Mercy and Promises

The man in the parable sleeps and rises night and day. Time passes. The seed in his field sprouts and grows. Then, with time, it yields fruit. The blade, the ear, the full grain in the ear. The farmer knows not how. He is neither a biochemist, nor a botanist, nor a horticulturalist. He’s a small-scale agribusinessman.

Ljubljana Cathedral, Slovenia
Ljubljana Cathedral, Slovenia

We hail the merciful God. St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that God, above all, is merciful. Yes, the idea that God executes justice, that no injustice escapes His notice and His reckoning–that’s a rock-solid truth. But: There would be nothing, literally nothing, if it were not for God’s mercy. Creation itself occurred not because God is just, but because He is merciful.

Allow me to illustrate this abstraction, if I may. You visit a big city, take a cab ride. At the end of the ride, you say to the driver, “Thanks for the lift. What do I owe ya?” Or: Pipe breaks, water pouring out over the living room floor. Plumber comes on an emergency call, fixes the broken pipe. “Thanks for saving our hardwood floors. What do we owe you?”

Feel me? Remuneration for service rendered, a matter of justice. Well, what are we going to say to our Creator, when we reckon with the fact that we exist, thanks to Him? Are we going to say to our Lord and Creator, “Hey, thanks. For making me out of nothing. Thanks for Your service of giving me being. What do I owe You?” We don’t have that kind of money in our wallets. There can be no equitable, just re-payment for God’s creating us out of nothing.

Ergo: Mercy came before justice. God had everything and needed nothing. He foresaw all of history, even before He set it in motion. He foresaw that He Himself would have to suffer and die as a man, in order for man to be just in His sight. But He decided to bring everything that exists into existence anyway. Because He loves. Because He is greater, bigger, more generous, more giving–boundlessly full of goodness to give.

Point is: Things grow and flower. We grow and flower. We know not how. It’s the mysterious infinite mercy of God.

In my early 20s, I taught at a middle-school in inner-city Baltimore. Not to mince words: The building shook daily with the testosterone surges of potentially dangerous street punks. I came up with a motto for our little experimental Catholic school. “If, at the end of the day, everyone is still alive, it was a success.”

God has this thing about giving us tomorrow. He keeps giving us tomorrow, for precisely as long as we need Him to. Tomorrow is the consummate expression of the mercy of God. Because tomorrow I can do better. If I need to go to Confession, I can go. If I need to apologize to someone, I can. If today was the first time I ever prayed, then I can do it again tomorrow and grow even closer to God. The omnipotent mercy of God has deigned that time is on our side. The Devil always tries to rush us into doing evil. God can afford to wait, patiently, as we learn to do good.

taxicabIf you read Catholic newspapers or watch EWTN, you know that some people say that the Church would show more mercy by allowing divorce and second marriages. This fall the famous Synod on the Family will meet again, and the bishops at the Synod may discuss this. I don’t know too much about it, because I don’t watch EWTN, just ESPN.

To me, the idea of saying, “The lifetime promises you made–forget about them”–that does not strike me as merciful at all. Now, granted: sometimes people make promises without knowing what they’re saying. That’s a different case. “Were you sober when you made that promise?” “No.” Well, that’s different. And that’s a subject for a private conversation with Father.

Our life-long commitments make us who we are. On May 13, 2001, I solemnly promised to live as a celibate man for the rest of my life. I was as sober as a brick. Now, if Doris Burke–of ESPN–if Doris Burke showed up here, and tried to put the moves on me… If she showed up here, looking to chip a chalice, as they say. A leggy blonde sports nerd… (Kidding.)

Truth is, none of us live-up perfectly to the solemn promises we have made. After all, when we were baptized or confirmed, we promised to renounce sin altogether and live purely for God. But we have had our lapses.

So the merciful God gives us another day. Not another day to pretend like I never made any promises. But another day when we have the chance to try to live more faithfully in accord with our promises.

Night and day, we sleep and rise. Things grow; in our hearts and souls they grow, we know not how. One day to come–provided we are there to see it, by the mercy of God–the fruits of His love will be entirely ours.

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