The public life of Jesus Christ in St. Luke’s Gospel begins with two powerful declarations by Christ that his ministry is clearly to be one of mercy — one that exalts the lowly and scorns the illustrious. When Jesus enters the synagogue at Nazareth early in his public life, he opens the scroll and reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” Then Christ solemnly announces, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that he has comes into this world to extend God’s mercy to the neglected. He cites “the poor…the captives…the blind…the oppressed.” And this ministry is as sacred as Scripture itself: “…it is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus reinforces this frank declaration when St. John the Baptist requests a clearer description of Jesus’ intentions. Jesus tells the disciples of John: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Again, Jesus defines his ministry entirely in terms of mercy. His mission is to reach out toward “the blind…the lame…lepers…the deaf…the dead…the poor…” Jesus’ ministry is to be a continual display of mercy. He is to show compassion and patience toward the suffering and the sinner, the physically afflicted and the spiritually challenged. Throughout his whole public life Christ is above all concerned about the poor, the handicapped, Gentiles, Samaritans, lepers, publicans, soldiers, public sinners, rustic shepherds and, let’s not forget, women.
Some Scriptural episodes of mercy are unique to St. Luke’s narrative. St. Luke alone records the story of the sinful woman who lavishly washed Christ’s feet and dried them with her hair. In St. Luke alone is found the parable of the Good Samarian who shames the priest and Levite by his compassion toward the waylaid traveler. Only in St. Luke are revealed the mercies of God toward the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, both foreigners favored by a compassionate God. And it is only St. Luke who narrates the tale of the one leper among 10 who, a Samaritan, uniquely returns to Christ to express gratitude. Unsurprisingly St. Luke casts Lazarus the beggar at the rich man’s door in a favorable light but relegates the rich man to the nether world. St. Luke takes it easy on the short and shady Zacchaeus just as he applauds the Temple prayer of the other sinful publican, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner,” while dismissing the smug and self-praising Pharisee, “I am glad that I am not like the rest of men…” Jesus is always found on the side of the sinner who admits his or her own frailties and is open to God’s mercy. The now famous remark of Pope Francis to the media, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” is a perfect illustration of the person who needs healing and is willing to cooperate with God’s grace. Such a person is a prime candidate for mercy’s twin elements: forgiveness and healing.
The mercy revealed throughout the ministry of Christ is not mere pity. Pity is touched by the person on the street corner with the cardboard sign needing work. Pity feels bad for the neighbor’s lot but does little to alleviate the situation. “There but for the grace of God go I,” is the summation of pity. Compassion on the other hand is a more active virtue. Compassion leaves non-perishable food items in the church vestibule and gladly gives the ailing neighbor a ride to the clinic and places wearable clothing at the Salvation Army door. Compassion confronts injustices secondarily; at least it tries to lessen their impact. Mercy happily goes beyond pity and even beyond compassion. Mercy is both efficient and effective. Mercy gets results. The lame walk; the blind see; the mute speak; the poor have the Gospel preached to them. Mercy is not just pardon for past transgressions; true mercy begins a process of healing. Mercy is restorative. St. Thomas Aquinas writes that mercy without justice breaks down. Unless mercy assists the sinner to overcome his or her faults, to begin a process of renewal, and earnestly to seek conversion, then mercy is just a cheat and a disappointment. Mercy in the Scriptures is never just good will; there is always an element of justice demanded in mercy. Mercy is both a gift to be received and a challenge to be accepted.