On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis opened the Holy Door to the Year of Mercy. One Missionary of Mercy already travels the road to Jericho.
Sometimes I’m totally mystified by the readers of These Stone Walls and the posts you keep coming back to. Each week, a brief printed report is sent to me that serves as a sort of “traffic report.” I have written of this before. With meager resources for research beyond what’s in my own head, I could work for days to write a new post just to learn that the most popular post that week was one I wrote in a hurry five years ago. One that keeps showing up with the highest traffic is “Angelic Justice: St. Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed,” published in September, 2010.
I wrote in that post that a lot of people confuse the symbolism of the scales of the blindfolded Lady Justice (which convey the impartiality of American jurisprudence) with the meaning of the scales with which Saint Michael, Patron of Justice, is sometimes depicted. The scales of Saint Michael are often portrayed as weighing souls, conveying an icon that ancient Judaism and the early Church Fathers saw as the two highest attributes of God: Justice and Mercy, the latter expressed in the Hebrew word, “hesed.”
In his great mercy encyclical, Dives in misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), Pope John Paul II wrote that the term “hesed” is connected to God’s side of His relationship with us, and therefore is a trait to be emulated. Hesed is a covenant term not a juridical one:
“The juridical commitment on God’s part ceased to oblige whenever Israel broke the covenant and did not respect its conditions. But precisely at this point, hesed, in ceasing to be a juridical obligation, revealed its deeper aspect: it showed itself as what it was at the beginning, that is, love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin.” (Dives in misericordia, §52)
So, depending on one’s level of humility or self-referential righteousness, we will be either comforted or perturbed by the fact that the word “justice” appears 142 times in Sacred Scripture, while the word “mercy,” translated from the Hebrew “hesed,” appears nearly twice that number of times.
CASTING LIGHT INTO THE DARKEST OF PERIPHERIES
An event of great importance for the Church took place this week on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Pope Francis opened the Holy Door to commence the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. In the days before Lent, Our friend, Father George David Byers will be summoned to Rome. Having been selected by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Father Byers will be commissioned by Pope Francis for a special apostolic responsibility as a Missionary of Mercy.
It indeed sounds glorious, but before you consider it so, read the excerpt I just read from Father Byers’ application for this responsibility. After a lengthy description of his advanced theological degrees, years of university positions, and pastoral experience in multiple corners of the Church, Father George described the heart of what today qualifies him to be a Missionary of Mercy:
“Untold thousands of confessions in French, Italian, and English. Special institutes for those in extreme suffering. Rehabilitation centers for religious with special difficulties [and] priests beaten down by their circumstances in life… I have brought victims of abuse to Jesus. I work with those locked away in maximum security prisons. I have exorcized the demon possessed… The stench of the ‘dirty’ sheep for whom Jesus died sticks with me in a way which is offensive to some.” (Father George David Byers)
Who would publish such a resume? The Holy Father quickly scooped him up, of course, not in spite of, but because of, the part in which Father George described casting himself “into the darkest of peripheries.” Father George David Byers did that again in a guest post on These Stone Walls with “Prelude to the Year of Mercy: Confronting the Truth.”
You had a front seat advantage for that post while I had no advance copy, and waited days for a printed copy to arrive in the mail for me to read. I have only gratitude for this “Prelude to the Year of Mercy.” If you have been following Father Byers’ posts at Arise! Let us be going! then you already know that for this faithful priest, there are no convenient or inconvenient truths. There is only The Truth, and he writes it with a demeanor of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
Frankly, we need more of that not only in, but from the Church, and voices of the Church in the public square, regardless of the feathers that are ruffled. Father Byers concluded his Missionary of Mercy application stating, “My academic studies through the years were about the three mercy parables of Luke 15.” Well, today I want to emphasize a fourth.
Over the six years of its existence, These Stone Walls has been mentioned in numerous Catholic news stories on EWTN, the National Catholic Register, The Catholic League’s Catalyst, Our Sunday Visitor, and lots of online Catholic media. The first was in 2010 when TSW appeared in the Our Sunday Visitor feature, “Best of the Catholic Web” under the heading of “Spirituality” (OSV “In Focus,” August 15, 2010).
