VATICAN CITY, APRIL 1, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The Pontifical Household preacher delivered this final Lenten reflection of the year in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.
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1. The mercy of Christ
The beatitude on which we would like to reflect in this last Lenten meditation is the fifth in the order of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall find mercy.” As we have done in all our meditations this Lent, we will take as our point of departure the affirmation that the beatitudes are a self-portrait of Christ, and, following the procedure we have used in the past, we will ask how Jesus lived mercy. What does Jesus’ life tell us about this beatitude?
In the Bible, the word “mercy” has two basic meanings: The first indicates the attitude of the stronger part (in the covenant, this would be God himself) toward the weaker part and it usually expresses itself in the forgiveness of infidelities and of faults; the second indicates the attitude toward the need of the other and it expresses itself in the so-called works of mercy. (In this second sense the term appears often in the Book of Tobit.) There is, so to say, a mercy of the heart and a mercy of the hands.
Both forms of mercy shine forth in Jesus’ life. He reflects God’s mercy toward sinners, but he is also moved by all human sufferings and needs; he gives the crowds to eat, heals the sick, frees the oppressed. The Evangelist says of him: “He has taken on our infirmities and borne our sicknesses” (Matthew 8:17).
In the beatitude we are considering, the prevalent sense is certainly the first one, that of forgiving and remitting sins. This is what we conclude from considering the beatitude and its reward: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy,” that is, with God, who remits their sins. Jesus’ admonition, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful,” is immediately explained with “forgive and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:36-37).
We know of Jesus’ acceptance of sinners in the Gospel and the opposition this earns him from the defenders of the law, who accuse him of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). One of Jesus’ sayings which is best attested to historically is: “I have not come to call the just, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Feeling accepted and not condemned by him, sinners listen to him gladly.
But who are the sinners in question? In line with the widespread tendency today to get the Pharisees of the Gospel entirely off the hook, attributing the negative image to a later doctoring by the Evangelists, someone has claimed that these “sinners” were only “the deliberate and impenitent transgressors of the law,” in other words, the common delinquents of the time and those who had gone outside the law.
If this were so, then Jesus’ adversaries would have been entirely right to be scandalized and see him as an irresponsible and socially dangerous person. It would be as if a priest today were to regularly frequent members of the mafia and criminals and accept their invitations to dinner with the pretext of speaking to them of God.
In reality, this is not how things are. The Pharisees had their vision of the law and of what conformed to it or was contrary, and they considered reprobate all those who did not follow their practices. Jesus does not deny that sin and sinners exist; he does not justify Zacchaeus’ frauds or the deed of the woman caught in adultery. The fact that he calls them “sick” shows this.
What Jesus condemns is the relegating to oneself the determination of what true justice is and considering everyone else to be “thieves, unjust, adulterers,” denying them the possibility of conversion. The way that Luke introduces the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is significant: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others” (Luke 18:9). Jesus was more severe with those who condemned sinners with disdain than he was with sinners themselves.
2. A God who prides himself on having mercy
Jesus justifies his behavior toward sinners saying that this is how the heavenly Father acts. He reminds his adversaries of God’s word to the prophets: “It is mercy that I want and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). Mercy toward the people’s infidelity, “hesed,” is the most salient trait of the God of the covenant and it fills the Bible from one end to the other. A psalm speaks of it in the course of a litany, explaining all the events in the history of Israel: “For your mercy is eternal” (Psalm 136).
Being merciful appears in this way as an essential aspect to being “in the image and likeness of God.” “Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) is a paraphrase of the famous: “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 6:36).
But the most surprising thing about God’s mercy is that he feels joy in being merciful. Jesus ends the parable about the lost sheep saying: “There will be more joy in heaven over one converted sinner than for ninety-nine just people who have no need to convert” (Luke 15:7). The woman who finds her lost coin calls out to her friends: “Rejoice with me.” In the parable of the prodigal son also the joy overflows and becomes a feast, a banquet.
