite a few books written about mercy—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, just to name a few.
Indeed Francis has called mercy “the beating heart of the gospel,” saying that the core of what the Bible reveals to us is that the very name of God is mercy, or even more pointedly, that “The message of Jesus is mercy.”
The word “mercy” itself comes from the Latin misericordia, which literally means “a heart open to wretchedness,” a phrase which moves us in two directions at once. On one hand, we might say that a person who is aware of a need for mercy is open to the desolation of his or her own heart; but one who extends mercy to another must also have a heart that is open enough to wretchedness to see and respond to another person’s great spiritual need.
Today’s gospel lesson of The Prodigal Son is, of course, the quintessential expression of the centrality of mercy in Jesus’ message. If we had not other parable but this one, we would have the essence of the gospel. You know the story: a son takes his inheritance and squanders it in dissolute living, eventually coming to his senses whereupon he returns to his father to seek forgiveness and at the very least a place among the father’s hired hands. But the father, seeing him returning from afar off, runs to embrace him, welcoming him back not only with open arms, but with feasting and dancing in celebration of the son’s return.
Now, what is most striking to me about this story in the context of “these troubled times” (to allude to the theme of this Lenten sermon series), is the personal cost to the father of the forgiveness he extends to his son. This prodigal child has lost everything the father had worked hard to build up, the inheritance he hoped to leave as his legacy. This son has sullied the family name, alienated himself from his brother, and plunged the family into dysfunctional animosity and distrust. Just think of how dismayed the other son is, at the return of his prodigal sibling.
So of all people, the father has every reason to want to extract a price from his wayward son for his misdoing. Indeed, the demands of justice would seem to require some restitution from this child: isn’t all this his fault, his doing?
But here is where Pope Francis has a really important reminder for us: the very nature of mercy is to go beyond what justice would require, by extending forgiveness and seeking restoration instead. The father does not act justly with his son; he acts mercifully. More important to him than a just reckoning (with its inevitable reprisal and retribution), is restoration.
But the father’s decision is not without cost. He has to give up any claim to what he might feel he is owed by the son, or any sort of payment of damages. To be merciful is costly. Like the prodigal son’s father, it requires an emptying out of our perhaps justifiable claims for recompense and compensation. It requires of us a heart attuned to someone else’s wretchedness, rather than to our own wounded ego; it requires open arms, when our instinct may be more toward an accusatory finger.
Reflecting on this inverse relationship between justice and mercy, Pope Francis says that an appeal to justice alone, can often result in its own destruction: think for example of the effects of mass incarceration in this country, where although a strict form of justice has been rigorously applied, it has resulted in the destruction of countless individual lives and the communities in which they dwell, rather than the restoration of communal wellbeing which is supposedly the goal the pursuit of justice seeks. Justice without mercy, you see, is like faith without works: it is dead, corrupted by its own sterility and rigidity.
How different our national debate about immigration might be, for instance, if instead of arguing about “illegal immigrants” (which is a term that appeals solely to the legal requirements of justice), we had a discussion about the impoverished, fearful migrants on our borders (a description that points in the direction of some form of mercy). Perhaps that is what Francis meant by describing some of the responses people have made in these troubled times as “not Christian”: I think his point was that a truly Christian response will necessarily include a component of mercy, however costly that may be.
And isn’t this exactly what Francis means when he says that the name of God is mercy: the death of Jesus on the cross was not a “paying the price” of our sin in the juridical sense of the term (according to the dictates of justice), but rather it was an acceptance of the cost of extending mercy such that Jesus empties himself entirely, even unto death, in order to reveal to us the depth of God’s willingness to accept, to receive, and to forgive us in his arms of mercy—just like the father of the prodigal son. For as Francis insists, God never tires of forgiving, never! Because to do anything other would be contrary to God’s own nature.
The Pope tells the story of a priest who as a young confessor is afraid that perhaps he has been too lenient with his penitents, giving absolution for more than he should. In a moment that sounds like it is right out of “The Little world of Don Camillo,” the priest goes to a chapel and kneels before a crucifix where he prays, “Lord, forgive me if I have forgiven too much, but you’re the one who gave me a bad example!”
The point of the story, of course, is in the irony: in the calculus of God’s mercy, there is no limit to the forgiveness that can be extended. This is the new creation of which Paul speaks in today’s epistle: the ministry of reconciliation which is given to us in Jesus Christ. All that is necessary is that one realize that one is in need of mercy—to open the heart to one’s own wretchedness—and God will begin the work of healing and restoration.
Troubled times like those in which we live can foster the kind of poisoned atmosphere we have seen so much in display recently, because they cause us to lose heart and therefore to look for scapegoats, when what we really need is to ask for, and to extend, mercy. But that means that these times are more than ever what Francis calls a “kairos of mercy,” an opportune time for the church’s message of mercy and forgiveness to be more confidently and compassionately shared than ever.
To be merciful is hard; it is not something we can do by our selves, any more than we can create something out of nothing. Rather, mercy is something we can only extend, when we know that we are extending it out of the mercy which God extends toward each of us. It is his mercy that we share with the world, his mercy that we extend to one another. We are, as it were, mere conduits of God’s mercy, not generators of it. So though we are “livin’ in these (troubled) times,” we can nevertheless make our song with the psalmist, who sings again and again in the most often repeated verse of the Bible, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness” )Ps. 108:3, Ps. 145:8, Ps. 86:15).
Like I said in the beginning, so much for originality in today’s sermon… Amen.
1 See The Name of God is Mercy (2015), The Church of Mercy (2014), and The Holy Year of Mercy (2014).