God's mercy is a mystery

Readings: Joshua 5.9-12; Ps. 34; 2 Cor. 5.17-21; Lk. 15.1-32

We can't understand its depth. We can begin to appreciate its depth when we receive it and begin to practice it. In this section of Luke's gospel, the author provides various examples of God's mercy expressed through Jesus.

The crowd asked Jesus about people who had suffered terrible deaths at the hands of Pilate and at a collapsing tower: "Were they greater sinners than other people?" Jesus replies, "By no means. But I tell you if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did." Jesus emphasizes the urgency of repentance. In the very next verses not in today's gospel, Jesus tells the parable about the unfruitful fig tree. Some people urge to chop it down. Jesus has the vinedresser say, "No, let it be for one more year." If it does not bear fruit by then, "it shall be cut down." Luke chapters 13, 14, 15 are full of stories about mercy.

In next week's gospel Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is a classical story of mercy. Can you think of someone in your immediate or extended family who may be like a prodigal son or daughter? The word "prodigal" mean "wasteful". Every person recognizes that the son was prodigal by having wasted his inheritance on wine and loose women. Some would say too that the father was prodigal in that he was wasteful or reckless with his mercy. Not only did the father forgive his son, but also he threw a huge feast to celebrate the return of his son. Would we do the same for the prodigal sons and daughters in our lives? I suspect most of us would. Why? What motivates us to forgive everything, and to embrace the people who have hurt us?

May I suggest that our Christian faith has taught us God's mercy. We have grown up in a culture which prides itself on mercy; cult gives rise to culture. Don't take for granted our Christian culture and our Christian practice of mercy. Our faith gives us Christian vision. In faith, God gives insight and power to forgive. Christianity teaches us about the breadth and depth of life, what is most important in life, here and hereafter. The Scriptural word "Hesed" is what our texts translate as mercy. But the Hebrew word "Hesed" is much broader, richer and fuller than the English word "mercy". Hesed is based in God's mercy which is God's love. God created us, loves us, forgives us and continually calls us back to himself. God is patient with us; he never gives up on us. So, while our English word "mercy" means to forgive, the Hebrew word "Hesed" means much more. Our Christian faith gives us the vision and insight to welcome back without end the sinners in our lives.

A couple of clarifications, please: practicing tough love, and taking time to heal. Tough love is very Christian. We can fail by being excessively forgiving, or not sufficiently forgiving. We can be either too stern or too lax. Christian virtue lies in the middle. Our prodigal sons and daughters must learn to take care of themselves. Each person is responsible for his/her own life. To teach the opposite in word or deed is to be an enabler, which ultimately hurts instead of helps the person.

Taking time to heal. If someone hurts us deeply, we don't bounce right back, smile, say the clich "forgive and forget," and act as if everything is fine. No. Genuine forgiveness is deeply rooted. Forgiveness wells up from the depth of our soul and heart. It takes time to get over our hurts. Sometimes we might think that we should be ready to forgive but our emotions aren't ready to forgive. Don't rush it. Be genuine about your mercy. Keep praying Jesus' words: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Many of you have heard me say that when I was working at Brooklyn and was mugged at gun-point, it took me five years to get over my deep anger at the injustice of it all.

Each of us has done his/her share of sinning, offending God and hurting other people. We've probably had our moments of being like the Prodigal Son, and our moments of being like the father who was prodigal in his mercy. Ask Our Lord that we might have his wisdom to receive and practice his divine mercy which the Scriptures call Hesed. We pray for this grace now, and when we pray later in this Mass, "Our Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us."

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley