Jesus went into the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees on a Sabbath to eat a meal. They had him under close scrutiny.
Luke 14: 1
The relationship between Jesus and many of the religious leaders of his day was one marked by wariness and suspicion. Throughout Luke’s gospel, the sharing of a meal among Jesus and those leaders, traditionally a setting of vulnerability, hospitality, and fellowship, becomes instead a situation of hyper-vigilance, conflict, and competition. “They had him under close scrutiny.”
We live in a time, at least in Western culture, where, despite our frantic efforts to the contrary, the experience of rest and relaxation is more and more elusive. At home, in the workplace, in our lives among others in the public sphere, we tend to live, more or less consciously, keeping each other “under close scrutiny.” Even our public officials warn us to “be vigilant;” in the ubiquitous term: “If you see something, say something.”
This basic sense of mistrust can manifest, as with the Pharisees, in a tendency to grow more and more judgmental of others. It leads us to seek refuge from our fear of others in the demands of power, control, and justice. At some level we realize our own, often suppressed, rage and inner chaos, and so live in the fear of its manifestation in others. At the personal level this fear leads us to judge and marginalize the “other” person, especially the persons who are most different from us, and at the societal level it leads us to seek security in unparalleled levels of incarceration and defense spending. Yet, the more that “law and order” and military supremacy dominate our modes of relating to the world, the more insecure and frightened we become.
There is a perhaps largely unrecognized ecclesiology that sees the church as a refuge from the strange and threatening other for the self-justified. This is an ecclesiology born of the fear we have of that life force in ourselves that manifests in our own drives, passions, and, at times, sinfulness. This is the view of the Church, and of our own relationships, which would limit participation to those who conform to our own ideas of what is acceptable and even bearable for us. On the other hand, there is the view of the Church of Pope Francis: “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life . . . nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy.” From this perspective the Church, as well as our own families and relationships, are gatherings of the loved and forgiven sinful. It recognizes that all of us need and want to love, but inevitably at times hurt those we would love. It admits that while we want to live for others, we often serve only ourselves. It acknowledges and repents that while we desire to heal, we too often inflict wounds instead.
To develop the core disposition of mercy requires of us that we acknowledge, in mind and in heart, the depth of our own sinfulness. When Jesus tells us to remove the beam in our own eye before attempting to remove the speck in another’s (Matthew 7:5), he is teaching us the way to mercy. Mercy and forgiveness are impossible for one who does not know his or her own need to be forgiven. As long as we deny our own sinfulness, we shall always be afraid of the other, for they are a reminder of what we most fear in ourselves. When we realize that we ourselves are the greatest sinner in the room, then we need not keep the other “under close scrutiny.” Our security can never come from an illusion of our own righteousness, but rather only from an experiential knowledge of God’s mercy and forgiveness toward us.
Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy”. Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy. The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal. On the other hand, sad to say, we must admit that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert. The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.
Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 10