We are not dealing with an isolated theme but one deeply rooted in the Bible. In Ezekiel God says: “I do not rejoice over the death of the wicked person but (I rejoice!) in his desisting from his wickedness and living” (Ezekiel 33:11). Micah says that God “takes pride in having mercy” (Micah 7:18), that is he takes pleasure in being merciful.
But why, we ask ourselves, must one sheep count more on the scales than all the others put together, and to count more it must be the one that went away and caused the most problems? I have found a convincing explanation in the poet Charles Péguy. Getting lost, that sheep, like the younger son, made God’s heart tremble. God feared that he would lose him forever, that he would be forced to condemn him and deprive him eternally. This fear made hope blossom in God and this hope, once it was realized brought joy and celebration. “Each time a man repents, a hope of God is crowned.” This is figurative language, as is all our language about God, but it contains a truth.
The condition that makes this possible in us men is that we do not know the future and therefore we hope; in God, who knows the future, the condition is that he does not want (and, in a certain sense, cannot) realize what he wants without our consent. Human freedom explains the existence of hope in God.
What should we say about the ninety-nine prudent sheep and the older son? Is there no joy in heaven for them? Is it worthwhile to live one’s entire life as a good Christian? Remember what the father said to his older son: “Son, you are with me always and all that I have is yours” (Luke 15:31). The older son’s mistake is to have thought that staying always at home and sharing everything with the father was not an incredible privilege but a merit; he acts more like a mercenary than a son. (This should put all of us older brothers on guard!)
On this point reality is better than the parable. In reality, the older son — the First Born of the Father, the Word — did not remain in the Father’s house; he went into “a far off land” to look for the younger son, that is, fallen humanity; he was the one that brought the younger son back home and procured the new clothes for him and a feast to which he can sit down at every Eucharist.
In one of his novels Dostoyevsky describes a scene that has the air of having been witnessed in reality. A woman holds a baby a few weeks old in her arms and — for the first time, according to her — he smiles at her. All contrite, she makes the sign of the cross on his forehead and to those who ask her the reason for this she says: “Just as a mother is happy when she sees the first smile of her child, God too rejoices every time a sinner gets on his knees and addresses a heartfelt prayer to him.”
3. Our mercy, cause or effect of God’s mercy?
Jesus says: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will find mercy,” and in the Our Father he has us pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He also says: “If you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15). These statements might make us think that God’s mercy toward us is an effect of our mercy toward others and that it is proportionate to it.
If it were this way, then the relationship between grace and good works would be totally reversed, and the purely gratuitous character of divine mercy would be destroyed. God solemnly announced the gratuitous character of his grace to Moses: “I will give grace to whomever I wish, and will have mercy on whomever I choose to have mercy” (Exodus 33:19).
The parable of the two servants (Matthew 18:23ff) is the key for correctly interpreting the relationship between God’s mercy and ours. There we see how it is the king who, in the first instance, without conditions, forgives an enormous debt to the servant (ten thousand talents!) and it is precisely his generosity that should have moved the servant to have pity on the other servant who owed him the tiny sum of one hundred denarii.
We must be merciful because we have received mercy, not in order to receive mercy; but we must be merciful, otherwise God’s mercy will have no effect on us and will be taken back, just as the king in the parable took back the mercy he had shown to the pitiless servant. “Prevenient grace” is always what creates the duty: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive,” St. Paul writes to the Colossians (Colossians 3:13).
If in the beatitudes God’s mercy toward us seems to be the effect of our mercy toward our brothers it is because Jesus links it to the perspective if the last judgment (“they will find mercy,” in the future!). “The judgment,” writes St. James in fact, “will be without mercy for those who have not been merciful; yet mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
4. Experiencing divine mercy
If divine mercy is the beginning of everything and it demands mercy among men and makes it possible, then the most important thing for us is to have a renewed experience of God’s mercy. We are drawing near to Easter and this is the Easter experience par excellence.
