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4th Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa

4/2/2007 - 6:00 AM PST

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"Let Us Call Even Those Who Hate Us 'Brother'"

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 2, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The Pontifical Household preacher delivered this final Lenten reflection of the year in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

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1. The mercy of Christ

The beatitude on which we would like to reflect in this last Lenten meditation is the fifth in the order of St. Matthew's Gospel: "Blessed are the merciful for they shall find mercy." As we have done in all our meditations this Lent, we will take as our point of departure the affirmation that the beatitudes are a self-portrait of Christ, and, following the procedure we have used in the past, we will ask how Jesus lived mercy. What does Jesus' life tell us about this beatitude?

In the Bible, the word "mercy" has two basic meanings: The first indicates the attitude of the stronger part (in the covenant, this would be God himself) toward the weaker part and it usually expresses itself in the forgiveness of infidelities and of faults; the second indicates the attitude toward the need of the other and it expresses itself in the so-called works of mercy. (In this second sense the term appears often in the Book of Tobit.) There is, so to say, a mercy of the heart and a mercy of the hands.

Both forms of mercy shine forth in Jesus' life. He reflects God's mercy toward sinners, but he is also moved by all human sufferings and needs; he gives the crowds to eat, heals the sick, frees the oppressed. The Evangelist says of him: "He has taken on our infirmities and borne our sicknesses" (Matthew 8:17).

In the beatitude we are considering, the prevalent sense is certainly the first one, that of forgiving and remitting sins. This is what we conclude from considering the beatitude and its reward: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy," that is, with God, who remits their sins. Jesus' admonition, "Be merciful as your Father is merciful," is immediately explained with "forgive and you will be forgiven" (Luke 6:36-37).

We know of Jesus' acceptance of sinners in the Gospel and the opposition this earns him from the defenders of the law, who accuse him of being "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:34). One of Jesus' sayings which is best attested to historically is: "I have not come to call the just, but sinners" (Mark 2:17). Feeling accepted and not condemned by him, sinners listen to him gladly.

But who are the sinners in question? In line with the widespread tendency today to get the Pharisees of the Gospel entirely off the hook, attributing the negative image to a later doctoring by the Evangelists, someone has claimed that these "sinners" were only "the deliberate and impenitent transgressors of the law,"[1] in other words, the common delinquents of the time and those who had gone outside the law.

If this were so, then Jesus' adversaries would have been entirely right to be scandalized and see him as an irresponsible and socially dangerous person. It would be as if a priest today were to regularly frequent members of the mafia and criminals and accept their invitations to dinner with the pretext of speaking to them of God.

In reality, this is not how things are. The Pharisees had their vision of the law and of what conformed to it or was contrary, and they considered reprobate all those who did not follow their practices. Jesus does not deny that sin and sinners exist; he does not justify Zacchaeus' frauds or the deed of the woman caught in adultery. The fact that he calls them "sick" shows this.

What Jesus condemns is the relegating to oneself the determination of what true justice is and considering everyone else to be "thieves, unjust, adulterers," denying them the possibility of conversion. The way that Luke introduces the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is significant: "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others" (Luke 18:9). Jesus was more severe with those who condemned sinners with disdain than he was with sinners themselves.[2]

2. A God who prides himself on having mercy

Jesus justifies his behavior toward sinners saying that this is how the heavenly Father acts. He reminds his adversaries of God's word to the prophets: "It is mercy that I want and not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13). Mercy toward the people's infidelity, "hesed," is the most salient trait of the God of the covenant and it fills the Bible from one end to the other. A psalm speaks of it in the course of a litany, explaining all the events in the history of Israel: "For your mercy is eternal" (Psalm 136).

Being merciful appears in ...

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