Jesus said to his disciples: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Lk 6,36)
Jesus concludes his sermon on the plain in Luke with this commandment to be merciful as the Father is merciful. Jesus’ command evokes the parallel command in the gospel of Matthew: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5,48) This also in turn evokes the command of God in Leviticus: “For I, the Lord, am your God; and you shall make and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy…you shall be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev 11,44f) This is also taken up by Peter in his letter to the Church: “Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, “Be holy because I am holy.”” (1Pt 1,14ff)
In his apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte” at the close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Pope John Paul II invited all “to place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness”, to express “the conviction that, since baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity… The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction” (No. 31).
To “put out into the deep” as St. Pope John Paul II challenged us in the new millennium and to go beyond the temptation to live a shallow religiosity and minimalist ethic which results in a life of mediocrity we must embrace the universal call to holiness in our Christian lives. Holiness is not just an extraordinary feat of human perfection limited to a few rare individuals who were transformed by God’s grace but it is the call to all of the baptized to cooperate with God’s grace and to strive to live according to our high calling in Christ Jesus. At the heart of our spiritual journey to a more perfect union with God our Father is the call to holiness. To draw near to God we must first attend to our personal holiness.
However, holiness seems to many of us to be an abstract and amorphous concept. How are we to understand holiness? How can we place the ideal of holiness within the grasp of the ordinary person? Matthew tries to help us out by casting holiness in the light of the perfection of love. The perfect love of God that embraces all people is our path to holiness. The perfection of love is “the more excellent way.” (1Cor 12,31) Luke gives us a still more concrete understanding of holiness and perfect love by casting it as mercy. Be holy, be perfect, be merciful…it is clear that holiness, perfect love and mercy are all connected to each other and lie along the same way that leads us to the Father. Holiness, perfect love and mercy are a way of life for the believer who wants to “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4,8)
In this Lenten season we take up the call to mercy as a new way of life. We ask God’s mercy for our sins, faults and failures and we seek in turn to be merciful to others. Luke shows us that mercy immediately challenges us at the very heart of our human vulnerabilities. “Stop judging…” How difficult it is for us not to draw away from that particular demand of mercy. The uproar and debate that was caused by Pope Francis’ simple statement, “Who am I to judge?” is evidence of the challenging nature of this demand of mercy. How can we not judge when it seems like there is such a tolerance for evil today? “Stop condemning…” Shouldn’t we condemn the evil that seems to be all around us today? “Forgive…” The little things are easy to forgive but what about the deep wounds that change the course of our lives and threaten to destroy us?
Jesus is clearly trying to keep us from falling into the traps of “the hunter’s snare” (Ps 91,3). We cannot judge without being judged ourselves. We cannot condemn another without falling under condemnation. It is not Jesus or the Father who will judge and condemn us, we will judge and condemn ourselves for the roots of sin and evil that caused another to fall are also hidden in our own hearts. We also sin and are in need of forgiveness and grace. If we judge and condemn harshly the sin in others, will we not judge and condemn our own selves harshly when we fall in sin? If we cannot bring ourselves to forgive others, how will we find forgiveness for ourselves? Judgement, condemnation and retribution are rabbit holes that lead us only into deeper darkness and take us away from God.
Finally, Luke shows us a clear path to holiness and a way of life that will lead us to perfect love and mercy: “Give.” It is a simple request but it grates against our pride and our stubbornness. “Give.” If more people would give, great things could be accomplished but we are very reluctant to give. “Give,” to God “what belongs to God.” (Mk 12,17) Cain wouldn’t give in the same manner as Abel. When we are unable to give our best we fall prey to all sorts of sin and temptation. “Give.” “If you do well, you can hold up your head;” (Gen 4,7), God wants us to give our very best, to offer our first fruits, to make of our life an oblation of love. In this Lenten season we examine what keeps us from giving of ourselves to God and to others, what keeps us from doing our very best. “Give.” The road to discipleship begins with our giving. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mt 19,21) Do we give of ourselves fully to others – to our church, to our family, to our husband or wife, to our children, to our friends, to our jobs, to those in need? We could all be challenged to give more knowing in faith that “the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” (Lk 6,38) What we give now will be returned a hundredfold.