If you are going to have an event these days, you have to have an accompanying theme; it is now de rigueur to tag an event so that people know what it’s all about, writes Bishop Peter A Comensoli.
The Jubilee of Mercy is no exception and the tag-line is: Merciful like the Father, which is taken from St Luke’s version of Jesus’ great teaching discourse, sometimes called ‘The Sermon on the Plain’ (Lk 6.17-49); the key verses (v.32-36):
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
"If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Notice how Jesus makes all the key words, verbs, "doing" words: love; do good;‘help out (lend). There is nothing abstract or merely conceptual about what Jesus’ disciples are being called to do – it is practical all the way.
Notice also, that each of these verbs is presented unconditionally: Friends and enemies, virtuous and sinners, rich and poor. Jesus was not interested in wasting such practical action on the well deserving only – they are for all to receive, and especially the most in need.
Finally, these utterly practical and unconditional ‘doing’ words are all actions we have the capacity to exercise, even for those we do not find easy to get along with or for whom it can be a trial.
Often enough – too often, if truth be told – we treat verbs like to love well,‘to do good, to help out, as sentiments to possess or attitudes to express.
We treat them as good things to have, rather than as good things to do. We turn verbs into nouns.
This was not what Jesus intended when he was teaching his followers the way of discipleship. Think of what St Luke tells us about Jesus’ words from the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23.43)
These are, of course, the words Jesus spoke to one of the criminals crucified alongside of him but the action of this "being with"included also the other criminal crucified with him. The mercy of God, enacted in Jesus, embraces the fellow on the cross next to him, and this is an image that ought to cause a change in our hearts. The way of Jesus was the way of practical, and unconditional action. Jesus preached what he practiced.
Why is this distinction important for us to learn? Because this is how mercy operates. At the end of his teaching, Jesus sums up what he wants to communicate by saying: "Be merciful."
To be merciful is to love well, to do good, to help out in practical and unconditional ways; it is to be kind-hearted, and compassionate, and faithful, and forgiving. For Jesus, to be merciful is to live one’s life in a verb-like manner.
In this Year of Mercy, the face of Jesus can be viewed as the face of mercy, but this is not just a sentiment or a lovely idea.
God, seen in the person of Jesus Christ, is actively merciful. God’s own nature is verb-like in the sense that it is a mercy always seeking out the poor and drawing us to him in love.
To say that God, the Father, is merciful, is to confirm the entirely verb-shaped nature of His mercy. And to then say, as Jesus did, that we are to be merciful like God, is to say we are also to exercise mercy in a verb-shaped way: practically, unconditionally. Mercy is to be done, and not just pointed to or seen from afar.
The tag-line that accompanies the Jubilee of Mercy is not meant to be like other tag-lines we see. It is not a descriptor of what the year is. Rather, it is a declaration of how the year (and every year!) is to be lived: Merciful like the Father.
- The Most Rev. Peter A Comensoli, Bishop of Broken Bay