By Father Christopher R. Seibt
Editor’s note: During the Holy Year of Mercy, Father Christopher R. Seibt will explore various aspects of the jubilee in a series of Sun columns. This is the second column in the series.
“How do we know that our God is a merciful God?” This question is one that many people in our society and culture today often ask because they do not believe in God. Or if they do, they believe in an impersonal God who creates, steps back, and then remains at a distance, allowing things to simply happen. This question is also one that we as people of faith sometimes ask because of our own sinfulness. At times we cannot fathom that God would forgive us or even that we are loved by him. We are afraid. We doubt. Or, perhaps we do not care. To us and to many people around us the notion that the God of the Universe is a merciful God seems to be crazy, unthinkable, or even ridiculous. And yet, it is a reality.
At the beginning of this Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis has reminded all of us that mercy is not sign of weakness on God’s part. Rather, the name of God is mercy, so to speak. Mercy is the “mark of God’s omnipotence” (Misericordiae Vultus, 6). Indeed, we as a Church pray, “O God, who manifest your almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy…” (Roman Missal, XXVI Sunday in Ordinary Time).
Still, how do we know that God is merciful? The answer is simple: because he told us. The Church teaches us that God has revealed himself to us, that God has told us about himself in the Scriptures and most especially and most fully in and through his Son, Jesus Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 50-73). This is good news! For if God did not reveal himself to us, then we would create our own ideas about what God or Jesus Christ must be like. In other words, we would invent our own gods, claiming: “My god would or would not care if I did ‘this’”; “My god thinks ‘that’ is or is not ok”; and so on. Doing this is dangerous because it tends to justify our sinful behavior or cause us to mistakenly think that we are in charge, that we only have to worry about doing or not doing what we ourselves want.
In contrast to this, the Scriptures, composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reveal God to us and the word “mercy” is used as a key word to describe how God relates to us (MV, 9). In the Old Testament, the words “patient and merciful” often go together to describe God’s nature. Moreover, God’s mercy is “concretely demonstrated in his many actions throughout the history of salvation where his goodness prevails over punishment and destruction” (MV, 6).
Among the various passages of the Old Testament in which God tells us that he is a merciful God, the Psalms, in particular, “bring to the fore the grandeur of his merciful action” (Ibid). The psalms cover the full range of human emotions: joy and praise, sadness and anguish, strength and weakness, victory and defeat, confidence and discouragement. They also cover the full range of human experiences, both good and bad, and help to give expression to them. Reading or praying the psalms is a powerful experience because in them God speaks a language that all of us can understand, and he speaks to all of us as his friends (see The Psalms of Mercy, 9, 16; cf. Dei Verbum, 2). The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization recommends these ten Psalms of Mercy for our reflection during this Jubilee Year: Psalms 25, 41, 42/43, 51, 57, 92, 103, 119:81-88, and 136.
In the New Testament, Jesus himself, St. Paul and others also reveal God as a merciful God. From the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, through his life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension, to the descent of the Holy Spirit and the life of the early Church, we hear of God’s mercy over and over again. In a particular way, “Jesus reveals the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome the rejection with compassion and mercy” (MV, 9) in the parables of mercy: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son (Lk 15:1-32). The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization also recommends the following parables wherein the theme of mercy is strong for our reflection during this Jubilee Year: the two debtors and their creditor (Lk 7:41-43), the good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), the unjust judge and the persistent widow (Lk 18:1-8), and the Pharisee and the publican in the temple (Lk 18:9-14). Like the psalms, these parables touch us at our core. Moreover, they involve us in the story in a deep and intimate way (see The Parables of Mercy, 15).
During this Year of Mercy, the Scriptures remind us that our God is indeed a God “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity” (Ex 34:6). More importantly, the Scriptures call us to first encounter God’s mercy so that we can extend it to others. Let us then read them and meditate upon them. More importantly, let us allow them to change our hearts, removing any fear, doubt, or apathy that may be preventing us from seeking out and embracing the Father’s mercy.
Father Christopher R. Seibt is parochial vicar of St. Rose of Lima Church in North Syracuse.