Orbiting Dicta

7th Sunday of the Year: The Quality of Mercy

Another week has gone by, filled (according to the news channels) with unprecedented storms, wrecks, mass shootings, violence, and civil discord from Paris and London to Kabul and Caracas. It’s not all fake news, either.

We often think of the ancient world as violent and merciless, but as the story from the Book of Samuel shows us, even mortal

1 Sam 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-33
1 Cor 15: 45-49
Luke 6: 27-38

enemies could be spared by someone who was attentive to God’s voice.  For God is in love with life, not death.  And mercy is not only God’s way, but to the extent that we follow the way of Christ, it will be ours as well.  Jesus, St. Paul tells us, is our model as well as our teacher. Or was he really just shockingly naïve?

Now in the twenty-first century of what was once called Anno Domini, the Year of our Lord, mercy seems to disappeared from public discourse like last week’s snow. We are far more apt to hear of calls for punishment than forgiveness. Hostility, retribution, and revenge seem to have become the currency of the day.

The word we use for “enemy” in English comes from the Latin, ‘in-amicus,’ which means “no friend.”  That’s straightforward enough.  But it is significant that when Jesus is asked, also in the tenth chapter and by a lawyer if you recall, who one’s neighbor really is [Luke 10:27],  Jesus’ answer surprises him.  And us.

The common English word “neighbor,” so important in the gospels, accurately translates the Greek word, ‘plesion,’ which means someone near or close by.  The English word comes from the old word “nigh,” meaning “near” and the interesting word “boor,” which originally meant something like “peasant” or “farmer.” It’s related to the word “bower,” which meant “a dwelling.”  So your neighbor is not merely the rustic oaf next to you (which is what boor ultimately came to mean), but someone who shares your bower, your dwelling.

Unfortunately the “Boor Wars” are still going on in our own homes and offices, the classroom, the factory — wherever we encounter those boorish bumpkins, rustics, and oafs who make things so difficult for us.  Jesus said, after all, “A person’s enemies will be found in their own household….”  Our enemy is all too often also our neighbor!

That is why it is not easy to love our neighbor, even though that is half of the whole law and the measure of our closeness to God.  Nor is it even enough to love our neighbor — even oafish rustics do as much.  No, Jesus says, “you are to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.”  For if we only love those who love us, we may be being neighborly — but we not being Christians.  Not yet.

After twenty-five years as a marriage counselor in a psychiatric clinic, I am still often amazed that two people can live together for decades without communicating their wants and needs effectively or responding promptly or generously to each other.  Of course, it’s no different in religious life and the priesthood.  Whether married or celibate, people who live in the same bower for ten or twenty years may rarely if ever come to shouts and blows, but they often develop great skills in enmity.  We know exactly how to wound each other and do it with economy and surgical precision, often with a simple shrug, the movement of an eyebrow, or just silence.  We could give the CIA lessons in covert activities and sabotage.

Over the years, or if we are really clever, within a few weeks or months, we learn where the right controls are — which is to say the wrong ones: buttons for shame and guilt, levers for anger, aggravation, and anxiety, the power switch.  And some of us learn how to stay close to that large red button that has “Total War” written above it in glowing letters.  We might even keep our finger on it for good luck.  We all have such buttons, of course, which is why we build strong defenses around our precious little world while trying to weaken that of the boor next to us. “Good fences make good neighbors,” the man said.

The fullness of love, real maturity, lies in anticipating the needs, hopes, wants, and desires of our neighbor – wife, husband, even the boor next door.  And being ready at all times to forgive.

Jesus commands us to be compassionate and merciful the way God is compassionate and merciful.  That’s a tall order.  In the Hebrew scriptures, mercy is rarely listed as a human quality — one of the rare examples is that story in today’s first reading, when David spares Saul although he could have killed him.  Mercy is usually seen as divine, in fact, the most appealing of God’s qualities when it comes to human beings.

In mercy, God bends down to us and lifts us up to divine heights.  Our mercy is to be no less, Luke says.  “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  And how is God merciful to us?  “By being kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.”  Not, I might add, by dropping bombs on them – even verbal bombs, much less real ones.

This, of course, is how Luke expounds the Golden Rule.  As with Matthew’s account, Jesus makes it a positive statement, which is much rarer than similar statements found in the Book of Tobit, Confucius, and the Talmud: do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.  Jesus’ statement is also universal in its sweep: give to all who ask.  Just give.  “If someone robs you of your cloak, your outer garment, also give him the shirt off your back.  And don’t expect to get it back.  Don’t even ask.”

He adds, the measure we give to others is the same measure we will get back — and here, as elsewhere, Luke goes farther than Matthew.  But so abundant is God’s mercy, our reward will exceed our capacity to receive it, it will run over like grain or fruit out of the fold of the tunic that served as a shopping bag in the ancient world.

That we are to love not only our enemies but, even worse, our neighbors, seems to be what Jesus expects of his followers.  It isn’t easy.  But the general directions are clear — give without being asked and without hope of return; forgive without demanding apologies or punishing the offender for days or weeks with silence, scorn, or condescension; be sparing of blame, don’t condemn, be quick to overlook offenses to our own sacred persons, and look for opportunities to be of real assistance and comfort when needed.  Or even when they’re not.

If justice postponed is justice denied, how much more is that true of mercy and love?

“… earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”  [The Merchant of Venice, iii. 1.]

How do we love one another then?  Here and now — immediately, proximately, practically, concretely.  Love is not a sentiment, a thought, or an attitude.  It is an action.  It is often small and humble, like a smile, and sometimes as deep and dark as death.  Jesus said it was also frequently anonymous; things done when no one was looking and might never notice.

With love like that in our hearts, we will be ready for Lent.  It’s coming soon!