The Sunday Project

What is Mercy?

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time |

By Peter Clark
three neon signs that say "perfect" in a row
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First Reading
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18

And the LORD said to Moses, "Say to all the congregation of the people of Israel, You shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy. "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Second Reading
1 Corinthians 3:16-23

Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and that temple you are. Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apol'los or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's.

Gospel Reading
Matthew 5:38-48

"You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. "You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

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Mercy and forgiveness are some of the hardest things for us to accept. I’m sure all of us can think back to some time when somebody has hurt us. It hurts even harder when it’s somebody we care about, because we want them to care about us, so when they do so it feels like a betrayal.

It feels natural to classify wrongs into two categories: the ones that we can brush off, and the ones we can’t. There seems to be a difference, for example, between somebody accidentally making a callous comment about your appearance and somebody purposefully insulting you. It’s a lot easier to forgive somebody when we can tell ourselves that permanent injury was not their intention. But the Gospel passage of today says that in fact our mission is to forgive even those who do denigrate us and try to bring us down, telling us to “offer no resistance to one who is evil.”

What is evil? This seems like a question better-posed for a philosophy class, but we can answer this with a parallel discussion of what love is. Love, writes, St. Thomas Aquinas, is “willing the good of the other.” Many times the Bible uses for love the Greek word agape, which is contrasted with the other Greek words for love: philia, love for one’s family, eros, love for one’s spouse, and storge, love for one’s community. These all have qualifiers: they are “love because.” Instead, agape was considered to be the highest form of love because it is not qualified. It is characterized by a self-sacrificing nature, which seeks to uplift somebody not because they are close to us but simply because of their humanity; it is not a “love because” and is qualified simply by the fact that everybody else is made in the image and likeness of God, just as we are. It’s important to remember that Jesus Christ didn’t just die for his followers. He died for the salvation of all humanity, even the Roman soldiers who had nailed him to the cross and stabbed him in the side as they mocked him and cast lots. This sort of forgiveness and love is unimaginable, yet it’s what we are called as Catholics to do. The passage contains a simple example of agape in practice: “Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.” All we have is a gift from God, and it is meant to be shared with those made by God.

Evil, then is the intentional denigration of somebody simply because of a dislike for them. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia are all forms of evil based in the hatred of somebody else. A naive interpretation is to say that we are to simply stand by and pray while evil takes its course, that “when someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well”. But I don’t think that anybody wants to do this. We are members of a church that has, intentionally or not, historically wronged us. What mercy means here is not that we tolerate mistreatment, but rather that our faith is a rallying cry. It says that in spite of what people may try to teach about us, we instead fight it by living authentic lives that show how we, too, can be conduits of God’s love for one another. Mercy does not mean inaction, but rather when we fight evil we do it with love in our hearts instead of hate. When we fight evil we do it out of love for the oppressed and because those who oppress us are human too. When we fight evil out of hate we too become evil.

That’s what I think today’s Gospel reading is really about. None of us are perfect, but every day we can try to be a little less imperfect. Aristotle famously wrote that “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Our faith and love for each other grants us the tools to forgive each other when we do eventually hurt others, and instead of retaliating take the effort to uplift the other person. The final verses The journey of faith is a mission to “be perfect, just as the Father is perfect.” What about you? What are ways that you can make mercy a better habit? Do you get angry and yell at people when they wrong you? Do you try to get revenge? Next time, think instead on how you can address these things from a viewpoint of good instead of evil.