“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) Mercy is one of the main themes of the Sermon on the Mount, and it was one of the main themes of the papacy of Saint John Paul II. He was instrumental in promoting the message of Divine Mercy that the Lord Jesus gave to Saint Faustina. In his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), he used the Scriptures, and in particular the Parable of the Prodigal Son, to explore the depths of God’s mercy as revealed in Jesus, and the essential, reciprocal obligation we have to show mercy to others.
We might think the principal sin of the Prodigal Son is the “life of dissipation” he leads after receiving his share of the inheritance. But the greater sin is asking for the inheritance at all. He is in effect saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” When we reject God’s will for our own selfish desires, we are at a minimum telling God, “I don’t want you in my life right now.” If we realize that we’re saying this, and the implications of it, we will sin much less often. For the parable shows us the implications of saying this.
We might think the primary consequence of the prodigal son’s sin is that he squanders his material inheritance. But he loses something much greater: in Saint John Paul’s words, he loses “his dignity as a son in his father’s house.” (1)
The son doesn’t recognize this loss immediately. His desire to return to his father is compelled by his physical hunger. But he also recognizes that it would be unjust for him to return to his father’s house as if nothing had changed, and for that matter, it would be unjust for the father to treat him as a son.
But mercy is God’s greatest attribute. The father must show his son mercy because he must be “faithful to his fatherhood, faithful to the love that he had always lavished on his son.” God is perfect, and unchanging. He cannot be untrue to himself – so he cannot refrain from loving us, from showing mercy to us, from restoring us to his household when we return home and ask for his mercy. And in asking for and receiving his father’s mercy, the son’s dignity as a member of his father’s house is restored.
“It is in the cross that the revelation of merciful love attains its culmination.” Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be “pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity.” (53:5) Yet while our sins are the cross Christ carried to Calvary, our prayers, our works of mercy and our sufferings united with his Passion are a source of consolation to Jesus. For as surely as Jesus foresaw all our evil deeds during his bitter Passion, he foresaw and was consoled by our works of mercy. (2)
This is one more aspect of the extraordinary humility of Jesus: that by his Passion he allows and invites us poor sinners to show mercy to him. Saint John Paul explains that when we love Jesus, we are drawn into solidarity with him and show mercy upon him: “Could man’s dignity be more highly respected and ennobled, for, in obtaining mercy, he is in a sense the one who at the same time ‘shows mercy’?
The love and mercy of Jesus compel us to show mercy to others. It is essential how we show mercy – that our mercy is reciprocal as his was. “An act of merciful love is only really such when we are deeply convinced at the moment that we perform it that we are at the same time receiving mercy from the people who are accepting it from us.” Charity in which the giver sees himself as superior, stooping down to help someone lesser than him, is not an act of mercy. It is a form of the greatest sin, pride.
Standing in contrast is the Greek word agape, which some New Testament translators render as charity, and others as love. Agape is the word Saint Paul uses in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “If I give away everything I own, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3) Again, we don’t perform works of mercy so we may boast. We recognize that the one whom we help is also showing mercy to us.
When you give to a beggar, the beggar is showing you mercy by humbling himself to ask for and accept your gift. The beggar is also showing you mercy by bearing his sufferings patiently so that you can show mercy to him. When you make eye contact, and say “God bless you” to each other, you are showing each other mercy. And the mercy that is reciprocal is not only love, it is agape, charitable love. The kind of love God shows us.
And charitable love is by no means limited to helping the less fortunate, though we tend to see it this way because we have narrowed the definition of charity to the “haves” helping the “have-nots.” But the most frequent opportunities we have to perform reciprocal works of mercy – to live God’s love! – are to those closest to us. Saint John Paul recognized this when he wrote, “Merciful love is supremely indispensable between those who are closest to one another: between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between friends; and it is indispensable in education and in pastoral work.”
Let us perform acts of mercy with gracious and humble hearts. In doing so we show mercy to the Lord Jesus, who suffered so grievously for us. And by these acts of mercy we receive mercy from our Father.
(1) The quotes that follow, unless indicated otherwise, are from Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”).
(2) For a full treatment of this theme, read Father Michael Gaitley’s book Consoling the Heart of Jesus.
Image: The Return of the Prodigal Son by James Tissot (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).
***Beginning Good Friday, pray the Divine Mercy Novena in preparation for the Feast of Divine Mercy (April 19). Have a blessed Holy Week and a happy Easter!