Jesus - The Face of Mercy
While the Old Testament expresses the mercy of God in many images and words the New Testament focuses the revelation of God’s mercy in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. ‘At various times in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son..’ (Hebrews 1:1-2).
THE GOSPEL OF LUKE
This Jubilee of Mercy coincides with our reading of the Gospel of Luke at Mass each Sunday. Luke portrays the mercy of God in a very striking way. Walter Kasper writes: ‘The evangelist Luke puts Jesus’ message altogether in a nutshell. For Luke mercy is the perfection of God’s essence. God does not condemn; rather, he pardons, he provides and gives gifts in a good, compendious, full, and overflowing measure. God’s mercy… exceeds every measure.’ By our pondering on the Gospel each Sunday of this year St Luke will lead us into a deep understanding of God’s mercy.
The very first account of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke’s Gospel begins with the proclamation of the Lord’s year of favour as he announces that the prophecy of Isaiah is ‘being fulfilled even as you listen’ (Luke 4:21). What is really new is that Jesus teaches us that this mercy is for everyone and that there isroom for all in God’s Kingdom. God, Jesus announces, is active even among the pagans of Syria and Sidonia (cf. luke 4:21-30). Here we see the seeds of the people’s anger with Jesus and how they reject him and try to kill him right at the beginning of his ministry. All through the Gospel those who are considered sinners and those who are in need of healing call out to him for mercy and he responds. When Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector at the Temple he says that it is the one who prays simply ‘have mercy on me a sinner’ who goes home at rights with God.
In the parables Jesus reveals the many aspects of God’s mercy. Pope Francis says: ‘In the parables devoted to mercy, Jesus reveals the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy.’
THE FATHER OF MERCY
At the heart of Luke’s Gospel is the story of the Prodigal Son, the great parable of God’s mercy. In fact this parable is of such importance that we hear it twice during the Sunday Liturgy this year.
The parable of the prodigal is often also called the story of the two sons or the parable of the forgiving father. This parable of Jesus is so rich that it can be interpreted in many ways but here we see it from the point of view of the father’s mercy. It begins ‘a man had two sons’ (Luke 15:11). Each of the two sons is estranged in a different way from the father’s house but in the parable the father embraces both with his mercy. The younger son goes away to a far country and squanders his inheritance. His estrangement from his father’s house is underlined over and over again so that he ends up working with pigs - the sign that he could not be more distant from his home. When he decides to return we see the beginning of repentance; he does not envisage restoration as his father’s son but he returns seeking simple sustenance. Twice he says: ‘I do not deserve to be called your son’. The father, however, is watching for his son’s return, sees him while still a long way off, and runs to him and clasps him. The father doesn’t let him finish his prepared speech but raises him up and embraces him.
The elder son is also not in the father’s house. He is out in the fields and he ‘refused to go in’. He cannot accept that the father should show such mercy to the younger son. He speaks belittlingly of his brother’s failings and will not even name him as his brother; he calls him ‘this son of yours’. Yet even though he excludes himself, the father includes him: ‘My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.’ Jesus is teaching us that God the Father is always merciful. Superficially it can look as if God’s mercy is conditional upon our behaviour. It is not so much that God will not be merciful, it is more that when we close our hearts to others at the same time we close our hearts to God. The older son closes his heart to his brother and simultaneously closes his heart to his father.
The mercy of the father is constant, to the delinquent son who returns and to the judgmental son who is so filled with the sense of grievance and injustice. In this, Jesus reveals that the Father’s love is persistent and faithful. He is the one who stands watching, who raises us up to take our place as his children within his house. The Father is not just waiting for our return, he goes out into the fields to bring us in. The Father’s will for salvation is relentless and persevering.
The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us that each of us will experience the mercy of the Father in different ways. The great English writer CS Lewis wrote in his autobiography ‘Surprised by Joy’ of his conversion to faith in Christ. He writes of the ‘superabundance of mercy’ which he encountered but he also writes about his own reluctance in coming to faith.
He ends his book by describing himself as ‘the most reluctant convert’.
“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words ‘compelle intrare’, (compel them to come in) have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of Divine Mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation. ”
It is the watchful, persevering almost compulsive mercy of the Father which is our liberation. God is the Father who watches the horizon for our return; he is the Father who will come out into the fields to call us home.
JESUS IS MERCY
It is not only in words that Jesus shows us God’s mercy. Everything about Jesus reveals the Father. In his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis reminds us ‘Jesus’ whole life, his way of dealing with the poor, his actions, his integrity, his simple daily acts of generosity and finally his complete self-giving, is precious and reveals the mystery of his divine life.’