Frankly, I was mystified about what readers saw in TSW that should have been singled out for this category. In response, Catholic writer Ryan MacDonald published a Letter to the Editor in OSV (August 29, 2010) entitled “Priests Vulnerable to False Accusations.” Ryan wrote of me and TSW:
“To paraphrase the Gospel parable, ‘this priest was beaten by robbers and left on the side of the road in our Church.’ A growing number of Catholics have been unwilling to pass him by no matter how sick we are of the sex abuse story.” (August 29, 2010)
I was struck by the image Ryan conveyed. There is far more to the famous mercy parable of Luke 10:25-37 than meets the eye.
So I spent some time looking at its deeper background and meaning and I find in it an urgent summons to mercy, a summons to pass through the Holy Door Pope Francis opened onto the Jubilee Year of Mercy this week. Every reader here knows this parable, but if you let me sift it a bit, it has layers that may surprise you.
A lawyer stood before Jesus “to put Him to the test” (Luke 10:25). The lawyer in this setting was an expert in the Mosaic Law handed down in the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, and specifically in the Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy. The lawyer’s intent was not to query Jesus for answers, but to trap Him in contradiction in the presence of his disciples. There are actually three hearers of the parable – the lawyer, the disciples, and us, the readers – all bringing different world views to the scene.
The lawyer opened the dialogue with a question the answer to which he already knows: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Note the word “inherit.” The lawyer did not expect to earn or gain eternal life, but rather to inherit it as something due to him as an heir. The lawyer-expert in the Mosaic law finds the source of his due inheritance in the law itself.
So Jesus returned the opening volley with a question on the lawyer’s own terms “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer then goes on to quote the two highest tenets of the Law of Moses, the first from Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Then the second, from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In another setting (Matthew 22:36-40) Jesus told a Pharisee – perhaps even this same Pharisee – “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
But back to Luke 10. Jesus commended the lawyer for his insight. “You have answered rightly. Do this and you will live.” The encounter could have ended there, but the lawyer wasn’t finished laying his trap. “And who is my neighbor?” he asked.
After all, the Book of Leviticus (19:18), in citing the second half of what Jesus called the “Greatest Commandment,” has a preface that could have been cause for debate between Jesus and this lawyer. “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the Sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So, for the Pharisee-lawyer, the identity of “neighbor” is arguably unclear. While laying his trap, the lawyer elicits from Jesus a parable that springs the trap, and cracks open a door to mercy in the lawyer’s sense of justice. This parable is a summons to the Year of Mercy:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers who stripped him and beat him, and departed leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” (Luke 10, 30-37).
THE WAY TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE
The lawyer hearing the parable would form a spontaneous judgment about each of the three people who traveled that road to Jericho. The lawyer would be united in sympathy with the first two – the priest and the Levite – and not only with them but with their actions in the parable as well. The lawyer would readily see why the priest and the Levite who observe the beaten man left “half dead,” choose to pass by. They are simply observing the laws of ritual purity, in this case one set down in the Book of Leviticus 21:1-3, “None of them shall defile himself for the dead among his people except for his nearest of kin.”
The priest is descended from the priesthood of Aaron, a part of the priestly hierarchy that offers sacrifice on the peoples’ behalf according to the priestly code of Leviticus (Chapters 1-16).
The lawyer would readily know that on his way to Jerusalem in the parable, the priest would risk defiling himself and his ritual sacrificial offering under the law if he touched the dying man. And the Levite is in the same boat. The Levitical priesthood was established when Moses, having received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, returned to discover the Israelites worshiping a golden calf in the Book of Exodus (32). Moses summoned the tribe of Levi for ministerial service to exact punishment upon the idolaters (Exodus 32:27).
Thus, within the tribe of Levi, the descendants of Aaron received the priesthood, and men of the tribe of Levi who did not descend from Aaron comprised a second hierarchical tier of the Levitical priesthood. The priest offered sacrifice while the Levites guarded and transported the Tabernacle and assisted the Temple priest (Numbers 1:47-54). In the parable of Luke 10, the lawyer readily knows, both risked becoming defiled under the ritual laws of sacrifice if either one stopped to help the “half dead” man.
