It has been said that after the French Revolution, a convict released on parole journeyed the countryside in search of a new beginning. Being an ex-con, naturally, led to complications in this search, and he wound up at the gates of a simple prelate, who agreed to host him for the night. The convict, as is well known, takes advantage of the bishop’s generosity: rising early before dawn, he makes off with the bishop’s silver; his escape however is foiled by the local gendarmerie, who present the thief to the bishop for recognition. The bishop, without missing a beat, covers for his conniving guest: my friend, you forgot to take the candlestics as well.
I think Victor Hugo illustrates something of the challenge of today’s Gospel: be merciful, as your Father is merciful.
Perhaps it is easy for us to be merciful when we have the upper hand: if someone comes begging for forgiveness, it becomes a show–of magnanimity, but a show nonetheless–that we are in some way better than that person. One thinks perhaps of the graceful monarchs, who, moments before the execution of a criminal, would issue their royal pardon, thus leaving a lasting impression of benevolence upon the pleading souls.
But if this was all that Christ was teaching us here, why does he phrase it as he did? Why not be civil, as a well-behaved adult is civil or be nice, because no one likes an ogre. Be merciful, because the proper function of society demands it; because you should act only on that maxim which would be desirable as a universal law…
Be merciful as your Father is merciful.
That, of course is how this passage ties in with the message of Lent: how merciful is our Father! It’s not that our faults are insignificant to an infinite God; we have indeed deeply wounded the ties that bind us to him. Yet he still holds out his hand, even bloodied by the nails; even unto his enemies.
So if this measure is measured out to us, our mercy must become much more profound than a mere gesture. Christ today invites us to re-examine our mercy: how deeply do I forgive those who offend me? Do I pray for them, or allow my forgiveness to become a gesture of winning the upper hand? The forgiving bishop not only forgave Jean Valjean’s theft, he sought an excuse for him, and even gave away the last of his treasure, in the hopes that Valjean would be able to start anew.
The spirit which he sent to live in us wants us for himself alone (Js. 4,5). We are God’s own, let us not be afraid to be like our Father. Let our hearts be channels of God’s mercy, knowing that we have been forgiven much, let us express our thanks by being channels of God’s mercy to all.