Go and learn the meaning of the words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.
During the past year, Pope Francis called on all people to ponder the place of mercy in the revelation of Jesus and in our own lives. If, however, we consider the content of much, if not most, teaching and preaching that we hear, of the most frequent utterances of our religious leaders, it seems that human beings prefer judgment to mercy. Even in our own lives and typical conversations, we seem more obsessed with the sins of others, from our point of view, than with God’s love for them. What makes an attitude of mercy, the practice of “mercy rather than sacrifice,” so difficult for us?
Twenty-one years ago today the priest, psychologist, and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen died. From my first exposure to his writings in the 1970’s I experienced him as a kindred spirit. So often I would read in his work the description of experiences that I knew well and yet had never been able to articulate for myself. Over the years, the more I read of him learned about his own life through his increasingly autobiographical later writings, I slowly began to realize why his words and teachings were so resonant for me. Throughout his life, Nouwen struggled with, and to a significant degree was tortured by, a sense of his own worth. This highly gifted and inspirited person was constantly struggling to believe, as Luther said, that he was loved in that place where he could not love himself.
We have such difficulty in living mercifully toward others because we have such difficulty knowing mercy in our own regard. In the call of Matthew we see the mercy of Jesus, as he calls Matthew, the tax collector, to follow him, and then shares a meal with Matthew’s “crowd.” In the Church of San Luigi dei Francesco in Rome, there is a triptych of Caravaggio which includes his depiction of The Call of Matthew. Although there is some dispute among interpreters of the work, most agree that Matthew is seen as pointing to himself at Jesus’ call to follow him, as if to be questioning Jesus: “Is it me?” The love and the call of Jesus is always, given our sense of ourselves, quite inscrutable.
Brother Ryken seemed to understand this mystery of mercy very well. “God does not have to give an account for what he does, even if he wants to use a sinner.” For us, however, who have been formed in a highly secular culture, sin tends to be an ethereal term. Even in church and religious spheres, we speak quite glibly of God forgiving sins, while remaining quite dissociated from our own sense of sinfulness, from the dark places of inadequacy and lack within. This is due, in part, to our sense of sin as mistakes and actions that are not profoundly expressive of our deeper selves. We can conceive of being forgiven our mistakes, but not of the deep mercy of God whose very call is most strong in what we take to be the worthlessness and failure within us.
There was much attention paid in the press as Pope Francis, when asked to describe who he really was, replied with the words, “I am a sinner.” Theologically we know that we are all sinners. Pope Francis, however, was not speaking theologically but existentially. He made clear that the most honest and true statement he could make about himself was that he is “a sinner.” Most of us would be unable to do that. Not because we don’t know our sinfulness, but rather because we don’t know the mercy of God for ourselves precisely as sinners, a knowledge of being loved as we are that allows us to acknowledge and appropriate out own truth.
When Jesus calls Matthew, or when he chooses to associate with prostitutes, sinners, and tax collectors, he is not teaching a radical and superior ethic. He is truly being drawn in love to those who are honest enough to struggle with their own sinfulness. His mercy, which is the mercy of God, is evoked by our humility, our daring to struggle with that which is most difficult and incomprehensible and least lovable in us.
Pope Francis knows the joy of the gospel in the fiber of his being because he knows that he is a sinner. This is why he says, “Who am I to judge?” Once we experience mercy and forgiveness of God for our sins, it becomes impossible to be judgmental of others. The very nature of the experience of God’s mercy is that it is a shared experience; it is, as Jan van Ruusbroec would put it, “common to all.” Thus, to realize God’s mercy for ourselves as sinners becomes our very mission in life: that all who suffer the fears and anxieties born of our loneliness and self-alienation may come to know God’s merciful love, not because of our righteousness, but rather in our very sinfulness.
Although claiming my true identity as a child of God, I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation. I still think about his love as conditional and about home as a place I am not yet fully sure of. While walking home, I keep entertaining doubts about whether I will be truly welcome when I get there. As I look at my spiritual journey, my long and fatiguing trip home, I see how full it is of guilt about the past and worries about the future. I realize my failures and know that I have lost the dignity of my sonship, but I am not yet able to fully believe that where my failings are great, ‘grace is always greater.’ Still clinging to my sense of worthlessness, I project for myself a place far below that which belongs to the son.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, p. 52