What is the Miracle of God’s Mercy Really?
Pope Francis has said that mercy is “the beating heart of the Gospel.” As we near the end of the Year of Mercy, now is an ideal time for us to step back and reflect on what mercy is. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments God is constantly displaying mercy, first to the Israelites, and then to all of humanity through Jesus. How does Scripture present mercy? What exactly is it? We can gain a clearer understanding of what mercy is through examining a series of five instances of God being merciful to humanity. We will look at them chronologically as they are presented in Scripture.
Manna in the desert: God gives us what we need despite our ingratitude.
After God had delivered the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt through the Passover, He asked them simply to trust Him to do what He said He would do: lead them to the Promised Land. However, when it became clear to the Israelites that their journey to the Promised Land would take longer than expected, they began to complain to Moses: “But you have led us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of famine!” (Exodus 16:3). They doubted God’s goodness and faithfulness. In response to this, God had mercy on them by giving them manna and quail to sustain them during their desert journey until they reached the Promised Land. In the face of complaints and ingratitude, God didn’t punish them; in fact, He gave them even greater gifts! This seems counterintuitive to us. But if God had punished and chastised them, then they would not have learned a lesson and they may have become even more rebellious. Instead, He chose to prove to them that He was in fact trustworthy and that their complaints were unfounded, by giving them what they needed when they asked for it. By doing so, He displayed great mercy to them and gently taught them the error of their way of thinking. In the end, God’s mercy won out over their hard-heartedness. The next time you are tempted to complain or rail against God, think of all the good things He has given you, and remember that every blessing in your life is yet another example of God’s mercy towards you.
Jonah and the Ninevites: God allows us to repent of our sins instead of destroying us.
The story of Jonah, which is told in one of the shortest books in the Bible, contains a double-whammy of mercy: God displays great mercy not only to the sinful Ninevites, but even to the prophet whom He picks to speak to them. The story of Jonah is well-known: after trying to flee from the task that God has given him to do, Jonah ends up tossed into the sea, swallowed by a whale, and spewed up onto the shore. Finally he buckles down and goes to Nineveh to warn them of their impending punishment, should they not repent of their numerous sins. Upon hearing the words of Jonah, the Ninevites repent and are spared. In this story God displays mercy towards Jonah after he deliberately refuses to do the task that God has chosen for him. He runs away from it! But God doesn’t destroy Jonah for his disobedience. He merely picks him up (with a little help from one of His sea-dwelling creatures) and points him back in the right direction. No chiding, no punishment, no fire-and-brimstone; just a reminder of his task, and a second chance at fulfilling it.
Similarly, God displays great mercy to the Ninevites by sending Jonah to them and offering them a chance tor rectify their lives and repent of their sins. The Ninevites, who were so sinful that they could not "know their right hand from their left,” (Jonah 4:11), are not destroyed as they deserve, but are allowed to live because they acknowledged their sinfulness before God. In the end, both Jonah and the Ninevites witness God’s great mercy when He offers them another chance at holiness instead of simply punishing them for their many and grievous offenses. The next time you go to Confession remember Jonah and be grateful for the many opportunities God gives you to repent and be forgiven.
Jesus forgives the sinful woman: God does not refuse those who ask for forgiveness.
The Gospel of Luke is filled with scenes of God displaying forgiveness towards great sinners. As Jesus is dining at the house of a wealthy and respected man of the Jewish community, a sinful woman comes to Him in tears, begging forgiveness for her sins. While His fellow party-goers look on in shock and dismay, Jesus does not turn her away, but He welcomes her and tells her that her sins are forgiven. The great and mighty with whom Jesus is dining do not ask for forgiveness for their sins, but the meek and humble woman does. We can only assume that this woman must have heard Jesus’ preaching at an earlier time, been moved by it, repented of her sins in her heart, and intentionally sought out where Jesus was, to ask for His forgiveness. In response, Jesus invites her into His mercy and does not turn her out. God wants to forgive us of our sins. In one of his Angelus addresses Pope Francis said, “ He never tires of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness.” Let us be more like this woman in never tiring of asking God for forgiveness.
