Learning Mercy

While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew 9:10-13

 

Jesus addresses the Pharisees in today’s gospel with some of the strongest words he ever uses. These are experts in the law and the scriptures; they are the teachers of the meaning of the Word. Jesus addresses them, however, in a way that reminds them, for all their study, that they do not at all understand the meaning of the scriptural words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

When I was in scholastic formation, a formation director, for whom I did not have great appreciation, once said to me that I had the right words for many aspects of life, but that I lacked the experiences that would allow me to live them more fully. It is an understatement to say that I was displeased with his appraisal; yet, I have never forgotten it. One disadvantage of receiving religious teaching from an early age is that the words of the teachings become second nature to us. We hear them so often, and we have a level of cognitive understanding of them, and yet they may never have really entered into and formed our hearts.

Recently Pope Francis led us in a year-long celebration of “mercy.” He continually reminds us that God is a God of mercy, much as Jesus did to the Pharisees. Despite all the reminders and all the teaching, however, mercy remains a very difficult disposition of heart to truly understand and to live by. An experience we are currently engaged in as a Congregation continually raises up before me how much I still need to “go and learn the meaning of the words” of the prophet Hosea.

With the help of a consultant and facilitator, our Congregation has begun a process of reflecting on our life and history in a new way, by fostering a new level of honesty, trust, and relationship among us. All of this sounds very appealing and something that we all would quite readily embrace: Why wouldn’t we want to be more communicative, honest, and caring with each other?  As the process is developing, however, I for one am experiencing how tightly I hold on to my judgments of others, my view of our shared history, and my painful experiences of hurts and the resentments to which they have given rise. I experience these resistances in my avoidance of conflict with others and my refusal to work through with them what is painful and difficult between and among us.

This, of course, is basic human nature. Whatever our way of life and whomever we share our lives with, we are constantly negotiating the level of honesty in our communication and the level of trust we have in each other. We must always weigh our desire for deeper and more honest communication with compassion toward the needs and desires of the other. Yet, more often than not, our excesses in either direction, excessive aggression on the one hand and excessive “niceness” on the other, spring from our struggles to know in ourselves and to live toward others the mercy of God.

That we are a community (a marriage, a family) of sinners is not merely a theological concept. It is a psychological and ontological reality, a deeply felt and lived awareness of which is an essential prerequisite for any real and intimate human relationship. To express ourselves and to behave compassionately yet honestly toward others requires on our part a profound recognition of our own, as well as their, sinfulness. It is this personal knowledge and experienced self-recognition that allows us to realize and recognize the truth of God’s love for us — and so for others. There is no possibility of love, divine or human, without a significant capacity for forgiveness, a capacity that expands as we recognize and experience our own sinfulness and God’s mercy in our regard.

Our very bond with each other is constituted, in good part, by our common sinfulness. This is what Jesus tells the Pharisees they do not yet understand. It is our need, not our perfection, or competence, or maturity that draws us together. When Pope Francis meets with others and addresses a group, he never fails to ask them to pray for him. This is not affected humility. It is rather his awareness of his need for their prayer. It is his heartfelt knowledge that he, a sinner like all persons, is asked to do a work that he knows he is incapable of on his own. There is little doubt that this lived awareness on his part is the source of the joy that pervades his being.

Much of the resentment and antagonism that inhibits deeper communion between and among us is our need for self-justification. Because we forget that mercy is a core constituent of God’s love, we are forever in a struggle to establish ourselves as justified, before God and before others. Forgiveness of the hurts that others have inflicted on us is so difficult because we do not yet realize how fully and transformatively we ourselves are forgiven. Honesty with each other is a threat to us because we realize that it will break down the compartmentalized way we live our lives. In our communities, in our relationships, in our workplaces and neighborhoods, we believe we must be seen as good, worthy, competent, “together”. The ways we are not “together” we experience behind closed doors and within our own “inner room.” This is why Jesus tell us to go into that inner room to pray. In that place we have to pray not as the Pharisee but as the Publican.

Praying from and living from the place of our own brokenness and sinfulness is not only the way to integrity but the way to communion. It is our efforts at being who we are not that evoke strain, tension, and dissociation in ourselves and resentment and anger toward others. The truth is that no matter what, God continues to mercifully love us.

Because we are continually forgiven, intention is everything for us. There’s an old saying that “the way to hell is paved with good intentions.” This is not, however, the meaning of the teaching and life of Jesus. No matter how much our good intentions fail, we can always, with the love, support and forgiveness of each other, try again. All we, and everyone around us, has to give is our desire to do good, our good will. Living in the light of God’s mercy means that we are ready, moment to moment, to start anew, to try again.

When we understand this need for forgiveness and so to begin anew in ourselves, it then becomes possible to appreciate it and to love it in others. The first step, however, is to cease denying our own limits, failings, and sinfulness. It is to know that no sacrifice we make can ever atone for our sins or please God. Rather, we can trust each other because we have gone and learned, in the depths of our own truth, the meaning of the words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The calling of Matthew reminds us that when Christ makes us his disciples, he does not look to our past but to the future. We need but respond to his call with a humble and sincere heart.

Jesus invites us to sit with him at the table of the Eucharist, in which he purifies us by the power of his word and by the sacrament unites us ever more deeply to himself. Citing the prophet Hosea, he tells us that what God desires is “mercy, not sacrifice”, true conversion of heart and not merely formal acts of religion. May all of us, acknowledging our sins, respond more generously to the Lord’s invitation to sit at table with him, and with one another, with immense gratitude for his infinite mercy and saving love.

Pope Francis, Audience, April 13, 2016

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