The author Franz Kafka wrote a novel called “The Trial.” In it there is a man who is put under arrest without anyone knowing the reason why. The man continues his normal life and work but also carries out extensive research to find out the reasons, the court, the charges and the procedure. But no one knows what to tell him except that he really is on trial. In the end two men come to carry out the sentence, execution.
During the course of the story it comes to be known that there are three possibilities for this man: true absolution, apparent absolution, pardon. Apparent absolution and pardon would not resolve anything; with them the man would remain in mortal uncertainty all his life. In the true absolution “the trial procedures will be completed eliminated, the whole thing would disappear; not only the charge but also the trial and the sentence would be destroyed, all will be destroyed.”
But it is not known whether there have ever been any of these true absolutions; there are only rumors about them, nothing more than “beautiful stories.” The novel ends, as all the others of this author do: Something is glimpsed from far away; it is anxiously pursued like in a nightmare, but there is no possibility of reaching it.
At Easter the Church’s liturgy conveys the unbelievable news that true absolution exists for man; it is not just a legend, something beautiful but unattainable. Jesus has “canceled the bond that stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). He has destroyed everything. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” exclaims St. Paul (Romans 8:1). No condemnation! Nothing at all! For those who believe in Christ Jesus!
In Jerusalem there was a miraculous pool and the first one to climb into it when the waters were stirred up was healed (John 5:2ff). The reality, even here, is infinitely greater than the symbol. From the cross of Christ there flowed water and blood, and not just one but all who step into this fountain will leave it healed.
After baptism, this miraculous pool is the sacrament of reconciliation and this last meditation would like to serve as a preparation for a good Easter confession. A confession different from the usual ones, in which we truly allow the Paraclete to “convince us of sin.” We could take as a mirror the beatitudes meditated on during Lent, beginning now and repeating the ancient expression, which is so beautiful: “Kyrie eleison!” “Lord have mercy!”
“Blessed are the pure of heart”: Lord, I see all the impurity and hypocrisy that is in my heart, the double life I live before you and before others. … Kyrie eleison!
“Blessed are the meek”: Lord, I ask your forgiveness for the hidden impatience and violence in me, for rash judgments, for the suffering I have caused those around me. … Kyrie eleison!
“Blessed are the hungry”: Lord, forgive my indifference toward the poor and the hungry, my constant search for comfort, my bourgeoisie lifestyle. … Kyrie eleison!
“Blessed are the merciful”: Lord, often I have asked for and quickly received your mercy, without reflecting on the price you paid for it! Often I have been the servant who was forgiven but who did not know how to forgive. … Kyrie eleison! Lord have mercy!
There is a particular grace when, not only the individual, but the entire community places itself before God in this penitential attitude. From this profound experience of God’s mercy we leave renewed and full of hope: “God, rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, he made us alive again in Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
5. A Church “rich in mercy”
In his message for Lent this year the Holy Father writes: “May Lent be for every Christian a renewed experience of God’s love given to us in Christ, love that every day we must, for our part, return to our neighbor.” This is how it is with mercy, the form that God’s love takes in relation to sinful man: After we have had an experience of it we must, for our part, show it to our brothers, and do this at the level of the ecclesial community and at a personal level.
Preaching from this same table during the retreat for the Roman Curia in the Jubilee Year 2000, Cardinal François Xavier Van Thuân, alluding to the rite of the opening of the Holy Door, said in a meditation: “I dream of a Church that is a ‘Holy Door,’ open, that welcomes all, full of compassion and understanding for the pain and suffering of humanity, completely ready to console it.”
The Church of the God who is “rich in mercy,” “dives in misericordia,” cannot itself fail to be “dives in misericordia.” We can draw some criteria from the attitude of Christ toward sinners that we examined above. He does not make light of sin, but he finds the way to not alienate sinners but to draw them to himself. He does not see in them only what they are, but what they can become if reached by divine mercy in the depths of their misery and desperation. He does not wait for them to come to him; often it is he who goes in search of them.
