As our readings for last Sunday and today demonstrate, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways God’s ways (Isa. 55:8). In our first reading taken from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, God, speaking through His prophet, chides Israel for complaining that "[t]he LORD’s way is not fair" (Ezk 18:25). God reminds Israel that His way is not only fair, but more than fair; God’s way is merciful. We are reminded in this passage not only that sin is death, but the death that results from sin is the consequence of choices made by the sinner and not the sinner’s punishment by God. Who is the sinner? We are all sinners. Our first reading implies what St. Paul makes explicit in his Letter to the Romans, "all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). If this were not the case, we would have no need for God’s mercy and we would certainly not need a savior.
Self-righteousness is a parody of righteousness because the self-righteous person believes himself to be without fault he tends to be critical and merciless towards others. He feels perfectly comfortable demanding that each one be coldly given what he deserves. It is precisely this kind of all-too-human fairness, which we often call justice, that gives rise to such ideas as an a eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, or that other religious concept so at odds with grace, karma, which holds that what goes around comes around, that in the end you will inevitably and inescapably get what you deserve. Grace, by contrast, only requires you to acknowledge your failings and ask for God’s mercy.
Incorrigible as we often are it is only because we are the recipients of God’s mercy, given in Christ Jesus, that we are able to be merciful. If receiving God’s mercy fails to make us merciful, then we are like the man in the parable of Jesus we heard two weeks ago, who after being forgiven a very large debt by the king, was merciless in collecting a much smaller debt owed him. Upon learning of the mercilessness of the one he had forgiven so great a debt, the king summoned the man and "in anger… handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt" (Matt. 18:34). Then Jesus says these sobering words: "So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart" (Matt. 18:35). This is what gives weight to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer in which we ask the Father to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
All of this was brought to the fore in a very concrete way this past week with the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, even though Davis’ execution was more a question of simple justice than of mercy. While, traditionally, the Church has not forbidden the death penalty, assuming that the identity and guilt of the one condemned is fully and clearly ascertained, it must be reserved to those times when it is the only way to effectively protect society "against the aggressor" (Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 2267). In his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, Blessed Pope John Paul II taught that if less than lethal means "are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the… common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person" (par. 56). On this basis, he concluded that “given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime” through incarceration and even rehabilitation, cases in which the death penalty might be given today "are very rare, if not practically non-existent" (par. 56).
Fairness means treating everyone the same way, not playing favorites. God does not play favorites. He extends His mercy to all. It is the Father’s deepest desire to reconcile everyone and everything to Himself through His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. This is why God’s way is not merely fair, but more than fair. God’s way is mercy, which He gives us gratuitously, which is a dressed up way of saying that God gives His mercy freely to anyone who asks for it. In this context, it is interesting to note that our English word "mercy" comes from the Latin word meaning "merchandise," something for which a price is paid. The price of God’s mercy was the life of his only begotten son, who, St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Philippians, "humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). My brothers and sisters in Christ, we were purchased at a price beyond our reckoning!
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, one of the great Christian spiritual masters of the last century, writing about devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, said,
When we turn to the Mother of God in prayer, we should realize more than we do that any prayer we offer [to her] means this: "Mother, I have killed thy Son. If you forgive me, I can be forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness nothing can save me from damnation" (Beginning to Pray 110)Certainly, the Blessed Mother, who, by a unique and singular grace, was preserved from sin, will forgive us for the responsibility we bear for Christ’s death because, like her Son, she is merciful, which is why we, Eve’s poor banished children, cry out to her using such titles as Our Lady of Mercy, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and Our Lady Help of Christians.
In the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict, citing a passage from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews (12:24), reminds us "that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel" (187). Unlike Abel’s blood, which cried to God from the ground for vengeance against Cain, his brother who murdered him (Gen. 4:10), Jesus’ Precious Blood "does not cry out for vengeance and punishment,” but instead “brings reconciliation" (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week 187). His blood, the Holy Father continues, "is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all" (187).
At the end of His parable in today’s Gospel, Jesus says to those listening, applying the parable to those who hear it, "When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him" (Matt.21:32). For Jesus, the tax collectors and prostitutes, that is, those who recognized their dire need for God’s mercy, who heard and heeded the Baptist’s call to repent and were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, are examples of the son who said "No" when asked by his father to work in the vineyard, but then went. By contrast, the observers of the law, who believed they could justify themselves by strictly observing the law, were the like the son who said "Yes," but then did not go. So, the unsettling question Jesus poses to each one of us today is, Are you the sinner in need of God’s saving mercy, or are you confident in your own righteousness, not believing you need God’s mercy?
In thinking about your response, bear in mind two things: what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: "the merciful… will be shown mercy" (Matt. 5:7), also remember what is written in the Letter of James: "the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jas. 2:13). Jesus Christ is mercy’s triumph over judgment.