“He IS THE ICON OF THE INVISIBLE GOD”
When my group were postulants — that’s the first two years of religious life as Redemptorists, before you have the one year of novitiate and then take your first, temporary vows — our Postulant Master, Fr Andy Burns, introduced us very gently to the realities of silent meditation.
He knew we weren’t really ready to spend a whole 30 minutes twice a day in silent meditation — he knew we might manage to be silent that long but didn’t know how to actually pray in the silence yet — he started us off with 10 to 15 minutes of a sort of Praying with Scripture. We listened to the Gospel of the day, allowed a word or a phrase to touch us and then we stayed with it.
One day, the Gospel was Luke 7:11-17 — the story of the widow of Nain, whose dead son Jesus restores to life. We were using The New Jerusalem Bible and the phrase that caught my attention like a thorn on a Wag-’n-bietjie tree, was verse 13, ‘When the Lord saw her, he felt sorry for her …’ For the first time, that phrase — he felt sorry for her — struck me as being too weak. It worried me for the rest of the Silent Time.
Afterwards, when he was alone, I asked Andy about it, knowing that he had been a Scripture Lecturer. He said that I had picked up something valuable. The word in the original Greek isn’t a poverty-stricken word like ‘sorry’ at all. The word really means ‘to feel compassion from the very depths of your bowels.’ The word in fact comes from the Greek word for ‘guts.’
It got me searching — I found many cases in the Gospels where it says that Jesus looked at someone and felt sorry for them — or let’s be honest, he felt compassion for them from the very depth of his being … and that being is the Incarnate Son of God. The Good Samaritan is moved with this bowel-ly compassion when he sees the man set upon by robbers lying at the side of the road [Lk 10:]. The father of the Prodigal Son sees his son afar off and is moved with this very same bowel-ly compassion. This is the word used to describe how Jesus feels about Martha, Mary and Lazarus as he stands outside Lazarus’ tomb.
This compassion, from the very depth of his being, is found right throughout the Gospels. It is how Jesus looks at and feels for the leper at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel [Mk 1:41], it is the way Jesus feels about the crowds [Mt 14:14, 15:32], for example at the feeding of the five thousand. The examples go on an on.
But there is another secret to this word meaning compassion from the depths of your gut. There were Jews, for example in Alexandria, who spoke more Greek than they did Aramaic or Hebrew. And so the whole of the Old Testament was translated into Greek for them.
Last week, Fr Seán talked about the mercy of God the Father and he spoke about how in the Old Testament, the word they use for the mercy of God, rachum, comes from the word for womb, rechem. And, if you look at that translation of the Old Testament into Greek, the Greek word they use for the mercy of God, the womb-iness of God, is, in fact, the same word they use in the New Testament, compassion from the depth of the guts. Often you find it translated in our Old Testaments as the ‘loving-kindness’ of God.
In other words, when Jesus looks at the widow of Nain, the leper, Martha, Mary, the rich young man, the hungry crowds, he is looking at them in the same way that God looks at them.
So, in Jesus, people experienced truly the mercy of God come among them. The people of Nain recognise this. When Jesus gives the young man, restored to life, back to his mother, they cry out, ‘God has visited his people!’ Not only is Jesus the mercy of God now present among God’s people, but, by his very actions, he lives out and shows God’s mercy.
You see this in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan, who was regarded as a foreigner and only half-Jewish and so a heretic and unclean, takes the risk of the unfortunate victim. The Samaritan is moved with mercy as a result of coming near the injured man and so he puts himself at risk to help the man.
Perhaps you’ve never seen it this way, but the Good Samaritan is also a parable about Jesus himself. The Scribes and the Pharisees saw him often as a heretic. In their eyes, Jesus profanes the Sabbath by healing people. Like the Good Samaritan, he risks making himself unclean, by touching the body of the dead young man at Nain, by touching lepers, by having meals with tax collectors and sinners. And he then uses every means possible to help the person who has aroused his mercy and compassion.
This also hints at the Incarnation itself, which is God’s great act of mercy towards us. Even more miraculous than Mary, as a virgin, could give birth to a son, is the experience of God coming to us in the person of his son. The Incarnation is the real miracle. God comes to us out of love and mercy.
As St Paul writes to Timothy, ‘God … has saved us and called us to be holy — not because of anything we ourselves have done but for his own purpose and by his own grace. This grace had already been granted to us, in Christ Jesus, before the beginning of time, but it has been revealed only by the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus.’ [2 Tim 1:9]
Here, I think, is the great mystery of our Christian faith, something which we can sometimes overlook. God breaks into human history in the person of Jesus. Mary, then, through her womb, becomes the Divine Gateway into human history. BUT this in-breaking of God into human history is not a band-aid, a rescue job because we’d gone off the rails.