Today, exegetes are fairly in agreement in admitting that Jesus did not have a hostile attitude toward the Mosaic law, which he himself scrupulously observed. What he opposed in the religious elite of his time was a certain rigid and sometimes inhuman manner of interpreting the law. “The Sabbath,” he said, “is for man and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), and what he says about the Sabbath rest, one of the most sacred laws of Israel, holds for every other law.
Jesus is firm and rigorous about principles but he knows when a principle must give way to the higher principle of God’s mercy and man’s salvation. How these criteria drawn from Christ’s actions can be concretely applied to new problems in society depends on patient study and definitively on the discernment of the magisterium. Even in the life of the Church, as in Jesus’ life, the mercy of the hands and of the heart must shine forth together with the works of mercy, which are the essence of mercy.
6. “Put on mercy”
The last word in regard to the beatitudes must always be the one that touches us personally and moves each of us to conversion and action. St. Paul exhorts the Colossians with these words:
“Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13).
“We human beings,” said St. Augustine, “we are vessels of clay that are damaged by the slightest nick” (“lutea vasa quae faciunt invicem angustias”). We cannot live together in harmony, in the family and in any type of community, without the practice of reciprocal forgiveness and mercy. Mercy (“misericordia”) is a word composed of “misereo” and “cor”; it means to be moved in your heart, to be moved to pity, in the face of suffering or by your brother’s mistake. This is how God explains his mercy when he sees the people going astray: “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred” (Hosea 11:8).
It is a question of responding not with condemnation but with forgiveness and, when it is possible, excusing. When we consider ourselves, this saying is correct: “He who excuses himself, God accuses. He who accuses himself, God excuses.” When it is a matter of other people the contrary must be held: “He who excuses his brother, God excuses him. He who accuses his brother, God accuses him.”
For a community, forgiveness is what oil is for a motor. If one drives a car without a drop of oil, after a few kilometers everything will go up in flames. Forgiveness that lets others go is like oil. There is a psalm that sings of the joy of living together as reconciled brothers; it says that this “is like perfumed oil on the head” that runs down into Aaron’s beard and clothing to the very hem (cf. Psalm 133).
Our Aaron, our High Priest, the fathers of the Church would have said, is Christ; mercy and forgiveness is the oil that runs down from the “head” raised up on the cross, it runs down along the body of the Church to the edges of her robes to those who live on her margins. Where we live in this way, in reciprocal forgiveness and mercy, “the Lord gives his blessing and life forever.”
Let us try to see where, in all our relationships, it seems necessary to let the oil of mercy and reconciliation run down. Let us pour it out silently, abundantly, this Easter. Let us unite ourselves with our Orthodox brothers who at Easter do not cease to sing:
“It is the day of the Resurrection!
Let us radiate joy through this feast,
Let us call even those who hate us ‘brother,’
forgiving all for the love of the Resurrection.”
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 Cf. E.P. Sanders, “Jesus and Judaism,” London: SCM, 1985, p. 385.
 Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, “Gli albori del cristianesimo,” I, 2, Brescia: Paideia, 2006, pp. 567-572.
 Ch. Péguy, “Il portico del mistero della seconda virtù,” in Oeuvres poétiques complètes, Paris: Gallimard, 975, pp. 571 ff.
 F. Dostoevskij, “L’Idiota,” Milano, 1983, p. 272.
 F. Kafka, “Il processo,” Garzanti, Milano, 1993, pp. 129 ff.
 F.X. Van Thuân, “Testimoni della speranza,” Roma: Città Nuova, 2000, p.58.
 St. Augustine, Sermons, 69, 1 (PL 38, 440)
 Stichirà di Pasqua, testi citati in G. Gharib, Le icone festive della Chiesa Ortodossa, Milano 1985, pp. 174-182.