This year, Theology 101 will focus on the topic of evangelization. Specifically, the task will be to offer some ways of approaching various questions Catholics may encounter from co-workers, family and friends regarding the practice of the faith. Of course, this undertaking represents only possibilities, and we must remember that nothing can replace the power of witnessing to the Good News through our own actions and words, combined with our willingness to accompany others on their faith journey.
I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you ahve love for one another - Jn 13: 34-35
Jesus teaches us that power should be used so that there might be life, and life to the full. In other words, power should be exercised mercifully. However, is there something required of us in order to experience the merciful exercise of power? Are there “preconditions” that dispose us more readily to experience, for example, God’s mercy? Is there something that “enables” God’s merciful action to take effect in our lives?
The witness of the Gospels
Consider each of the following accounts:
Near the middle of the Gospel of John (8:1-11), we encounter the story of a woman caught in adultery who is brought before Jesus for judgment. Jesus’ actions that day have much to teach us about the nature of the relationship between mercy and justice.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:21-35) challenges each of us to respond to the immense mercy we have received from the Father by showing that same mercy to our neighbor. At the same time, this parable reminds us that there are serious consequences for our failing to do so.
The parable begins with Peter asking Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus replies by telling Peter that he must forgive not seven times, but 77 times.
And he told them a parable, “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?”…
“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.” (Lk 6:39,41-42)
The motto for the Year of Mercy is “Merciful like the Father.” Perhaps no parable is better suited to teach us what this motto actually looks like in practice than the Parable of the Lost Son.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us the beatitudes. One of these beatitudes is of special interest for us during this Jubilee Year of Mercy: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” (Mt 5:7) Here Jesus seems to make being merciful the condition for receiving mercy. Why might this be the case?
The Parable in Brief
In order to understand the full context of the parable, we must first consider the Gospel passage directly preceding it – Luke 10:25-28. In these verses, a scholar of the law had asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. In the end, the scholar provided his own answer by citing the two great commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.
When Jesus confirmed his answer, the scholar asked a follow-up question, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus offered this parable as his response.
As we continue our year-long reflection on the nature of mercy in honor of the official Jubilee Year of Mercy (Dec. 8, 2015–Nov. 20, 2016), let us recall from last time that, according to Pope St. John Paul II, mercy “signifies a special power of love.” In other words, mercy is really love transformed, so we need to understand what love is if we are to penetrate more deeply into what it means to be merciful.
What is love?
We are all probably familiar with St. Paul’s famous lines in his First Letter to the Corinthians in which he tells us what love is and what it is not: