Rorate Caeli

Sermon for Pentecost XV –The Meaning of Mercy

From the 7th verse of the 5th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

Today, in addition to being the 15th Sunday after Pentecost is the feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist.  St. Matthew is known as the Evangelist to the Jews, for it is Matthew, the Jewish tax collector, who understands what the Jewishness of Jesus means and who is at pains in his Gospel to show how the person of Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish expectation for the Messiah, the Deliverer,  the Fulfiller, the one who would end the cycle of God’s reproach and God’s mercy.  Those of you who have seen the remarkable painting of the calling of Matthew by Caravaggio in the church of S. Luigi dei Francesi in Rome know a little, a bit, about what it meant for Matthew to be called by Christ to be his follower, his disciple, his Apostle, his Evangelist.  But also in that chapel is Caravaggio’s painting of St. Matthew writing his Gospel in the presence of an angel. And on the right wall is the depiction of the martyrdom of St. Matthew, where he is dressed as a priest about to say Mass who is about to be killed in a violent way by a Roman soldier. 

It is St. Matthew who is the Evangelist most interested in the role of the Law with respect to faith in Jesus Christ, and the Sermon on the Mount is the locus of the Christian understanding of the Law: that in Jesus Christ the Law is not abolished but is deepened in the most remarkable way, remarkable in the sense that there is a transcendence of the Law in-formed by that humble love that is the person of Christ the Teacher and Redeemer.  We have all heard the Beatitudes from the Gospel of St. Matthew many times, with the refrain of “blessed are, blessed are”.  This passage is prone to being sentimentalized unless it is read with what follows: “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets: I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:17)

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”  I want to focus briefly on this Beatitude, mainly because the topic of mercy is a hot one at this time in the Church.  The word mercy is being bandied about as a buzz word, and there are those who would reduce Christianity, yea rather, would reduce God himself to mercy.  What does this word, mercy, mean in English?  Its etymology ultimately comes through medieval French from the Latin word for merchandise or the price paid for something.  It is commonly understood to mean showing benevolence or kindness to someone who is in a situation that according to the law should be condemned.  Mercy in this sense goes beyond justice. It does not deny justice, but it sets aside the demands of justice in favor of the well-being of the person who is the object of mercy.  The Latin word for mercy is misericordia.  We just heard that word sung in today’s Gradual and sung with such beauty in a melismatic riff on the word that is part of its very meaning.  When we look at where this word comes from, I believe it gives us a greater insight into what we mean by mercy in the Christian sense.  Misericordia comes from two Latin words: the first is an adjective, miser, which means wretched, miserable, in a bad condition. The second part comes from the word for heart, cor.  This word points more clearly to the Christian understanding of mercy, for misericordia is that stirring of the heart that takes pity on the person who deserves by the laws of justice to be condemned. 

For the Christian, mercy cannot be separated from love, and it cannot be separated from the mercy of God.  The Jews knew of the mercy of God in his blotting out of their sins, especially their unfaithfulness, after a period of chastisement because of their sins.  But it is only in the person of Jesus Christ that we see what mercy is, because Christ is the mercy of God.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16).  It is precisely into the sinful condition of man, a condition that demands eternal death according to justice, that God over-rides in a sense this demand of justice, and out of love—and there is the key point—out of love for sinful man—mirabile dictu—he sends his only begotten Son to become one of us so that he can die for us, can suffer on the Cross for us, and so at the same time fulfill the demands of justice and of love.  The Cross is the condemnation of the world.  The Cross is the fulfillment of justice in the eyes of God.  But the Cross is even more deeply and wonderfully the mercy of God, that love that goes beyond the demands of justice.

 Charles Péguy wrote a wonderful poem that I have preached on in the past called, in English, Vision of Prayer.  We can extend Péguy's vision in that remarkable poem to picture that God is sitting on his throne on a promontory overlooking the sea, God on his throne as Judge, ready to condemn those who pass by Him and who have offended Him by their sins.  And suddenly ships appear on the horizon, each bearing prayers, and above all the prayer that His Son taught to his people: "Our Father who art in heaven."  And strapped to the mast of one of these ships is his Son, with his arms outstretched as on the Cross, and as the Pater Noster ship passes the Father, He sees the wounds of his Son-- in his hands, his feet and his side.  And the Father’s heart swells as He remembers that He is a Father, as He remembers  His mercy in the person of His Son.  And the justice of the Father is caught up, not denied, but caught up in the sight of the wounds of His Son and He remembers His mercy, and in that act of remembrance,-- do this in memory of me--, justice is transformed by the infinite love of God.

The mercy of God is embedded deeply into the mystery of the God who is Love.  This mercy cannot ever be reduced to excusing sin, or winking at sin, or denying sin. This mercy can never be cheap mercy that is the result of cheap grace.  There are those in the Church today who believe that the mercy of God can somehow nullify the law of God and make justice irrelevant.  They think that human suffering in difficult moral situations demands the application of a mercy that relieves that suffering even if that application is contrary to the Law and Justice of God.  These people either have never read the whole of the Sermon on the Mount or have deliberately forgotten half of it, that half spoken by that Jesus who at the end of the Beatitudes said:  “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:11); that Jesus who warned that he would spit the luke-warm out of his mouth (Rev. 3:15); that Jesus who said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matt. 16:23); that Jesus who told his disciples: “and if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town; truly I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” (Matt. 10:14)

  The Church must proclaim the mercy of God grounded in his unconditional love for us even as sinners.  But in the name of mercy the Church can never apply this mercy in a false way, specifically in explicitly allowing those who are not in a state of grace to receive that pledge of God’s transforming grace that is Holy Communion.  To do so would be to confuse mercy based on the love of God with license based on sentimentality.  And then the Church would not be the Church of Jesus Christ.