Mercy loved us into God’s saving embrace

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Rembrandt, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia "The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Rembrandt, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’ (Matthew 5:7)

Hanging in my office and home are framed prints of favorite paintings. I would like to tell you about three of them. The first is The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, which hangs in my office. Painted toward the end of his life, it was one of two paintings found in Rembrandt’s home after his death.          

Restful browns and reds draw one into the twilight scene, as the father, eyes exhausted from sleeplessness and face lined with worry, embraces his reckless son. Having recently come to his senses after hitting bottom, the son kneels at the feet of his father, his sobbing face pressed into the father’s chest. A tattered robe, shaved head and ragged sandals tell the story of the wild ride he has taken and the long road that has brought him home.

No words, only mercy.

The father has to calm the elder son, who protests the lavish banquet wasted on his remorseful younger brother. “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:31-32)

‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’

The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio
"The Calling of St. Matthew" by Caravaggio, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The second painting, which hangs in my living room, is The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio. A room is divided into two interacting scenes. On the left, a table is surrounded by men busied with the money they are counting; on the right, light enters the room above the head of Jesus. Standing with arm outstretched and a finger pointed across the room, he is calling an astonished Matthew, the sinful tax collector, to be a disciple.

Unexpected mercy.

Dining later at Matthew’s house, joined by assorted tax collectors and sinners, Jesus becomes aware of the question some of the Pharisees are asking his disciples. Why does he socialize with such riffraff? He responds, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:12-13)

‘I have given you a model to follow’

The third painting is Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown, which also hangs in my living room. The apostles watch in amazement as Jesus, towel tied around his waist, washes Peter’s feet. However, none is more surprised, perplexed or uncomfortable than Peter. Sitting with hands folded, bearded chin sunk deep into his chest, he is enduring the most embarrassing moment of his life. The expression on his face is priceless.

Mercy at work.

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown"Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet" by Ford Madox Brown, Tate Gallery, London

The apostles need an explanation for this Last Supper lesson. Jesus says to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” (John 13:8) And to all the apostles, he says, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13:12-15)

The fifth beatitude invites us to accept Jesus’ invitation to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Cultivating mercy proves that we are children of God, who is kind to the ungrateful and to the wicked. God’s mercy is that unexpected, unmerited and lavish gesture of forgiveness which wipes us clean. We would be nowhere without his mercy, rooted in his everlasting love for us.

In The Pursuit of Happiness — God’s Way, Dominican Father Servais Pinckaers writes, “Beyond supposed unjust actions, mercy considers the person, always capable of returning to justice with the help of God’s grace, and continues to love him in spite of the wrongs he does. In the eyes of the merciful man the conversion of a heart to justice outweighs all the external injuries he may suffer.”

A delinquent son is restored to his home with a lavish banquet, a public sinner is called to discipleship and receives an unexpected dinner guest, a bewildered apostle gets a feet washing at the Last Supper. The Lord Jesus came to call sinners, because he is the Father’s expression of longing and trust that all the wayward can change their ways — and will, with his grace.

We, the welcomed-home, the sinner-disciples, the embarrassed ones with cleaned feet, are to have that same confidence and hope. Putting mercy into action means that we never give up on the sinner — especially the one who seems a lost cause — but love and pray him or her into the saving embrace of God. We ourselves are there only by an act of tender mercy.

Northwest Catholic - April 2016

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.