Saint Patricks Logo
Saint Patricks Logo

The Father’s Mercy

6 May 2016

Over 1500 years ago, St John Chrysostom said: “If you wish to receive mercy, show mercy to your neighbour.” The mercy and understanding we show to others is the degree of mercy and understanding we will receive in turn. The motto of the Jubilee Year of Mercy is that we are to be “Merciful, like the Father.” But to be merciful like the Father we have to understand how the Father is merciful. Scripture helps us to understand this quality of God.

It is often said that the God of the Old Testament is vengeful and violent, and the God revealed by Jesus in the New Testament is a God of Love. This is wrong. In the Old Testament, the Lord presents himself as a “merciful God”. According to the Book of Exodus, God revealed himself to Moses as: “the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”. This formula is found in other texts, albeit with certain variations, but the emphasis is always placed on the mercy and the love of God, a God who, as Pope Francis has pointed out, never tires of forgiving.

There are several Hebrew terms which lie behind the English word "mercy." The chief Hebrew term is chesed, which is translated as God's covenant "loving kindness." Other translations of this key word are: “Love,” “Grace” and “compassion”.

The very term “merciful” suggests to some the tenderness of a mother toward her child. Indeed, one of the other Hebrew terms used in the Bible to describe God’s mercy is “re’chem”. Re’chem is also the Hebrew for a mother’s womb. The image we obtain is that of a God who is moved like a mother when she takes her child in her arms for the first time. This moment of bonding fills the mother with overwhelming love for her child, a protective, self-sacrificing all-encompassing devotion. When considering the merciful nature of the Lord our Father, we should remember that the writers of the Hebrew Bible described His mercy in the context of a mother’s extravagant love.

The Lord is also described as “gracious”. This word conveys a sense that one greater than ourselves bows down to become level with us. The greatest example of God’s graciousness is the Incarnation, when the One through whom all things came to be graciously took on human flesh and dwelled among us, as one of us in every way except sin.

Reviewing sacred scripture, God is also said to be “slow to anger”. In the original Hebrew this is arek apayim which Pope Francis translates as being “of great breadth”. This means that God has a broad capacity of forbearance and patience. Consider our world today. A politician refers to a collection of people as a “swarm”. The dictionary has a number of definitions of this word. Two of these definitions are a large number of insects or other small organisms, especially when in motion; and an aggregation of persons or animals, especially when in turmoil or moving in mass. In hindsight, it was not a good choice to use a word like swarm, because the “Twitter-sphere” decided that the politician was using the first definition, comparing the collection of people to insects. There was enormous anger, followed by demands that the politician apologised, and apologised now! It is as if the human race, having been offended must have immediate satisfaction or else potentially explode with outrage. But God is not like that. He knows how to be patient. Remember the Parable of the Weeds (Mt 13:24 – 30). The farmer planted wheat in his field and in the night his enemy sowed the poisonous weed darnel. The farmer’s servants wanted to rip out the darnel but the farmer stopped them, concerned that the wheat would be uprooted with the weeds. That is patience.

The Lord describes himself as “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”. This definition of God is all-encompassing. God is great and powerful, and this greatness and power are used to love his creatures - we, who are so unworthy of his love. The word “love”, of course is unconditional in a real sense. We cannot earn this love; we do not deserve this love. It is offered to us generously, even prodigally as a freely given and gracious gift. It is a mark of God’s care for us, care that nothing can stop, or divert away from us, not even sin, because this extravagant love is able to go beyond sin, to overcome even the very worst of evil, and forgive it.

God is “abounding in faithfulness”: this is the final word of God’s self-revelation to Moses. God’s faithfulness never fails, because the Lord is the guardian who, as the Psalm says, never slumbers but keeps constant vigil over us in order to lead us to life: “May he not suffer your foot to slip; may he slumber not who guards you: Indeed, he sleeps not nor slumbers, Israel’s guard... The Lord will guard you from all evil; he will guard your life. The Lord will guard your coming and your going, both now and forever” (Ps 121[120]:3-4, 7-8).

In this reflection, no mention has been made of a “Big Book” where all of our sins are recorded ahead of Judgement Day. God is fundamentally just, and divine justice is not human justice. Mercy is what allows us to tell the difference between law and legalism. The Scribes and the Pharisees found this difficult: Jesus accused these learned people (Mt 23:24) saying: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” The scribes and Pharisees were addicted to legalism, but God is not. God is just, and His justice is tempered by mercy. As God is justice by his very nature, he is also by definition mercy itself. This mercy is from eternity, will last forever, and it is unchangeable.

St Paul tells us that even if we are not faithful to God, God will yet remain faithful to us, because he cannot deny himself. Faithfulness in mercy is the very being of God. Therefore, God is totally and always trustworthy. We can be assured of this. As the Preacher says in the Book of Ecclesiasticus “kindness is like a garden of blessings, and mercy endures forever.” Therefore, in this Jubilee of Mercy, we should follow Pope Francis’ suggestion and entrust ourselves to our heavenly Father without reservation, and experience the joy of being loved by this “God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness”.