The third traveller, the Samaritan, is a whole other story for the lawyer and for the disciple-hearers as well. The term, “Samaritan” appears for the first time in the Second Book of Kings (17:29) where the people of Samaria are described as idolaters, the very type that the tribe of Levi was called upon to extinguish from the Israelites at Mount Sinai.
Jews saw Samaritans as the descendants of foreign colonists planted by the Assyrians. For their part, Samaritans insisted they were descendants of the tribes of Benjamin and Manasseh who managed to survive the Assyrian destruction of Samaria. In the Gospel of John (4:9) a Samaritan woman was surprised that Jesus would even speak to her “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria.” The Gospel text of John went on to explain the obvious, that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” In John (4:27) even the Apostles were shocked that Jesus would speak to a Samaritan woman.
Samaritans figured that the more recently unfaithful Judea, whose population was itself exiled to Babylon because of gross unfaithfulness and whose temple in Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, were consummate liberals. The Jews, thinking they themselves were most exact in their observance of the Law, however many loopholes they thought they found, were incriminated by the very existence of the ultra-conservative Samaritans. The Samaritans closely observed the Torah, the Law, accepting the first five books of the Law alone, but rejecting all the prophets and the writings as distraction. What irked the Jews especially was that the Samaritans added an eleventh self-referential commandment that worship should take place in Samaria, on Mount Gerizim only, not in Jerusalem. The last place the Jews thought they might find mercy is with the Samaritans.
In the end, both justice and the lawyer’s trap were turned on their heads when Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” The poor lawyer, his head spinning, could not even bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan.” He answered, “The one who showed mercy on him.”
Then, in final response to the lawyer’s original question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus admonished him, “Go, and do likewise.” Be the one who shows mercy despite its cost to yourself, or your standing, or your Facebook “Like” score.
A MISSIONARY OF MERCY
In Our Sunday Visitor, Ryan MacDonald demonstrated how this very parable impacted him to write about me. Once he stopped on my road, he was appalled, not only by what befell me, but also by those who passed by – priests and Levites among them.
On the road to Jericho, Father George David Byers did not pass by, and not only did he stop, he stayed. It has cost him dearly, but he never complained about the cost. Readers who have been following all this know that Father George was silenced 2 ½ years ago after writing a series of posts. The final one, the straw that seemed to break the proberbial camel’s back, was a version of the one he published on These Stone Walls last week: “Prelude to the Year of Mercy.” Even now, in very close proximity to publishing that post, Father George faced some major obstacles to the fact of his writing. Clearly, somewhere in the garden of good and evil, there are entities who did not want this truth to be written.
Today, Father George writes and publishes at the behest of Pope Francis who, whatever else might be said of him, does not recoil from what Father Byers called “the stench of dirty sheep for whom Jesus died.” Do you want to join him in this Missionary of Mercy status? Then subscribe to Arise! Let us be going! Frankly, some of his candor makes me squirm a bit. Some of it makes me want to run for cover, but I take his example, and stand the ground of truth, come what may.
And this missionary journey has not just been for me. Father Byers took time away from establishing his own new site to put together Mercy to the Max which has drawn some remarkable writers to a remarkable story still unfolding. One of them was Michael Brandon whose “Parable of a Prisoner” brought tears of hesed to the eyes of many.
The ripple effect of Father Byers’ Missionary of Mercy status has already begun. He has influenced many on the Road to Jericho, among them, Ryan MacDonald who also stopped to help bind the wounds of another victim soul on that road in his recent post, “Thomas Merton and Pornchai Moontri. A Prayer for the Year of Mercy.”
It’s quite a prayer, though you will have to read to the end of that good post to get to it. I hope you will. Suffice it to say for now that we who remain bound in prison can pray that prayer only because someone has stopped to help bind the wounds of false witness, compounded by injustice, indifference, and worst of all, fear.
Yes, Father George, it stinks over here in the trenches of false witness, but it’s where I fell under a heavy cross. Thank you, good Missionary, for having the courage to write painful truths, and for not being the priest who passed by on the other side.