In full accord with the Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis and being joyously observed throughout the world, this Sunday’s Gospel account from St. Luke deliberately promotes the merciful love of God to center stage as the defining characteristic of that Gospel as well as of the Kingdom that Jesus is initiating through his public ministry. On first returning to his home town synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus points to the compassionate miracles and tender mercies that he is performing both as signs of His messianic identity and as signs of God’s merciful Kingdom dawning upon the world through Christ: And Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, and He went to the synagogue, as he was in the habit of doing, on the Sabbath day. And He stood up to read; and there was given to Him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And He closed the book and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this scripture passage has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:16-21).
Each succeeding chapter of St. Luke account will cite in great detail the many merciful works of Jesus Christ toward the materially and spiritually poor, toward the emotionally and culturally captive, toward the visually and intellectually blind, and toward the physically and mentally imprisoned. Lucan examples of Jesus’ mercy are manifold. In spite of the narrow Jewish milieu in which he lived, Jesus did not hesitate to respond broadmindedly to the request of a Roman centurion, a military officer from the dreaded Imperial army, to cure his servant. Roman soldiers on the streets of Judea and Galilee were a constant reminder of Jewish political inferiority. Jesus’ attention to the needs of the enemy, so to speak, certainly indicates a new wideness in God’s mercy.
Jesus’ tender mercy is made evident in the raising to life of the only son of a widow who would be left destitute without him. Widows as well as orphans were the most pitiable members of ancient society. With no familial means of support, they were totally bereft. Jesus’ concern for them enhances his constant theme of mercy. Nor did Jesus reject the woman of questionable reputation who anointed his feet with oil and dried them with her hair. Then as now, desperate financial straits often reduced women to embrace casual liaisons as a means of support. Jesus regards them also with mercy. Besides widows and prostitutes, Jesus also appreciated the ministry of several pious women who provided for Christ and his disciples “out of their means.” Women were given scant attention in ancient society so Jesus truly set an example for his early Christian community by accepting the assistance of women throughout his public life. It is interesting to note that the women who aided Jesus were remembered explicitly by name several decades after Jesus’ death when St. Luke was writing his Gospel account.
Jesus was also on good terms with the despised Samaritans, one of whom Jesus would make the hero of the famous parable on compassion toward the bloodied traveler. Jesus commended the grateful Samaritan who uniquely returned to acknowledge his curing encounter with Christ. Remember that the Jews shunned Samaritans as half-breeds. Jesus’ outreach toward the neglected and the derelict of his day continues uninterrupted throughout St. Luke’s writings. The homeless beggar Lazarus was given pride of place in one of Jesus’ celebrated parables. Jesus dared to speak with and even to touch lepers, who were medical, social, and religious outcasts. Jesus did not hesitate to confront those possessed of demons. In still another parable, the ranking Pharisee is roundly criticized for his pride while the publican, a hated tax collector and collaborator with the Roman occupation, is praised for his faith and humility. Jesus even dined with publicans like Simon and Zacchaeus. And even on the Cross, Jesus would pray for his Roman executioners. St. Luke’s Gospel account confirms that, through Christ, the mercy of God is universally embracing and continuously accessible.