The revelation of God’s mercy finds its completion in Jesus Christ. Pope Francis writes: ‘Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith.’
It is the whole of Christ’s life which reveals the face of God. The Catechism tells us that every detail of Christ’s life teaches us about God:
“From the swaddling clothes of his birth to the vinegar of his Passion and the shroud of his Resurrection, everything in Jesus’ life was a sign of his mystery. His deeds, miracles, and words all revealed that “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”(col 2:9)... Christ’s whole earthly life - his words and deeds, his silences and sufferings, indeed his manner of being and speaking - is Revelation of the Father... Because our Lord became man in order to do his Father’s will, even the least characteristics of his mysteries manifest “God’s love... among us”. (1 john 4:9) ”
When we say that Jesus is the face of mercy we are saying that every aspect of Jesus reveals the depths of God’s love. God is not at a distance, he plunges into our world, he pitches his tent among us. In becoming human God unites himself completely with our human condition.
We might say that hesed and rahamin find perfect expression in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. St John Paul II writes; ‘Christ confers on the whole of the Old Testament tradition about God’s mercy a definitive meaning. Not only does he speak of mercy and explain it by the use of comparisons and parables, but above all He Himself makes it incarnate and personifies it. He, in a certain sense, is mercy.’
The faithful bond between humanity and God expressed in the image of the mother’s love for her child finds its perfect fulfilment in the Incarnation. Mary’s womb becomes the cradle of redeeming love and God joins himself to the human race in a bond which can never be broken. Jesus is both God and man and in bringing the two together we can say that, in a certain sense, Jesus is the Covenant in his own person. Throughout history the Lord seeks a covenant of mutual love with humanity, but whereas God is always faithful, the human response to God is often weak and contradictory. Jesus is truly God and truly human and so in him we see two things: God’s total gift of himself and the complete faithfulness of a human being towards the Father. Thus, the drama of salvation is inclusive; it involves us. Jesus is both the power of God for salvation and the active response of his human nature.
Thus the whole of Jesus’ life is a revelation of God’s mercy but the pinnacle is his death and resurrection. It is out of love that the Father sends the Son into the world and it is out of love that the Son offers himself to the Father for the redemption of humanity. St John Paul II wrote: ‘The paschal mystery of Christ is at the summit of the revelation of the inscrutable mystery of God. It is precisely then that the words pronounced in the Upper Room are completely fulfilled: He who has seen me has seen the Father. In fact, Christ… has revealed in his resurrection the fullness of the love that the Father has for Him and, in Him, for all people’.
In the resurrection we witness the perfect example of God’s steadfast love. Although Jesus was himself shown no mercy by those who crucified him God showed that his mercy for us is unshakeable. By raising Christ from the dead God continues to pour out his merciful love even on the unkind and the ungrateful.
In order to grasp the depths of God’s mercy we have to place ourselves in the presence of Christ. We must look at Jesus, listen to his words, contemplate the paschal mystery, allow ourselves to be touched by the sacraments and so enter into his redeeming mercy. It is at Mass, especially, that we make the Covenant of God’s mercy our own. At every celebration of the Eucharist we begin by saying: ‘Lord have mercy’, and this is our acknowledgement that we are in need of forgiveness. It is also a proclamation of our faith in God’s love, our confidence that the Lord is merciful. Just before we receive Communion we pray, ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us’ and so we declare our faith in the ‘new and eternal Covenant’ through which God binds himself to us and we in our turn open ourselves to his merciful love.
Jesus is mercy and the more we know him, listen to his word, and place ourselves in his presence, the more we will come to know and experience the mercy of God.
William Blake wrote a poem called ‘The Divine Image’ which speaks of the unity of humanity and divinity. If mercy is the deepest revelation of God then it is also the deepest revelation of our humanity, we who are made in the image and the likeness of God:
THE DIVINE IMAGE
“TO MERCY,PITY, PEACE AND LOVE
all pray in their distress,
and to these virtues of delight
return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
is God, our Father dear,
and Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
and Love, the human form divine,
nd Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
that prays in his distress,
prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
in heathen, Turk, or Jew;
where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
there God is dwelling too.
In the parable of the merciful father which son do I most identify with?
For parents: What does the father in the parable say to me as a parent?
Could I make time on a regular basis, during this Jubilee, to read and pray with the Gospels?