Friday, February 15, 2008

Friday in the 1st Week of Lent
Measuring Up To Mercy

Readings: Ezekiel 18:21-28; Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-7a, 7bc-8; Matthew 5:20-26

Some time ago, I was hospitalized for Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever. During that time, a nurse would come to measure my temperature, heart rate and blood pressure several times a day. And sometimes, someone would also come to draw out some of my blood for testing. I didn’t enjoy having all these things done to me, not when the measurements continued even into the night, and especially not when a needle was stuck into my arm to suck out the red stuff. But I didn’t complain. What other way is there to tell if I was getting better or worse? How else to discern the state of one’s physical wellbeing except by way of measurement?

This seems also to be the approach of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time to determining a person’s spiritual health. They rely exclusively on the law. And, as we know, like medicine, the law also operates primarily by way of measurement. In order to pass an appropriate sentence for an offence, for example, a judge needs to consider its seriousness as well as the number of times it was committed. Such that, all other things being equal, a person who has committed the same offence more times than another, would probably be given a heavier sentence.

But, even though the scribes and Pharisees were held up as paragons of virtue in Jesus’ day, in the gospel, Jesus jolts his listeners with a shocking statement: unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. We may leave aside for now the question, where then will you go? Evidently, when it comes to our spiritual wellbeing, the way of measurement is painfully inadequate. It is insufficient merely to rely on counting the number of times one does the right thing and avoids the wrong, important though this may be.

Instead, Jesus insists that our exterior actions be matched by our interior attitudes. It is not enough simply to avoid harming another, but we are actually expected to want so badly to reconcile with someone, who may have something against us, as to interrupt our worship to seek out that person. Why this emphasis on attitudes, if not because, for Jesus, holiness or spiritual health is less a matter of legalism than it is of right relationship. And right relationship requires not measurement but mercy. Even so, we may be excused for raising a protest. Difficult enough to keep the externals of the Law, how can we be expected to meet Jesus’ high standard of interior virtue?

The first reading points the way by reminding us that mercy is not just something that is expected from us. It is, first and most important of all, something that we ourselves receive from God on a daily basis. For if God were truly to take a strict account of all of our interior and exterior shortcomings, all our sins of action and omission, all the different ways in which we fail to measure up, who among us would survive? If you, O Lord, mark our iniquities, who can stand? But, through the prophet Ezekiel, we are reminded that God derives no pleasure in the death of the wicked but instead rejoices when he turns from his evil way that he may live. God operates more on the level of relationship than of the law. God delights more in showing mercy than in passing judgment.

And is it not true that we are truly able to be merciful to others only to the extent that we ourselves experience the tender mercies of God? Isn’t this what these Forty Days of Lent are about? As important as it is to acknowledge our sinfulness, in Lent, we especially ask God to help us to experience the mercy shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We ask to experience God’s mercy anew, so that we too can be merciful.

How are we being invited to move from measurement to mercy today?

1 comment:

  1. Like medicine and law, my I add, Fr Chris, that engineers are even greater "measurers", for without the facts and data, it is near impossible to ascertain a condition or state. In the face of qualitative and "fuzzy" data, engineers have even ingeniously devised a mathematical way to 'measure' these hitherto 'immeasurables'. Along this argument, I postulate that it is possible to 'measure' interior attitudes because they ALWAYS manifest themselves in exterior behaviors and actions, especially manners of speech. By the fruits, you will know if the tree is good or bad.

    Leaving measurement aside, let's examine the quality of 'mercy'. We pray the Kyrie Eleison so matter-of-factly every Sunday, it loses its impact easily. I've just read another Scripture commentary which cast 'mercy' in a fresh light for me. The commentator remarked that mercy is when we stray while God stays resolutely true to His covenant with us, waiting for us to return to Him.

    "If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive?"