“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
This instruction of Jesus comes after he tells us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, pray for those who mistreat us and give to everyone who asks of us.
This can seem like a tall order. It sure is a lot easier to love our friends, be good to those who love us and give to those whom we feel are deserving. However, with this command, Jesus is asking us to do the same as he did. And this is what our Holy Father is asking of us in the upcoming Year of Mercy.
Pope Francis has designated the period of time between Dec. 8 (Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception) of this year and Nov. 20 (Solemnity of Christ the King) of next year to be a time of grace in which he hopes every person is touched by the “balm of [God’s] mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus 5).
We have a merciful God who desires ultimate goodness for all of his children. This desire can be seen through his interaction with his people throughout the Old Testament. While mankind habitually turned away from the love of God, he never stopped loving them and always worked to bring them back to himself.
When the Israelites found themselves in a difficult situation or when they became aware of their sinfulness, they knew they could turn back to God, who “is close to the broken hearted” and who “saves those whose spirit is crushed” (Psalm 34:19).
This loving action by God is described as “mercy.” In Latin, the word is “misericordiae,” meaning having a heart of compassion for those who suffer.
God’s mercy is most profoundly revealed in the sending of his only Son, who became one like us (in all ways but sin) and suffered on our behalf. Through the Incarnation, Jesus Christ not only teaches us about mercy, he actually personifies it. In the Son of God, we truly see “the face of the Father’s mercy” (MV 1).
Jesus offers us the mercy of the Father, and also asks us to extend that mercy to others. Jesus reveals how this is done, by forgiving sinners, caring for the poor, associating with the marginalized, healing the sick and restoring hope to the suffering. Jesus touched lepers, ate with sinners and “read the hearts of those he encountered and responded to their deepest need” (MV 8).
The works of mercy help us follow Jesus’ example. They are “charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2447).
The corporal works relieve human suffering by feeding, clothing, sheltering and visiting those in need. The spiritual works foster conversion through instructing, advising, comforting, praying and forgiving.
The works of mercy address the brokenness of our world and the effects of original sin resulting in “material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death” (CCC 2448). “Mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man” (Dives in Misericordia 6).
The works of mercy help us fulfill the second part of the Great Commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). What would we wish from others if we were hungry or thirsty, ill or imprisoned, or if we were far from God due to sin? Our love for our neighbor should impel us to carry out these works of mercy with patience and perseverance.
When reflecting upon the meaning of mercy, we may wonder about the relationship between mercy and justice. While different from one another, mercy and justice are not opposed. Nor is mercy the mere elimination of justice.
Mercy is an invitation to conversion. And conversion is what brings about authentic justice, because it is founded upon a love for God that desires to do his will.
“Mercy . . . is God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe” (MV 21). Thus, conversion is the most recognizable sign of “the working of love” and “the presence of mercy” in the world (DM 6). Mercy helps us see that justice is not attained by merely following the precepts of the law. It comes from a heart that says “yes” to Jesus Christ’s invitation to receive the gift of love and new life that he attained for us through the cross. He paid the price for our sins and now freely offers us new life.
The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus embodies this dynamic (cf. Luke 19:1-10). In the eyes of the Pharisees, Zacchaeus the tax collector was an unworthy sinner and outcast. In the eyes of Jesus, Zacchaeus was a sinner, but he was also someone made in God’s own image and likeness who was worthy of redemption.
Upon Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus and his invitation to friendship, Zacchaeus experiences conversion. In turn, Zacchaeus initiates the justice that is due. “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over” (Luke 19:8).
Jesus’ response reminds us of the meaning of mercy, “Today salvation has come to this house. . . . For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.