When they received their pay they murmured against the householder: “These last ones worked one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the heat.”
Matthew 20: 12
When I was a child, there would, at times, descend upon our home a cold, stony, and frightening silence. During these times it was as if all love and joy, and certainly peace, had disappeared, and rage, doubt, fear, and anxiety had come to pervade our family’s world. In many ways human life and relationship centers around one basic concern: How do we respond to and deal with each other’s sinfulness? How do we manage to love each other, and ourselves, in those places where we are most unloveable?
It is for good reason that human beings make public and permanent commitments. “I take you for my lawful husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.” We understand that truly to love someone means that we shall show each other mercy at all those times of failure, hurt, and sinfulness. For most of us, there must be a person, or a community of persons, that we are so much committed to that our life with them becomes for us a school of forgiveness and mercy. It is by learning with them what mercy means that we can begin to learn to live out the demands of forgiveness in a more universal way. St. Benedict called the monastery “a school for the service of God.” Our marriages, our communities, our families are our schools for learning the practice of mercy and forgiveness. We are always students of God’s love, as Jesus says: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'” (Matthew 9:13)
We have to come to learn mercy and forgiveness, for it is not natural to us. When another, especially a trusted other, hurts us or betrays our love through disregard and selfishness, we become fearful and angry. At that moment, as we well know, our instinctual response is fight or flight. In my family it would be a brief fight and an extended flight. One thing I learned, by observation and then by participation in the behavior, is that in the times of distance and flight from each other we not only did not speak but we also didn’t even look at each other. It was as if the other was being kept frozen in one’s perspective and understanding as the evil they had committed. The ice would begin to thaw as those involved began to look at each other again, to begin to recognize that the other person was not just the grievance held against them.
Repeatedly in the gospel, Jesus looks on another with love. Jesus sees the struggling and suffering heart of the other. The failure and sin of a person is but a part of who they are. To be sure his presence is a judgment, calling on us to recognize our weakness and sinfulness and to “sin no more.” Yet, that judgment always occurs in the context of love and mercy, the insight into who the other really is and who they are called to be.
In today’s parable, those who have born the heat of the day and the bulk of the work become angered at what they experience as the lack of appreciation for them on the part of the householder. They cannot recognize the householder’s generosity and mercy because they are blinded by their feeling of being disrespected and their view of him as uncaring of them. There is a great hymn of Frederick Faber entitled: “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.”
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven.
There is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment given.
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we would gladly trust God’s Word,
and our lives reflect thanksgiving
for the goodness of our Lord.
Mercy requires of us a wideness of vision to “see” beyond the fear and hurt we are experiencing to the nature of the other and the world as a whole. In the greater measure of things, it is only in mercy and forgiveness that life is possible, for we are all fallen and all sinners. In time, all of us will fail and hurt even those we most love. But, there is a wideness in God’s mercy, a wideness in which we all share and are all called to participate if we but open our eyes and our hearts.
We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.
Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. Pardoning offenses becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully. Let us therefore heed the Apostle’s exhortation: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26). Above all, let us listen to the words of Jesus who made mercy an ideal of life and a criterion for the credibility of our faith: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7): the beatitude to which we should particularly aspire in this Holy Year.
Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 2,9