The Prodigal Son: God the Father re-establishes us as His sons.
Perhaps the most famous of all of Jesus’ parables, the story of the prodigal son is a miniature picture of God’s fatherly mercy. A son ungratefully leaves home and wastes his inheritance on a life of fun and dissipation, but soon realizes the error of his ways and returns to his father. As the son is walking back home, dejected and so sure that his father will greet him with angry words and a closed heart, the father sees his son, “while he was still a long way off,” (Luke 15:20). What does this mean? The father must have been out looking for his son. He must have woken up every single day and scanned the horizon, just hoping that that would be the day when his son returned home. When he finally does see the boy, he doesn’t wait for him to reach the doorstep. Instead: “he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him,” (Luke 15:20). The father’s eagerness is an image of God’s mercy! God does not merely sit back and wait for us to come to Him. At the slightest sign of repentance, He comes rushing to meet us with His mercy. He simply can’t wait to welcome us back into His family of love, and to re-establish us as His sons and daughters. It can be too easy for us to wonder whether God really wants to forgive us for our sins. “Isn’t God tired of me and my sins? After all, whenever I go to Confession, it’s always the same list of sins every time!” Remember the parable of the prodigal son the next time you are tempted to wonder whether God’s mercy will run out. Pope John Paul II once said, “Confession is an act of honesty and courage - an act of entrusting ourselves, beyond sin, to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God.”
Zacchaeus: God invites us into a relationship with Him.
Another well-known story in Saint Luke’s Gospel - this time a real event rather than a parable - is that of the conversion of Zacchaeus. A corrupt and greedy tax collector who swindles his neighbor and cheats at his job, Zacchaeus encounters Jesus’ preaching and suddenly is moved to repentance. He voluntarily states that he will give up half of his belongings to the poor, and will more than repay everyone he has ever cheated during his career (Luke 19:8). What prompted this sudden and dramatic conversion? It was Jesus’ request to stay at Zacchaeus’ house - a request that also serves as an invitation to repentance. Jesus was inviting Zacchaeus to repent by telling him that He wanted to stay with him, not only in his house for one night, but in his heart forever. Jesus is always waiting for us to open our hearts to Him. Only by welcoming Him will we find enduring joy and mercy. Zacchaeus must not have been a happy man - lying and cheating his neighbor, most likely living in social isolation because of his own dishonest ways. Jesus may have been the first person in a very long time who asked to stay at his house as a guest. It was this love that moved Zacchaeus. We can display Christ’s love to others in the way we behave as well. Sometimes all it takes is an invitation to love to soften even the hardest hearts. When you encounter someone who seems alienated and hardened by sin, simply be a friend to them, and invite them to welcome Jesus into their lives. Amazing things will happen.
Jesus forgives Peter for betraying Him: God recognizes our weakness and invites repentance.
One of the more famous scenes of betrayal in the Scriptures is Saint Peter’s denial of Christ on the night of Holy Thursday. When he should have given a resounding “Yes” to the question of whether he was one of Christ’s followers, Saint Peter instead denied not only being an Apostle, but even knowing who Jesus was! Despite this, after the Resurrection, Jesus offered Peter the chance to make good on his error and re-enter into an upright and loving relationship with God. Jesus asks Peter three times: “Do you love Me?” (John 21:16), to which Peter finally responds “Yes.” Jesus does not excommunicate Peter, or revoke his position as the Pope. He recognizes Peter’s weakness and invites him to repentance. God knows what we are made of (Psalm 103:14), and He has mercy on us in our weakness. As he offered Peter a second chance, so He does with us, and we should do the same to others who injure us as well.
From these six scenes throughout Scripture we can begin to get a clear picture of what God’s mercy is: it is simply God’s invitation back into a loving relationship with Him. This is a standing invitation that He won’t ever revoke, as long as we’re still alive. He waits for us and invites us to get rid of the barriers that separate us from Him. No matter how grievous and how numerous our sins, no matter how long we have been away, no matter how ungrateful we have been in the past, He waits for us, like the father of the prodigal son. The question for us is: will we take up the invitation?