Have you ever noticed how much the Bible talks about the mercy of God? Even the Old Testament, which is often thought to portray Yahweh as a God of wrath and judgment, is filled with testimonies to his tender love for his people.
At first, we might think that these statements speak only about God forgiving our misdeeds. Yet, God doesn’t just want to pardon us. He loves us so much that he wants to bring us to the fullest experience of life possible. Our heavenly Father wants to wipe out every trace of darkness in our hearts so that we can be filled to overflowing with his love.
As we live from day to day, it can be easy to reduce the gospel message to a series of dos and don’ts. We can begin to think that our efforts alone are enough to earn us a place in heaven. But Scripture teaches us something different: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life”’ (John 3:16). This is the heart of the gospel message: Without Jesus, we are helpless and unable to heal ourselves.
The story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44) gives us a compelling illustration of our need for God’s mercy. Throughout the story, John goes to great lengths to emphasize Lazarus’ state. He tells us that, upon hearing that Lazarus was sick, Jesus decided not to go to him right away. Instead, he waited two more days before setting out (11:6). Then, by the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had already been buried for four days. John left no room for doubt: Lazarus was dead and his body was beginning to decay.
Lazarus couldn’t do anything for himself. He couldn’t ask Jesus for help. He couldn’t pray. He couldn’t seek healing. He couldn’t go to the synagogue or fast or perform works of mercy. Lazarus was 100 percent dead, and Jesus brought him back to life without any help from him at all.
God wants us to understand that we are like Lazarus. He wants us to know deep in our hearts that Jesus has raised us from death to life. This point of faith is crucial to our growth. If it weren’t for the cross, we would all be like Lazarus – 100 per cent dead in sin (Ephesians 2:5). We were saved by the mercy and love of God. It is by his grace that we were raised up. We didn’t earn it. We didn’t deserve it. We have only received it.
In the Gospel of Luke, we read about a sinful woman who burst into the home of Simon the Pharisee and began weeping tears of love and repentance at Jesus’ feet. As she poured out her tears on Jesus, Jesus poured out his mercy upon her. Such an extravagant gift of love from a “sinner” and such a merciful response from Jesus shocked Simon and caused him to question Jesus’ godliness (Luke 7:39).
Simon thought that Jesus was a wise man and he wanted to hear his words. But because he couldn’t recognize his need for Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness, he missed out on the life and love that Jesus was offering him. On the other hand, the woman believed that Jesus could release her from death. As a result, she was open to a life-changing experience of mercy and love.
This is a truth that we recall and rejoice over every time we celebrate Mass. According to the Catechism, at Mass “the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior” is made present to us (CCC, 1330), and in response we proclaim, “Dying, you destroyed our death. Rising, you restored our life.” We freely and clearly proclaim the mercy that Jesus has for us. We freely and clearly proclaim that we could never have saved ourselves.
Scripture is filed with examples of people who, like this repentant woman, experienced the mercy of Jesus. During a conversation with Jesus as they sat by a well, a Samaritan woman came to know his forgiveness and accepted him as the Messiah (John 4:1-26). After he invited Matthew the tax collector to become a disciple, Jesus dined at his house in the company of a host of tax collectors and “sinners” – and he offered forgiveness and salvation to everyone present (Matthew. 9:9-13).
Jesus’ mercy was not limited to forgiving people’s sins. He was concerned for every aspect of their lives. He had mercy on those suffering from physical problems, like blind Bartimaeus, whose sight Jesus restored (Mark 10:46-52). When a leper said, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean,” Jesus replied, “I do choose” – and healed him (Matthew 8:24). Even a Roman centurion—a pagan—asked Jesus to heal his servant, and Jesus did, without even going to see the servant or lay hands on him (Matthew 8:5-13).
Jesus also had mercy on those mourning the death of a loved one. He raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:40-42). He wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and then brought him back to life (John 11:35, 43-44). He had compassion for a grieving widow whose only son had just died. Telling her, “Do not weep,” he raised the young man from the dead and gave him back to her (Luke 7:11-16).
Jesus also had mercy on families needing deliverance. The Syrophoenician woman pleaded with him on behalf of her possessed daughter, and the little girl was set free (Matthew 15:21-28). The father of a boy gripped by a demon begged for help. Jesus not only delivered his son but helped the father’s own weakness of faith (Mark 9:23-26). Jesus always showed mercy on those who sought him out.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus revealed the mercy of God through his words and actions. He was the source of mercy for everyone who turned to him and believed in him. Today, Jesus is still our greatest source of mercy. Do you believe that the risen and glorified Jesus can bring the historical events of the gospels to life in your heart today? Do you believe that the Holy Spirit wants to flood your heart with an experience of the mercy that is written about in so many of the gospel stories? All God asks is that you fix your eyes on Jesus in prayer, in Scripture, and at Mass.
The Holy Spirit wants to use the gospel stories to burn an indelible mark of God in our hearts. For example, as we read the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), the Spirit wants to show us that we, too, are capable of sinning just like this woman, or that we are capable of acting just like the men who wanted to stone her. This indelible mark of the Holy Spirit convinces us that no sin is too big for God to forgive. If Jesus is willing to forgive us from every sin, we should be willing to forgive others just as freely.