The first reading from the Book of Daniel for this Monday in Lent is an anguished cry of sorrow and an urgent plea for God’s mercy. This book was written some 160 years before the birth of Jesus by an anonymous Jewish author living at a time of great suffering and confusion for Israel. They found themselves under the brutal hand of the Seleucids, a Greek dynasty located in what is now Syria that dominated the entire region. The head of this empire was the notorious Antiochus IV Epiphanes who imposed a heavy tax burden on the people and constantly interfered with their lives.
The author cries out to God for help on behalf of the people, recognizing their own failings and infidelity but, above all, appealing to God’s mercy: “Lord, great and awesome God, you who keep your merciful covenant toward those who love you and observe your commandments!” While confessing the people’s sins, the author counts on God’s compassion: “But yours, O Lord, our God, are compassion and forgiveness!”
The Responsorial Psalm 79 picks up the same refrain: “Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins. Remember not against us the iniquities of the past; may your compassion quickly come to us, for we are brought very low.”
Pope Francis, as is so often the case, finds the right words to describe our hope in God’s mercy. He speaks of Jesus as “the human face of the Father’s mercy.” How true this is in the Gospels: Jesus reaching out in compassion to heal the sick; Jesus treating the woman caught in adultery with utmost respect and kindness; Jesus not hesitating to touch the leper’s blighted skin; Jesus giving sight to Bartimaeus as other try to suppress the man’s cry for help; Jesus inviting himself to dine with Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector; Jesus forgiving the very ones who nailed him to the cross. The list could go on for a long time—Jesus, truly the human face of the Father’s mercy.
No matter what our failings might be, God’s mercy is ours to receive—that is a fundamental conviction of our Scriptures. And, if that is so, then we, too, as followers of Jesus must extend mercy to others. That is the message of today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells his disciples, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Recognizing our human limits and failures—and nevertheless God’s loving embrace of us—Jesus urges us: “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you.”
What would life be like in our families, in our country, in our world—if such a spirit of humility and generosity prevailed?
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.