The Mass for today, the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C), is astonishing for it’s repeated focus on mercy.
The Collect at the beginning of Mass prayed that “we may feel the working of Your mercy” and this prayer led us into the reading from Exodus, where the Lord is persuaded, in view of His mercy, to forego the punishment of the people which they surely deserved. Here, the mercy of God is contrasted to His justice – and God bestows not His justice, deserved though it is, but His mercy. And this, through the prayer of intercession of one man.
The Psalm is a beautiful one – Psalm 50, some of the verses from which are repeated daily in the Liturgy of the Hours, where we begin by asking – “O Lord, open my lips, and my tongue shall announce Your praise”. This Psalm asks the Lord to bestow His mercy, for He is compassion and love, and we acknowledge our sinfulness before Him. This acknowledgement of our sinfulness, our misery, is the first step to asking God’s mercy – without this acknowledgement, how can we recognise our need for mercy? And if we do not recognise our need of it, how, then, can we ask for it?
The second reading sees Saint Paul writing his first letter to Timothy. In it, Paul recounts the life he once led and describes himself as the greatest of sinners. Despite this, Paul notes that –
“Mercy, however, was shown to me.. the grace of Our Lord filled me with faith and with the love that is in Christ Jesus. Here is a saying that you can rely on and nobody should doubt; that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners..”
These words of Saint Paul should give us great courage, courage to really trust in the Lord Who is mercy and compassion itself, regardless of our sinfulness. The mercy of God is not a free pass that allows us to do as we wish – it is a call to the heart of man, to recognise his failings before God, and to ask for that mercy; and to do so in the sure knowledge that God will not spurn a contrite heart. Contrition, of course, should be transformative – like Saint Paul, we cannot return to the life we have lived, but are obliged to change, supported by the grace of God which fills us “with the love that is in Christ Jesus”, as Saint Paul tells us.
A hardened heart will not allow mercy to enter. It simply refuses to acknowledge it’s own need of mercy and so it persists in it’s own errors and remains in it’s present ways, without change.
Jesus recognises this in the Gospel, taken from Saint Luke, when the Pharisees approach Him and He sees that they are superficial, interested only in what is on the surface, what can be seen – they want to see Him, but they do not wish to be challenged or changed by Him. Their hearts are hardened. And a hard heart is a closed heart. In the Gospel, these closed hearts of the Pharisees see only what Jesus does – they see nothing beyond this, because they do not wish to see. They do not wish to be changed. Their hearts are hardened.
But mercy requires an open heart, a heart disposed to receive it.
And so Jesus begins to teach them. He offers them three parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. Three stories, but all with exactly the same meaning; and each directed at these men whose hearts are closed.
Reading a little further into Luke’s Gospel, we will find that the Lord continues to teach, before the Pharisees finally laugh at Him, only to be rebuked by the Lord, Who reproaches their superficiality and tells them – “God knows your hearts” (Lk 16:14). What is most sad, perhaps, is that the Lord has already said that –
“I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous men who have no need of repentance”
In other words, He has left the door open to the Pharisees, He has given them a way to move forward, to be changed and transformed, much like Saint Paul will be transformed later, through his encounter with the grace of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus.
But the hearts of these Pharisees are closed.
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a very powerful one and perhaps expresses most beautifully all that the words from today’s Mass readings say; His sheep know Him and trust Him, their hearts are open to Him and to His grace which fills us with His love – and because their hearts are open to Him, they allow themselves to be transformed by His divine grace.
May we, too, recognise the voice of the Lord, Who speaks to us in the Gospels, and Who is mercy and compassion. And may His Word and His divine grace open our hearts and so transform us.