In the modern secular world, individuals and corporations try to monopolize mercy, especially in regard to the drug addicted, mentally ill, and impoverished. Numerous organizations attempt to capitalize on mercy under different names: rehabilitation, counseling and treatment, welfare, etc. While I do not want to discount some good works done in many of these instances, more often than not they merely present opportunities for exploitation and enabling rather than as an avenue to meet the Person of Jesus and be called to be merciful as he is merciful.
St. John Paul II’s Dives in Misericordia pinpoints the necessity of understanding mercy as rooted in the Incarnation, indeed as Divine Mercy. He says,
The more the Church's mission is centred upon man—the more it is, so to speak, anthropocentric—the more it must be confirmed and actualized theocentrically, that is to say, be directed in Jesus Christ to the Father. While the various currents of human thought both in the past and at the present have tended and still tend to separate theocentrism and anthropocentrism, and even to set them in opposition to each other, the Church, following Christ, seeks to link them up in human history, in a deep and organic way […] Christ confers on the whole of the Old Testament tradition about God's mercy a definitive meaning. Not only does He speak of it and explain it by the use of comparisons and parables, but above all He Himself makes it incarnate and personifies it. He Himself, in a certain sense, is mercy. To the person who sees it in Him—and finds it in Him—God becomes "visible" in a particular way as the Father who is rich in mercy."Mercy is both “corporal and spiritual”, visible and invisible simultaneously. In a way, to say that the ‘invisible’ and ‘spiritual’ Father of Lights is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4) is to make reference to his visible Son, Jesus. Indeed, the Father surpasses all in the richness of HIs mercy so as to give his only Son to us who deserve him not. Even as Abraham ‘corporally’ offered up his son Isaac at Mt Moriah, God the Father proved himself infinitely more rich in mercy because he did not withhold Jesus. Compare God the Father with the same father Abraham who is appealed to in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, unable to reconcile the rich man’s lack of mercy on Lazarus because raising the dead could not even suffice! Yet, God the Father is merciful in spite of such incredulity! He is merciful even to the harrowing of hell.
His mercy also allows for total rejection. Hell is chosen not through lack of opportunities for repentance. Another illustrative parable along these lines is the prodigal son. What if the son never returned to his father? Much like Esau in the book of Genesis who traded his birthright for little more than soup, the Father’s mercy is met with sheer apathy. Who cares that he offers us forgiveness and reconciliation, divine life and grace, identity in his Son, membership in his household, and eternal life instead of death? Why care about such things when I can have a single bowl of soup?
Again, I do not want to discount the works of charitable organizations, soup kitchens and the like. I have experience with many such places and have seen men and women surrender their lives, addictions, and sufferings to Christ in a powerfully transforming way. But that was precisely because it pleased the Father to reveal his Son to us, and through us. Furthermore, it was because those volunteering for the organization were not ashamed of sharing Jesus with others, they were not ashamed of the Gospel or limited themselves to only when the other person was sober, fed, sheltered, etc. Instead, it was alongside such corporal works of mercy that the Gospel was shared in its fullness and not in half-measure.
As the priest who married my wife and me said at our Nuptial Mass homily, “when I point the finger at all of you I have 3 fingers pointing back at me”. I write this post as much for my sake as for anyone in need of mercy. St. John Henry Newman’s brilliant sermon on the plight of Esau captures precisely my points, and I highly recommend his warnings about the danger of profanity and presumption. He compares the prodigal son’s approach to his merciful father with Esau’s arrogance:
Would you see how a penitent should come to God? turn to the parable of the Prodigal Son. He, too, had squandered away his birthright, as Esau did. He, too, came for the blessing, like Esau. Yes; but how differently he came! he came with deep confession and self-abasement. He said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants:’ but Esau said, ‘Let my father arise, and eat of his son's venison, that thy soul may bless me.’ The one came for a son's privileges, the other for a servant's drudgery. The one killed and dressed his venison with his own hand, and enjoyed it not; for the other the fatted calf was prepared, and the ring for his hand, and shoes for his feet, and the best robe, and there was music and dancing.In this light then, I take to heart mercy as theocentric and not merely anthropocentric. Nor is it just between me and God either, but when I receive absolution from the priest in persona Christi, I am really being reconciled to the entire body of Christ. This is Divine Mercy enough to merit sobriety, conquer pride, and begin living virtuously. God’s mercy is transformative, and not only imputes, but infuses grace into our body and soul. We have such mercy to seek in the upcoming year, mindful of shortcomings as openings for God to fill to the brim.