A THEORY OF DIVINE MERCY

woman-in-red_1408671_inlThis homily, delivered at St. Agnes Catholic Church, is based on John 8:1-11.

Today we are presented with what I consider one of the defining moments in the public ministry of our Lord. A woman caught in the act of adultery is dragged into the temple square to stand in shame and in full view of a blood-thirsty mob. She stands alone because her presumably equally culpable accomplice is conspicuously missing.

It’s a disturbingly familiar scene: To this day, such tragic injustice continues to be inflicted on women in different parts of the world. Unfortunately, while it takes two to tango, it only takes one when you want to condemn the dance–and it’s usually not the man you haul to the public stoning.

Meanwhile, surely for our Lord, that woman and that mob must have been a most heartbreaking and heartless sight: Heartbreaking because he can only imagine the shame and pain of that woman exposed. Heartless because the mob and their leaders have no hesitation using this woman and even ending her life just to set up a trap for Jesus. They aren’t really all that interested in the Law or morality.It’s what they hope will be a no-win situation for him: He’s damned if he follows the Law of Moses and approves the woman’s execution, and just as damned if he disapproves it but violates the Law.

The woman’s heartbrokenness and the mob’s heartlessness: One can’t help but feel simultaneously sad and furious. There are simply no words. Which is probably why our Lord, momentarily speechless, responds by doing the most unexpected of things: He bends down and writes on the ground with his finger–the only time, as far as I can recall, that our Lord is reported to do any writing in the Gospels.

What is he writing? Who knows? Biblical scholars, distinguished more by their overactive imagination than their scholarship, have theorized that Jesus may have been listing down either the sins of those present–or worse, the names of the woman’s other clients, present company included! We’ll never really know.

What is he thinking? Again, we don’t know; we can only guess. So here’s my guess: Among the many thoughts surely racing through his mind that moment, I wonder if our Lord may have thought of one other woman who–only by the grace of God and the mercy of her fiancé–has been spared from a similarly cruel execution.

Is it possible that looking at this woman standing before him, Jesus may have remembered his own mother Mary and the fate she would have suffered had she been publicly–albeit wrongly–accused of the same sin? There is evidence that the neighbors in their village in Nazareth have always known that Mary’s son is not Joseph’s. Why else, after all, would they refer to Jesus as “the son of Mary” as they’ve done that first time he preached in their synagogue instead of the more customary label that identifies him as Joseph’s son?

Is it possible that seeing his own mother in this woman caught in adultery called for an even greater compassion in our Lord than usual?

We know the rest of the story. Jesus, as usual, comes up with a response that, to use an unfortunate cliche, kills two birds with one stone: He saves the woman’s life, and he does so without having to violate the Law of Moses. And Jesus does this by giving the scribes and Pharisees and their mob a potent dose of their own medicine: the bitter pill of their own shame.

And it works. Jesus’ metaphorical stone is the only one cast that day. The mob walks away, as does the woman, her life spared, her sins mercifully forgiven.

Reflecting on this Gospel and reading between its lines, I think I may have stumbled upon what could be a theory of divine mercy. To appreciate divine mercy, we need only to gaze at Jesus, who is, as Pope Francis says, the “Face of God’s mercy.” Jesus is our model and mentor for mercy. So what does he teach us about the Father’s mercy today?

He teaches us that mercy happens only when we manage to break through the barriers that separate us from one another. In today’s Gospel story, Jesus’ mercy wells up more than usual because in that woman, someone he has never met before, he sees not a stranger, but a kin; not an “other,” but a brother–or more appropriately in this case, a sister, perhaps his mother.

The secret to mercy and compassion, as it turns out, is connection. To recognize the fundamental but hidden–and too-often forgotten–connection between you and me, between us and them, whatever distinctions we may be wont to use, whether riches, race, religion, region, etc. Our capacity for mercy seems to be defined–and limited–by our capacity for connection. You can call it empathy. Only when we can stand in the shoes of strangers, even those we may consider the worst of strangers, and actually recognize in them our neighbor, our sister, brother, even ourselves–only then can we feel greater compassion, act more mercifully, and love more genuinely.

So, what we really need to do is not to build walls or towers, as the most popular–but also most idiotic–sound bites these days would have us believe. What we need to do is to follow God’s formula for mercy: to break down barriers the way our Lord has done in his life and most especially in his death.

I think this is the secret to understanding God’s unapologetically lavish mercy. Compared to our incredibly big and sensitive toes, God has amazingly small feet: He can readily put Himself in our shoes. When He sees us, He doesn’t just see our sins and weaknesses and wickedness. He sees something else and something more: He sees His child, someone who belongs to Him. While we constantly remind ourselves to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, God does something else. He works differently; He sees differently: Where we see wolves, God sees the lost sheep hiding underneath the wolves’ clothing. And His Shepherd’s heart brims over with love and mercy and aches to bring the sinner back to the fold.

As exemplified by our Lord Jesus, our model and mentor for mercy, God not only walks with us, but insists on walking with us in our shoes. We ought to do the same with one another, especially with those we know the least and those we love the least. The secret to mercy is keeping our feet small. Why? The better to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.

Let’s pray for the grace of small feet.