As Paul makes clear to Timothy, God planned to redeem us in Christ ‘before the beginning of time’ but God’s plan is only revealed when Christ is born, at a time which Paul calls, the ‘fullness of time,’ in other words, when things are just right.
Jesus’ healing, teaching, reaching out to sinners are signs that the Kingdom of God has broken into human history — ‘the Kingdom is very near!’ In driving out demons and healing the sick, Jesus frees people from those powers which harm human life. He is living out his Father’s mercy. Luke gives us a very deep insight when he tweaks Matthew’s saying, ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ [Mt 5:38] by saying ‘Be merciful even as your heavenly Father is merciful.’ [Lk 6:36] Now Luke is not contradicting Matthew. If you look in Matthew, Jesus has been talking about loving your enemies and forgiving people. He points out that God treats the good and bad alike, and so we must be like God.
So in other words, mercy for all is the perfection of God’s essence. You see, God’s idea of justice is not the same as our human idea of justice. Human justice is a punitive justice, punishing those who have done wrong and rewarding those who have done right in our eyes.
The Scriptural idea of ‘justice’ is to be in the right relationship with God. In Jesus, our relationship with God has been restored to what God wanted it to be in the beginning, and Jesus shows us the way to live out that relationship.
This difference between human justice and God’s justice is seen best of all in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son … or the Prodigal Father. The older brother represents our idea of mercy — punitive justice, a justice which requires that the one who has done wrong must be punished, humiliated, sometimes tasting of revenge. In the Prodigal Father’s unconditional forgiveness of the younger son, we see the highest form of justice — mercy. And in Jesus’ life, we see the most perfect realisation of God’s justice being lived out and practised through Jesus.
Notice how many times people in the Gospels cry out to Jesus, ‘Lord, have mercy on me.’ And never does Jesus not respond. To get to the heart of Divine Mercy in Jesus, two instances of mercy working through Jesus where the recipient cries out, ‘Lord, have mercy on me’ really stand out.
The first is the parable in Luke’s Gospel of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector going to the Temple to pray [Lk 18:9-14]. The Pharisee has worked hard on his own holiness. Out of his own strength, he’s followed the letter of the Law as best he can and he almost congratulates God on doing such a great job in creating such an observant person as himself. For him, redemption is God putting a Noddy Badge on our own efforts. God gives the Law, we follow the Law and then God rewards us. The Pharisee’s spiritual eyes are focussed completely on himself — ‘Oh, what a good boy am I!’ as the old Nursery Rhyme put it.
The Tax Collector (some of the old translations say ‘Publican’, i.e. shebeen owner) comes in humbly and only has eyes for God, and sees himself completely through God’s eyes — ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ He is the one that Jesus calls righteous.
But, to fully understand this, we have to turn to the incident of Peter and the miraculous draught of fish [Lk 5:4-11]. Peter and his companions have been fishing all night and have caught nothing. Jesus tells him to put out into deep water and to cast out his nets. Peter must feel like most people who are really experienced in their jobs being told by an outsider how to do their job. But he good-naturedly agrees, after pointing out, ‘Master, we have been fishing all night and have caught nothing, but nonetheless, if you say so, I will pay out the nets.’
We all know the story — the nets are so full, they nearly capsize the boat and he needs to ask his friends to come and help. In this experience he truly realises who Jesus is: note, he now addresses Jesus, no longer as ‘Master’, but as ‘Lord’. ‘Go from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ Not only has he realised at a deep level who Jesus is, but he has also seen the truth about himself — he — Peter — is weak, a sinner, like all of us.
And so another aspect of the Mercy of God made present, real, tangible in Jesus is revealed in this Gospel: Divine Mercy allows us to return to the truth about ourselves. You see, we can only truly face our weaknesses and dark side with honestly when we are sure that we are loved already, as we are, complete with those very weaknesses. When, in Jesus, we crash headlong into the love and mercy of God, we discover that we are loved as we are. Unlike the older brother of the Prodigal Son, we realise we don’t have to ‘slave’ for the Father in order to be loved and to deserve his mercy.
And then it becomes clear that the whole of Christ’s life is the Mercy of God, personified, walking among the people God loves — us — and that Redemption, Christ’s death, resurrection and return to the Father are all part of the same act of mercy out of absolutely unconditional love.