In the First Letter to Timothy, Paul describes himself as the greatest of sinners: a blasphemer who had done everything to discredit and injure the early Church. His subsequent conversion, described in earlier letters, was experienced as an overwhelming encounter with God’s loving mercy. God’s mercy is more than empty words of forgiveness; it is God’s power changing hearts and minds – making us, in Paul’s words, the greatest examples of his inexhaustible patience.
If we are to appreciate God’s mercy as our new creation, we must first understand the alienation that sin brings about. The Exodus account of the Golden Calf was intended as a warning to subsequent generations. It mirrors the delusion that sin creates in selfish hearts. At first sight, it seems unbelievable that a chosen people should model the gifts of the Creator into an idol that was to take God’s place. Contrite reflection soon brings us to the realisation that all sin is a perversion of God’s gifts: selfish wants become the idols that we fashion and worship.
The transgression of the Golden Calf provoked God’s anger, an anger resolved not by the people themselves, but by God’s gracious mercy that relented and would not bring down the threatened disaster.
Like St Paul, we must reflect on the mercy shown to ourselves if we are to become its heralds during this Year of Mercy.
St Luke’s parables of mercy demonstrate the gulf between human and divine mercy because they are counter-intuitive. Human mercy would never abandon the 99 sheep to save the one; it would write off the one that had chosen to be lost in favour of the 99 that had stayed close.
An abused father, abandoned by an ungrateful son, would invest his family’s future and business in the older son who had worked faithfully at home. Such is the gulf between human and divine mercy.
Mercy is more than forgiveness. It embraces and rejoices in what was lost. Such was St Paul’s rejoicing: “To the eternal King, the undying, invisible and only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.”
This article first appeared in the September 9 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.