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6 thoughts on “A THEORY OF DIVINE MERCY”

  1. Powerful reflection ! I pray the Lord will fill me with this capacity to see and establish my connection with everyone so I may be able to exercise God’s mercy and compasion.
    “The secret to mercy and compassion, as it turns out, is connection. To recognize the fundamental but hidden–and too-often forgotten–connection between you and me, between us and them, whatever distinctions we may be wont to use, whether riches, race, religion, region, etc. Our capacity for mercy seems to be defined–and limited–by our capacity for connection. You can call it empathy. Only when we can stand in the shoes of strangers, even those we may consider the worst of strangers, and actually recognize in them our neighbor, our sister, brother, even ourselves–only then can we feel greater compassion, act more mercifully, and love more genuinely.” Amen

  2. Dear Johnny,
    how your interpretation of the drama of the adulterous woman sounds right. It is admirable of generous intelligence, the intelligence of the heart which invites everyone to transform indifference into empathy, hatred into love. Your homily shows how we can truly convert us to authentic love, able to love our neighbor like ourselves. Too often hatred and fear blind us.
    The bloodthirsty mob and their leaders clothe the adulteress with their own wolf tunics in order to better hide their own vices liable for disorders and hardships in society. Because all, one by one, leave the square of the Temple, the leaders are leaving first when Jesus told them “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Each of them, doubtlessly, has imitated the lover, a rival, and wanted to absolve itself from his turpitude by sacrificing the adulterous woman who becomes here a scapegoat. And they hope they can, by stoning this woman with the enforced complicity of Jesus, in a sacrificial unanimity which would renew the links among themselves, strengthen at new the social ties of solidarity which are threatened by selfishness and lack of love. It is the traditional purpose of the scapegoat ritual.
    Dear Johnny, as you say with a great relevance, such tragic injustices continue to mistreat and abuse women in different countries in the world. They are allegorical injustices which hit the weakest , the poorest.
    Today’s world is plagued by the highest level of violence which has never been reached before in the history of mankind. According to Jacques Maritain a French philosopher who has converted to Catholicism ” the mankind progressed in good and evil”. Every day, we can see the progress of the evil. And it is an incredible violence that affects people in all countries, a multifaceted phenomenon sometimes sneaky sometimes hideous. Here it despairs, devitalizes, isolates, rejects and infects egos. Elsewhere it destroys, raps, mutilates, kills. In many parts of the world, the violence of war and terrorism injures and kills more and more. Neither women nor children are spared in the attacks.
    A murderous madness took hold of a minority and disseminates as a metastasis. It spreads hatred and insidiously infects all people. The intolerance is rising in Europe. It blinds us and precedes the hatred of the other. The other is no longer regarded as our neighbor. He becomes the enemy, the cause of the disorders that afflict us. And then we put him in a wolf skin in order to stigmatize him and justify our bad behavior against him and against all those who share with him the same language, culture or religion.
    For the French anthropologist René Girard, the rise of the extreme military violence in exacerbated rivalry between hostile empires, by the incredible destructive power of modern weapons threaten the survival of mankind and even of life on our planet. “The today’s real wars conceal an absolute war” between rivals with identical ambitions of power and domination. For him “only the religious thought is able to talk intelligently about that […] Modern man is linked to one religion, which is the first to fully prohibit violence ; it is Judaism and Christianity. […] But we can say that there is a mankind’s failure to achieve this goal *”
    * see the interview of René Girard http://onegus.blogspot.fr/2007/10/ren-girard-clausewitz-la-monte-aux.html at 10’54”
    In order to silence the weapons and establish justice and a lasting peace between all warlike nations and peoples, and to restore harmony in our planet devastated by human greed, it is essential, imperative and urgent that we make rapid progress in goodness, generosity and mercy. The people of God of mercy that we want to be must now show mercy in its daily life actions
    Dear Johnny, in your homily of this Sunday you clearly explain us what we have to do : we must put our feet in the footprints of Jesus and like him discover the lost sheep under the violent wolf mask of the other. We even have to fill the shoes of this other, so that we find not a brother or a sister who is such as we, but a human being complementary to us in his/her differences so that we are learn to love without restriction. And then we become able to respond appropriately with concrete action to the exhortation of Jesus ” But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
    Thanks from the bottom of my heart for your very inspired homily so rich in lessons which strengthens our willingness to do our best to help, even if it is only a little, the Coming of Pax Christi.
    Best regards from Viviane and Camille. And in advance happy eastern

  3. I will pray for a smaller toes so i can fit any shoe size. Jesus shows us what mercy is all about. Thank u Father J for a beautiful heart warming homily. God bless us.

  4. We cannot just be “a man FOR others”! The phrase implies from-over- the -fence -sympathy. Rather, we must be a brother/sister TO others. This is stand-in-their-shoes-with-“little feet” empathy. What a revealing homily, Father. Thank you.

  5. this sunday’s reflection of the gospel is a virtual goldmine of lessons but what resonates more to me is this: “God works differently; He sees differently: He sees the lost sheep hiding underneath the wolves’ clothing.” perhaps those who think are wolves just pretend to be one, or are one, as a defense mechanism, but in reality are just as lost as some, or us, are….indeed, let us have smaller toes…the better for us to fit in their shoes!

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