Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Learning Mercy

THE WORD "RADICAL" COMES FROM THE LATIN, radix, which means root. Last Sunday's Gospel, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37), like the Crucifix itself, is a radical teaching, getting to the root of  what it means to claim friendship with Jesus. Indeed, the startling, utter nakedness of the mugged Jewish traveler in Aime Morot's painting indicates this: this story is the stripped down, naked truth of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

That the story has lost its punch and its message reduced to being helpful and nice, might be indicated in that most of the pictures in the image search for this post are intended for children. Some are even cartoons and advertisements for Sunday School theater and little picture books for young students.

The story is a shocker. Jesus may well have meant it for polite, pious, church-goers. Maybe he had the future clergy of the Church in mind. Why not? Pope Francis recently told the Cardinals of the Church to stop acting like princes and the priests to get out and smell the sheep. So what's so wild about Jesus' story? Jesus has made a heretic the hero of his story. What religious leader does that?

Jews didn't like Samaritans. Everything Samaritans did was wrong: they worshiped on the wrong mountain. They read an incomplete bible, their worship was incorrect. The story takes place between Jericho and Jerusalem. This means the two good Jews, priest and Levite, who miss the mercy-moment are either going to or coming from worship - Jerusalem being the holy city. Jerusalem equals worship, piety, devotion, religious observance. They pass their wounded, exhausted  countryman - their neighbor - who is in very bad shape after a terrible mugging. But the loser-Samaritan-heretic stops, interrupts his own plans, begins the healing, lays out his money and goes the extra mile. 

And Jesus tells the inquirer who started the conversation, "Go and do likewise." It echoes another conversation Jesus had about mercy, when he was up against some trouble making clerics - "Go and learn the meaning of these words, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,'"(Matthew 9:13).

But what is mercy? Saint Isaac of Syria tells us. And we need to read these few lines again and again.

"What is a heart of mercy? It is the heart of him  who burns with pity for all creation. He looks at the creatures and his eyes are filled with tears. His heart is filled with deep compassion and limitless patience. He overflows with tenderness and cannot bear to see or hear any evil or the least grief endured by the creature." 

Let's not get heady or theoretical about it: mercy is tears. Mercy starts with the eyes of the heart. Mercy is, to use Pope John Paul II's preferred word: solidarity. And Jesus is telling us that we may expect to witness mercy in persons and places un-expected, even shocking to our sensibilities. It takes a spiritually mature and genuinely humble person to acknowledge and accept this.

AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings frequently meet in church basements. At any meeting we'd likely meet people who are rough around the edges, smokers, drug and alcohol users, people with prison records, law-breakers, the dirty-mouthed, those who have no religious interest or who might even be resentful of religion. But by the end of any meeting, a newcomer will have a fist-full of new phone numbers, been the recipient of the warmest embraces, been invited for coffee, conversation and help any time; any where. It's often said, There's more real Christianity downstairs in the church than upstairs. 

In the mid 1980's  I was  chaplain to a University Hospital, as the AIDS epidemic was advancing rapidly. It was a terrible time for so many people. I heard from the social workers, who were on the front lines, that in the big cities, where gay people often migrate to live un-hassled lives,  gay men were taking in strangers who were dying of AIDS: friends of friends, co-workers, someone living in another apartment in the building. These were often people who had been dis-inherited, or whose family was out of state, or who had lost their helpful contacts when they started to manifest AIDS complications. These Good Samaritans took them in and nursed them until they died. 

Jesus is suggesting to pious Jews, to pious Christians, that mercy can be learned outside our own religious circle - where we might least expect: Welcoming the stranger. Caring for the sick. Sheltering the homeless. Some people will understand this; others not. 

I'd suggest an even more contemporary example. While the country rages about same sex marriage, thousands upon thousands of gay couples continue to adopt the special needs children - the throw away children - of straight people. Is there something to learn from this community - especially those who call themselves pro-life? Some people will say that gay people shouldn't be allowed to adopt in the first place. But the numbers are coming in now, and those children adopted and raised by gay people seem to be doing remarkably well, academically, socially, emotionally. 

Back to Aime Morot's le Bon Samaritain: the Samaritan has become an extension of the heavily burdened little donkey. Their feet all but touch. Look carefully at the Samaritan's legs - his feet ground him in the Mercy-Truth - the naked truth about following the Christ-Way. It's not about Church politics. It's not about Church debates over the liturgy. It's not about (as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out) all the things the Church is known for saying no to. It's not about business as usual - parish meeting, after fruitless parish meeting. It's about a new heart:

"What is a heart of mercy? It is the heart of her who burns with pity for all creation. She looks at the creatures and her eyes are filled with tears. Her heart is filled with deep compassion and limitless patience. She overflows with tenderness and cannot bear to see or hear any evil or the least grief endured by the creature."


  1. Thank you for presenting this challenge, may I see through the lense of a new heart!

  2. Utterly beautiful. Thank you for writing this.

  3. Dear Father Stephen,
    I grew up in a home with polite, pious, church-goers as parents. Although I love them, they do not always see this expanded view of the world. I thank you for being out there and showing us how to be true to our Catholic faith and be good Christians to everyone around us. You cannot feel good about yourself unless you embrace the needs of others and show tenderness and mercy to them. I have worked hard to break free of my stifling upbringing and am glad to have this blog as a source of encouragement. I pray for your continued contributions to this site, as they are a source of inspiration. May your own journey along life's path be guided by the light of Christ's love.


  4. Thank you for sharing your experience and reflection. Prayers for your continued healing and growth. I send a blessing. Keep reading the posts. I will keep you in mind.

  5. A blog post from several years ago that I am seeing now for the first time. I am so grateful that you are educating us in real life mercy. All Christians should read this and learn from it. A parallelism to Pope Francis. He would be happy to know he has priests spreading these words.

    1. My goodness, but this goes way back. The blog was only up a few months. Sad to say, but many Catholics think MERCY means being soft on sin and mushy morality. It's not that at all. Mercy is a profound being-with the other in his/her struggle, pain and sorrow. Tears.