All About Mercy
The major doctrinal feasts this month all reveal God’s mercy
By Roger Vermalen Karban
What an opportunity and burden homilists have during this month of May! Because the church is celebrating the Ascension, Pentecost, the Trinity, and the Body and Blood of Christ, preachers are invited to preach on four sets of scripture readings pertaining to the person of Jesus — both the historical and risen Jesus.
But we can never forget that the Jesus we encounter in the Christian scriptures (especially the Jesus of the Gospels) is the risen Jesus. Most scholars are convinced that no one who actually experienced the historical Jesus, that unique Palestinian Jewish itinerant preacher who lived between 6 B.C.E. and 30 C.E., ever wrote anything about him that we can access today. Our sacred authors experienced only a “new creation.” As Paul of Tarsus reminded his Galatian converts, in their life of faith they encounter someone who is neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal 3:28).
Jesus and sinners
Early 20th-century biblical research (and even the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1964 teaching on the three stages of the formation of Gospels) led some scholars to conclude that we can know almost nothing about the historical Jesus by just reading the Gospels. Yet when hard-pressed, even the most radical of those experts acknowledged that if we do know one thing about him, it was that he not only hung out with sinners, he numbered some of those outcasts among his best friends.
None of the authors of the Gospels would have added such a shocking detail to Jesus’ Gospel portrait if it weren’t part of the church’s memory. It appears that throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus habitually showed mercy to individuals whom the vast majority of his contemporaries despised or ignored. This behavior wasn’t acceptable in first-century Judaism, nor was it widely practiced in early Christianity.
Knowing about this extraordinary behavior makes what the author of Ephesians 1:17-23 believed — that Jesus’ ascension was God’s reward for living the life God wished him to live — all the more intriguing. If a large part of the historical Jesus’ ministry revolved around his relationships with sinners, then God rewarded Jesus for his commitment to something that many of us today regard as only “extra credit.”
Pentecost of mercy
John’s Gospel returns to this theme repeatedly when describing the gift of the Spirit. The principal reason the risen Jesus shares his Spirit with us is so we can imitate his habitual forgiveness of sinners. John 20:19-23, one of the two John passages we may choose to read on Pentecost Sunday, makes this clear: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Jesus is addressing his disciples on Easter night. And for John, this does not mean just the Twelve, but all his followers. “Disciple” is how the evangelists refer to any follower of Jesus. So Jesus’ instruction is not just for the leaders of the community as such; all Christians are expected, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to forgive the people around them.
John goes so far as to suggest that if a disciple refuses to forgive someone, that person remains unforgiven, excluded from the community until the forgiveness of the community restores them. These passages from John’s Gospel do not refer to formal “confession” as it evolved in church practice, but to daily situations we all encounter in which our mercy and forgiveness come into play.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians (12:3-7, 12-13), Paul says that everyone receives gifts from the Spirit to be used for the common good. It is interesting that for Paul, these gifts can be useful or harmful, as was the case with the tensions created in the community over the gift of tongues, which Paul had to address in Chapters 12-14. But for Paul, the charisms of the Spirit are not taken back when they cause problems, nor are they necessarily tied to someone’s moral standing. His belief that the Spirit is free to give gifts to whomever the Spirit wishes is an echo of Jesus’ own refusal to deny God’s love to anyone, good or bad. Jesus often reminded his followers that God causes rain to fall on both the good and the bad.
In Luke’s account of Pentecost Day, the Spirit arrives with wind, noise and fire. The birth of the church comes with birth pangs. No peaceful, harmless dove flies through the upper room window. Luke’s violent images conjure up situations of tension and chaos. He, like Paul, had enough community experience to know that surfacing and using each person’s gifts frequently creates problems for both the local and universal church.
Unity in tension
Paul’s list of nine gifts of the spirit in the Corinthian community describes a dynamism that is not always simple or easy to contain. Anyone who has been part of a charismatic community can attest to the tensions that can arise when all these gifts come together. Some members have a word of wisdom, others a word of knowledge; some have faith, others the power to heal or work miracles. Some are prophets; others discern spirits. Others have the gift of tongues, while others can interpret tongues. (See 1 Cor 12:7-11.) No wonder Paul emphasizes that unity is the main work of the Spirit.
Gifted communities function only with lots of forgiveness. Perhaps this is one of the reasons many confirmation programs found it simpler to use the list of gifts found in Isaiah 11 that describe the ideal Davidic king: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord. A lot less tension arises, and a lot less forgiveness is needed, when someone has the gift of piety rather than the ability to work miracles or utter prophecies.
Pastors of real Christian communities always expect some level of chaos and tension when people are fully using their gifts and talents. That’s why, among every other gift, the gift of forgiveness must be developed.
One of the challenges Western readers, listeners and proclaimers of scripture face is understanding the Semitic mindset of the authors of the Bible. Most modern Americans have been influenced by Greek thought, which is all about analyzing and distinguishing this from that, judging something to be true or false, right or wrong. This is the either-or approach.
Semitic thinkers synthesize different aspects of something into a single idea. This is the both-and approach. Even separate or contradictory ideas contribute to the whole understanding of something. It is a more dynamic approach, and involves more nuance and latitude than the Western need for precise answers.
The patron saint of Semitic thinkers is the character Tevye from the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” His best-known line, “But on the other hand,” demonstrates his ability to simultaneously look at people and things from different — even contradictory — viewpoints.
