If God is merciful, can we be otherwise?
By Shawn Reeves
Fourth Sunday of Lent/March 14
2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23; Psalm 137:1-2,3,4-5,6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
We have a proclivity to make our lives disorderly. We are weak, prone to give into temptation, lacking strong custody over our emotions, and tend toward selfishness. And like a river gnawing at the earth it passes through, the pressures and difficulties of life can erode our moral and spiritual stamina. Sometimes it happens slowly, going almost unnoticed. Sometimes it is sudden and dramatic. But despite all this, God has a proclivity to show us mercy and renew our spiritual life.
It is very easy to come into strict judgment of those described in our first reading, those who “added infidelity to infidelity” toward God. The whole of ancient Hebrew society (“princes of Judah, the priests, and the people”) seem to have entirely lost their moral compass, drifting aimlessly in the sea of “all the abominations of the nations.” Having “mocked the messengers of God, despised His warnings, and scoffed at His prophets,” they seem a society we can easily condemn in our hearts.
Some people are good at being merciful to others but not very merciful to themselves. Others are the other way around. Perhaps, this Lent it would be good to prayerfully work on emulating God, who is “rich in mercy” to both.
But as we take an honest assessment of our own spiritual lives this Lent, we are obligated to admit that at times we, too, “were dead in our transgressions,” as our second reading announces. Whenever we sin, does it not include a despising of God’s moral warnings and a kind of dismissal of God’s messages? Whenever we stumble spiritually, we echo (to some degree) these same people we condemn in our first reading.
“RICH IN MERCY”
But God is never satisfied leaving anyone in a state of condemnation untouched by His mercy. While there was “no remedy” for God’s discontent with His people’s behavior, the prophecy of Jeremiah immediately adds a promise of remedy for their spiritual lives. They would, indeed, suffer a destruction of their city, its walls, their palaces, the temple itself, and exile all as natural consequences of a pattern of societal immorality. But then there is the promise that these things would last only “until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths.” A renewal would come. God “had compassion on his people and his dwelling place” and shows He “is rich in mercy.”
But the rebuilding of God’s house (temple) in the first reading foreshadows the second reading. Jesus does not merely offer us redemption from transgressions in an abstract way — He offers us a participation in his own resurrection, ascension, and heavenly life. The Father “brought us to life with Christ.” He “raised us up with [Christ].” And He “seated us in the heavens with him in Christ Jesus.”
We are intimately incorporated into these events as essential elements of what it means to be “saved.” Because in Jesus, the “house” of our humanity has been rebuilt. God’s “handiwork” is renewed, so that in Christ “He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace and kindness to us” in a perpetual display of His mercy.
SEEKING, SHARING MERCY
Why, then, does Jesus say in our Gospel that “whoever does not believe has already been condemned” if God is so merciful and “did not send his Son into the world to condemn”? Only after exile “by the streams of Babylon” did the Hebrew people grasp their waywardness; only as they “sat and wept . . . and remembered Zion” did they reform their hearts. Until then, their hearts were overcome by darkness and they recoiled from the light that would illumine the true qualities of their misdeeds.
As Jesus laments, we often prefer darkness to light, sometimes even hating the light, refusing to come toward it “so that [our] works might not be exposed.” The “verdict” of condemnation, Jesus intimates, is that in resisting to “live the truth” of the light of God’s mercy, we inherently condemn ourselves.
We have all experienced “the great love [God] had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions.” This should prompt us to be merciful to ourselves and to others. Some people are good at being merciful to others but not very merciful to themselves. Others are the other way around. Perhaps, this Lent it would be good to prayerfully work on emulating God, who is “rich in mercy” to both.
SHAWN REEVES has served as the director of religious education at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center in Champaign since 2001. He and his family attend St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Thomasboro.