By Fr. David Foxen, M.S.C.
That God is merciful seems to be self-evident. But perhaps it isn’t. Deep down inside many people may have a darker sentiment of God’s attitude toward humanity and also of ourselves as individuals. Perhaps it is the memory of passages from the Scriptures that speak of God’s justice and anger, of God’s absolute holiness and perfection, or just simply God’s distance from the world we know. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why the idea of Divine Mercy Sunday and especially the Jubilee Year of Mercy have such a strong impact on our imagination. We really do want to believe in God’s mercy and compassion. Sometimes we are not sure how far it goes.
If some passages in Scripture speak of God’s justice and demand for obedience, other parts speak boldly about His unconditional love and healing forgiveness. The issue needs to pay attention to our human weakness and inclination to fall into evil attitudes and actions. We are who we are, and sometimes we are not sure about God’s response. And as human beings, aware of our sinfulness and with a consequent inclination to negative thinking, we tend to assume the worst.
There may be two basic ways to approach God’s mercy. The one is to emphasize our guilt and unworthiness and appeal to God to forgive rather than punish as we deserve. This approach appeals to our human way of thinking, which is, after all, how we think! The other is far more daring for it looks to God taking the initiative, reaching out, and simply wanting to heal. God recognizes our weakness and the wrong we have inflicted on ourselves and others, but the weaknesses becomes consumed in the great limitless love which envelopes us. This is not especially our human way of doing things and so seems rather unreal.
Christ, who is the Word of God who became one of us, speaks about the Father’s love, especially for the poor, the captives, and others on the edge. The real impact of what He teaches is felt most deeply as we listen to His parables. He presents God as the Shepherd who knows and loves the sheep intimately and personally. The sheep recognize His voice and freely follow. The same Shepherd leaves the flock to search for and find the one that is separated, lost, or hurt. He gathers it in His arms and places it on His shoulders, returning to the sheepfold. Christ also tells the parable of the father who welcomes his wayward and irresponsible son, the son who has hurt him so deeply. Seeing him walking up the road toward his former home, the father runs to greet him. Without waiting to hear his excuses, the Father embraces him and restores him to his place in the family. As we realize that Christ is actually describing God’s attitude toward us, we are shocked, much as the elder son who had never been irresponsible, was shocked. He wants justice!
This is what is meant by God’s mercy. It is hard to believe and more challenging to accept that it applies to each one of us. God takes the initiative and reaches out with healing as we are brought back to the community as loved and appreciated members. Does mercy depend on a reform of our weak and sinful ways? Or is it God’s confidence that love and healing will be far more likely than punishment and isolation to bring about a change of heart? Christ proposes that the love and healing is God’s way. This is also the meaning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. It is risky to be sure, but then God’s ways are always risky and not so easily understood.