Tevye serves as a guide for homilists on the feast of Holy Trinity.
On the one hand, we have to deal with the high Christology of Jesus found in John’s Gospel, based on his conscious relationship with the Father and the Spirit. On the other hand, Paul expects the Christian community in Rome to experience the utter humanity of Jesus, who shares all their struggles and afflictions. On the one hand, Jesus transcends our experience; then, on the other hand, he immerses himself in our limitations. Though united to God, he empties himself of divine privilege and dies like a slave. For this he is exalted as Lord. Only by putting all of this together are we able to approach the mystery of Jesus, the Father and the Spirit, who are pouring out mercy on a broken world. Though many theologies converge, all of them are kosher to the Semitic mind.
But the celebration in which Semitic thinking is most essential is that of the Body and Blood of Christ.
As a 76-year-old cradle Catholic, I remember being trained to think only of Jesus’ presence in the eucharistic bread when I heard the term “body of Christ.” We consumed that Real Presence during Mass and worshiped it during Benediction. We were guaranteed that the more consuming and worshiping we did, the higher place we would one day have in heaven.
Yet the earliest biblical concept of the body of Christ referred not to Jesus’ presence in the eucharistic bread, but to the risen Jesus’ presence in the eucharistic community. This becomes clear when we return Paul’s narrative of Jesus’ Last Supper to its original context in 1 Corinthians. When we do that, we see that it was because the Corinthians had problems seeing Jesus in the community that Paul felt compelled to write this part of the letter.
The late scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown once remarked, “If it weren’t for some drunkards in Corinth, we’d never have the earliest scriptural narrative of what Jesus said and did in the upper room on the night before he died.”
Because we only focused on the elements of bread and wine as the Eucharist, we failed to notice that Paul’s reference to those who were eating the bread and drinking the cup “unworthily” referred not to a lack of discerning the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine, but in discerning that presence in the community that was participating in the eucharistic meal.
In this particular case, the well-to-do in the Corinthian church were, in effect, telling the poor that the Lord’s Supper would begin at 8 p.m., while they themselves showed up at 7 p.m. to dine — the result being that the poor had little or nothing to eat or drink when they arrived, since they could only bring little or nothing to the communal meal (see 1 Cor 11:17-22).
The Apostle not only pointed out that the poor were just as much other-Christs as the wealthy, but also stressed that what transformed ordinary bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood weren’t some special words uttered by some special person, but the community’s willingness to die enough to themselves to recognize everyone in their eucharistic gathering as parts of the body of the one risen Christ.
On this day of all days, the feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord, we’re called upon to preach one of the most fundamental messages of our faith, that we are the living body of Christ in the world. Just as our faith ancestors were able to recognize Yahweh’s presence in the words and actions of the priest Melchizedek, king of Salem, so we should be able to recognize Jesus’ presence in everyone around us — even in the drunkards in our midst.
Transformed by mercy
In his recent book The Name of God Is Mercy (Random House, 2016), Pope Francis tells a story about something that happened when he was a parish priest in Argentina. He befriended a woman whose husband had deserted the family, leaving her to care for their young children alone. On those occasions when she couldn’t find work, she was forced to prostitute herself to feed her children, something the young priest knew. One day she came to see Fr. Bergoglio. He thought she’d come to thank him for the food he had helped her receive through the Argentine equivalent of our St. Vincent de Paul. He was surprised that, though she was grateful for the food, she was more grateful that throughout their entire relationship, he’d never stopped calling her “Señora” — a sign of the dignity with which he and God held her, even during those times when she was forced to do “unchristian things.”
Francis was already imitating the mercy and forgiveness of the risen Jesus even before the unfortunate woman could officially take part in the church’s sacramental procedures of forgiveness.
The late Cardinal John Wright once warned us students at the North American College in Rome, “Penitents coming into the confessional expect to encounter the forgiving Jesus. But often they come face to face only with a theological thug.” Even priests forget that they, like all Christians, must always be other-Christs, especially when we’re dealing with other members of the body of Christ.
We could miss something very significant when we hear Luke’s account of the miraculous feeding. We think of Jesus feeding the five thousand, yet that’s not what Luke describes. Who does the actual feeding? The disciples are told to carry out that miraculous task.
When the Twelve make Jesus aware of all the hungry people around him, he doesn’t reply, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” Instead, he says, “Give them some food yourselves.” After some prodding, and his blessing of their meager fare, that’s exactly what they do. “He … gave the [fish and bread] to the disciples to set before the crowd” (Luke 9:16). In Luke’s account, they do the feeding; Jesus only does the prodding and the blessing.
Because the story links thematically to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it shows Luke’s belief that all in the community are expected to “confect” the Eucharist. Each person, as a member of the body of Christ, is to die to self enough to serve the risen Jesus in others. There’s no other way to pull this off except to be forgiving and accepting of others.
No wonder Sr. Elizabeth Johnson titled her classic 2007 book, Quest for the Living God. Under the form of the risen Jesus, God is constantly present in our lives. Yet only those who search for and respect the mystery of God in everyone they encounter can actually find what the historical Jesus believed was at the center of experiencing a fulfilled life.
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This article is the cover feature for the May 2016 issue of Celebration.
Roger Vermalen Karban is a priest of the Belleville, Ill., diocese and pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Renault, Ill. He holds a licenciate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome and did his scripture studies at Saint Louis University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.