(1 Cor. 15:1-11; Lk 7:36-50)
Baseball is regarded as our national pastime. An indication of its status in our culture is found in the fact that the sport is played on many different levels – from t ball to major league ball. At the little league level of the game, there is something known as the mercy rule. The mercy rule says that when a team goes up by 10 runs, the game is brought to a halt.
Baseball became our national pastime because youngsters who played the game at the age of 12 grew up, had kids of their own and these kids in turn played too. When games are fun and competitive, a kind of love affair with baseball develops generationally. There is delight in the sound of the bat meeting the ball; in the sight of a perfectly manicured diamond; in the symmetry of 3 strikes and 3 outs. But the delight evaporates and can turn to dread when your team is defeated again and again, beaten back relentlessly and humiliated to no end. Memories of humiliation are hard to shake.
The other day, on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, Msgr. Henning pointed out for us the difference between humility and humiliation. He explained that humiliation is a denial of honor and dignity. Things were done to Our Lord, he said, including the most glorious thing of all: He was raised. (cf. 1 Cor. 15:4)
We must indeed surrender; we must truly submit. Otherwise, we cannot share in the Lord’s glory. We would be too “puffed up” were we not to yield before the Lord’s grace.
In truth, there is about humility a real strength, a genuine respect. Paradoxically, this strength and respect are experienced inwardly by the one who loses, who is overcome. They are also experienced by the one who prevails, the one who knows victory.
In today’s gospel, the evangelist records how a sinful woman bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears. (cf. Lk 7:38) She then dries Jesus’ feet with her hair and proceeds to kiss them and anoint them. (cf. Lk 7:38) This action is found by Jesus’ host, a certain Pharisee, to be offensive. (cf. Lk 7:39) To this, Jesus proposes a parable. The parable concerns two people in debt to a creditor. (cf. Lk 7:41) The creditor magnanimously cancels what is owed to him from both. (cf. Lk 7:42) The question arises: Who will love the creditor more? (cf. Lk 7:42) The answer of course is: The one whose debt is larger. (cf. Lk 7:43)
Jesus follows the parable with an explanation and an announcement which is even more shocking. “[H]er many sins [are] forgiven,’ he says. (Lk 7:47) This is on account of her great love. (cf. Lk 7:47)
Repeatedly in his ministry, Jesus forgives sinners. After reading and hearing of this so frequently, we might be inured to the source and origin of the pardon. The scandal might long ago have dissipated for us.
When we forgive in imitation of Christ, it obviously binds us more closely to the One Who has first loved us and there is credit in that for us. Leaving that aside for the moment, though, what great mystery do we share in?
Thirty years ago, at the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II published Dives in Misericordia (1980). Commenting on the parable of the prodigal son (cf. Lk 15:11-32), the Holy Father argues that the richness of God’s mercy is evident precisely in what it accomplishes. It restores the dignity which we lose by our sin, which we willfully reject and throw away by our pride and self-assertion.
The paschal victory of Christ has been achieved by grace. But it is not a cheap grace – to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a costly grace. And as Msgr. Henning reminded us on Tuesday, the Lord’s triumph is a bloody one.
Some of our losses are mere dings. Others, though, leave scars which are painful even to see, dredging up memories of being humiliated.
Humiliation brings us so low that we are almost not able to detect a humanity: ours and perhaps our opponent’s. It is definitely not kenotic as wherein Jesus voluntarily surrenders his glory all the while he retains his nature as God.
Mercy is not a name for a word or act which seeks permanently to hold it over the one who is brought low. Mercy is relief. It makes us free again. It reverses the alienation we have set in motion by our sin.
This past Sunday, we listened to a selection from Saint Paul’s First Letter to Saint Timothy. In it, the Apostle to the Gentiles refers to his former life as a blasphemer, a persecutor and arrogant. (cf. 1 Tim 1:13) Twice in this passage, Paul states that he was mercifully treated. (cf. 1 Tim 13,16)
We too are mercifully treated. The Holy Eucharist does not let us forget this grace at work in our lives. Here, the humility of Our Savior, which brought Him low, raises us above humiliation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commends the disciples to be merciful that mercy might be shown to them. (cf. Matt 5:7) It is the Lord’s judgment to which we are all subject. The measure with which we measure will be measured out to us. (cf. Matt 7:2)
(This homily is reprinted by permission)
Msgr Robert Batule
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