The man lies on a stretcher, desperately in need of medical attention. He’s not far from the door to the hospital, but no one will admit him. It’s a Union army hospital—and the man is a Confederate soldier.
A nurse tries in vain to get him help. Finally she cries out, fiercely, “Everyone deserves mercy!”
That dramatic scene was part of an ad for the PBS drama, “Mercy Street,” which explored the prejudices and loyalties of a group of real doctors and nurses during the Civil War. As I watched it, I found myself crying back: NO!
What is mercy?
I understood what she meant, and agreed that the man should be cared for. Yes, everyone should be shown mercy—whether they deserve it or not. But by definition, it is impossible to “deserve” mercy. When we get what we “deserve,” it’s called “justice.” You can demand justice. It’s your right. But mercy comes in when justice reaches its end. Mercy is given freely. Mercy is not owed; it’s an undeserved grace.
To people in many ancient cultures, the gods were bullies you had to placate and suck up to. When things went wrong, you could beg for mercy, but there was no guarantee of the response. But our God — the Christian God, the God of Israel — is not like that. He didn’t just bend down and show mercy when felt like it, he showed himself to BE mercy, in his essence. Mercy infuses and motivates everything God does. It’s his nature. No matter what, he is mercy.
Gospel Reading, 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C
That’s what makes this Sunday’s gospel (John 8:1-11) so important.
The scribes and Pharisees were experts in the law of Moses, but they were so caught up enforcing its minutia, they had shut their hearts to the love and mercy that animates it. When they dragged the woman caught in adultery into the temple, they were without mercy on two counts. They had no mercy on the woman, who they had judged guilty without remedy. And they were actively seeking a reason to charge Jesus, who they had judged guilty as well.
Jesus shows the true nature of God’s judgment and mercy.
He doesn’t engage their question (do we follow the law of Moses and stone this woman, or follow the law of Rome which doesn’t allow that?). He turns the question on them: whoever of you is without sin, throw the first stone. They saw themselves as righteous, “without sin;” but to throw a stone would endanger them with Rome. Yet to not throw a stone would be to admit they were sinners. Caught in their own trap, they walked away—leaving the woman alone with Jesus.
Jesus Shows God’s Mercy
The mercy that Jesus showed next is what Pope Benedict XVI defined in Deus caritas est as “love reaching pardon.” Jesus did not say that what she did was okay or try to make her feel better about it. But in love, he did not condemn her. He set aside justice in order to pardon. And in the process, he de-fanged those who did condemn.
Set gloriously free from a just sentence by which she might have lost her life, the woman was now free to “go and sin no more.” I wonder how her life changed, after that? Was she one of the women who, out of love, followed Jesus to the cross?
I also wonder whether any of the scribes or Pharisees or elders who left the scene that day, experienced changed lives as well. Imagine them later, every time they saw that woman in the street. I expect their first thought—There’s that hussy! She deserves to die!—would be followed by the words of Jesus. Would they think twice next time they went to judge? Or would they continue to harden their hearts and be among those who sent Jesus to the cross—not knowing that in going there willingly, he would pardon even that act?
Making Our Response
Our response to the Psalm this Sunday, from Psalm 126:3, is “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” Five times we will say it as the cantor proclaims the glory of God’s mercy. The Lord has restored us in the past, and will do so in the future. Can we claim that confidence for ourselves going forward? And will we remember it when we want to judge others?
“The Lord has done great things for us.” What great things has he done for you? Carry them into your prayer as you rejoice with the Responsorial Psalm. And if you are carrying a burden of sin, take it to the Cross—to our merciful God—and receive forgiveness and strength to change.
© 2019 Sarah Christmyer
“Let each one, therefore, who recites the Psalms have a sure hope that through them God will speedily give ear to those who are in need. … If he have sinned, when he uses them he will repent; if he have not sinned, he will find himself rejoicing that he is stretching out towards the things that are before [Phil 3:16] and, so wrestling, in the power of the Psalms he will prevail”