Jesus’ teachings challenge believers to be merciful, compassionate

Father John A. Kiley

The word “perfect” occurs only twice in the Gospel accounts, and both times it is St. Matthew who employs this superlative. In the account of the rich young man given a chance at discipleship, Jesus offers this challenge: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage from the celebrated Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges his disciples, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” St. Luke for his part does include this last quote from Jesus, but in a slightly modified form. St. Luke recalls Jesus saying, “Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful,” or, as another translation reads, “Be compassionate, as your heavenly Father is compassionate.” Assessing all these quotations together, the reader may easily conclude that perfection consists in sensitivity toward the poor. Here the poor indicates not only the financially and materially impoverished, but also the emotionally and socially deprived.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had just made an example of those who might slap the believer in the face, deprive the believer of clothing, force the believer into menial tasks or prevail ungratefully on the believer’s generosity. Jesus wisely perceives that, humanly speaking, any of these infractions toward human decency would be enough for a person to sever all ties with the offending party. Yet Jesus teaches that it is precisely at this moment of justified indignation that a Christian can best display his or her true colors, his or her spiritual depth, his or her heavenly attributes. By showing mercy when justice would do is the most Godlike, the most divine, the “perfect” response to life’s challenges.

Compassion in the face of injustice truly imitates God’s own perfection since it is he who allows the sun to shine on the bad as well as the good and the rain to fall on the just as well as the unjust. God always works out of his own sense of mercy and compassion. He weighs only his own perfection and does not allow the unworthiness of the recipient to temper his generosity. Divine mercy is generated by God’s excellence, not by the recipient’s worth. In the response at this Sunday’s Mass, the psalmist has in mind the perfection of God’s mercy when he sings, “Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes.”

Jesus’ teachings on mercy and compassion even toward the undeserving are all the more meaningful when contrasted with the brutal practice of retaliation in fashion before Moses, and even with the more dispassionate justice instituted by Moses. Vengeance before Moses meant multiple repercussions to satisfy an offense. Retaliating with multiple times as much wrath as the original offence was normative in ancient society. Moses introduced some welcomed balance: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Such brutal but equitable retribution was a great step forward for society. “Let the punishment fit the crime,” prevails in civil law even today.

Moses might have introduced some humane balance into communal relationships, but Jesus goes one step further and turns community relationships completely upside down. For Christ’s followers, the measure of punishment is no longer to be the crime; now the measure of punishment is to be the mercy of God. In God, justice is subordinate to mercy, as Dom Aelred Graham, sometime prior at Portsmouth, noted decades ago. And how fortunate for all believers that this is the case! God deals with humanity’s sins, not by considering man’s offenses, but by pondering his own goodness.

God, then, is not just merciful; he is mercy. God is not merely forgiving; he is forgiveness. God is not simply compassionate; he is compassion. These considerations should not only gladden the believer who can count upon the prevailing mercy of God. These considerations must also challenge the believer to be just as merciful, just as forgiving, and just as compassionate as God is in himself. But then again, this is exactly what Jesus meant when he demanded, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”