Pope Francis’ recognition that the only God we experience is the God of Mercy has caused some in the Church including a few leaders to feel an impulse to water down what is essentially a statement of fact or try to explain it away. Who would have thought that we would ever reach the stage when Mercy would be controversial?
St Luke did.
He saw that recognizing the universal need for mercy threatened many within the church from the very beginning.
Today’s gospel is the clearest statement. Jesus begins by directly addressing those who were convinced of their own righteousness.
St Luke has however prepared his way carefully. In the previous chapter, which we read several weeks ago, Jesus told the leaders of the church that they had not the faith of the tiniest seed because they thought that they deserved to be rewarded. Not to coin a phrase “quid pro quo”. They accepted a strict moral code and expected God to reward them. Transactional religion.
They are literally self- righteous. They defined the terms and extent of their relationship with God. There were many groups which would have considered themselves holy and found others profane but for literary convenience Luke pairs off Pharisees with Tax collectors. On the surface the Pharisees were the most observant Jews and the Tax collectors, even if not ostentatiously crooked, were completely indebted to Rome the occupying power. The Pharisees believed they became righteous because of their obedience to the law and needed God only to keep score, a tax collector would never have been able to persuade himself of that.
As Jesus said: When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” (Lk 17:10)
Jesus was often in conflict with the Pharisees and this was usually at a meal. Meals are a sign and means of building community. Who you eat with and under what terms will reveal what is your community. The Pharisees showed their skepticism about Jesus from the very beginning of the Gospel. That he welcomed sinners and dined with them was a constant complaint from them (Luke 15:1) They could not conceive of a community with such people and Jesus could not conceive of one without them.
The Pharisees dreamed of the messianic banquet when the messiah would bring all people like themselves together to feast in the presence of their enemies: basically, anyone who was not one of them. Yet Jesus will tell those who believe that they can be a part of the banquet by their own efforts or more directly for being part of the right group that they will be cast out and that ”people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 13:29).
For Luke and other writers of scripture how people behaved at meals reveal if they built up or tore down the community of the church. When Luke spoke of the great banquet, he noted that everyone fought for the best seats. This is inherently destructive, and he calls them to task with: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11
Mercy both humbles and exalts everyone and that is profoundly disturbing. The most ancient word for mercy is “rechem“, It is the plural of womb. It is also the word in Aramaic for mercy, the language Jesus spoke daily. A love that is based on the womb shows intimate physical and familial relationships. To even think of difference of degree is ridiculous when we are all brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Mercy for people of our time and place usually means that someone who has done something wrong is forgiven by a superior and is thus a matter of choice. A modern judge may show mercy to a criminal if he or she finds him worthy of forgiveness but does not have to. Any mother will show mercy because she is a mother and it is her son or daughter. Mercy is shown in a community when each seeks the good of the other which usually includes forgiveness but is not exhausted by it. The social climbers who all the gospel writers satirize would have to change their lives completely.
That everyone who exalts himself will be humbled but he who humbles himself will be exalted appears again in this week’s gospel in the context of prayer.
Luke has a profound if disconcerting insight here and expresses it very skillfully.
Pharisee means “separated one” and this man proves it. He first separates himself from God: “he spoke this prayer to himself” Then he separates himself from other people “I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector” (Lk 18:11). For him to accept mercy – womb love, love that breaks boundaries and walls – would require him to change the way he approached not only other people but God himself. This we can plainly see is unlikely for him, what about us.
As always in Luke we are asked to look at Our Blessed Lady for the model. In the Magnificat she sings:
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
51 He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart (Lk 1:50–51).
His mercy is real and is experienced by those who seek power and position as destructive. The next line is:
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly. (Lk 1:52).
Mercy as womb love should be feared but we should be like the tax collector today and seek it and pray, that like Mary, we will be embrace it.
There is however one more step and it is a difficult one. One of the beatitudes in Luke is:
Be merciful as your Father is merciful (Lk 6:36)
Those who receive mercy are meant to show it as well. Bring it to the world around them. So much of the world we see is the product of the merciless. Its power is all around us, but we are assured that mercy is of God and more powerful than anything the world can produce. Be powerful, set the world aright, be merciful.