Whenever I tell acquaintances and strangers I work in an Emergency Department, a common reaction is, “Oh, that must be so exciting!” Well, no, not always.
Being in the ER for a little over a year, I’ve learned it’s amazing what people thinks constitutes an emergency: stubbed toes, work excuses, getting stitches removed, “I’ve had this thing for a while, but my [insert relationship] is here, so I thought I’d get this checked out,” etc. etc. Best one I’ve heard recently is that someone’s primary concern for coming in was getting a hefty ER bill to formally declare bankruptcy.
Sure, we have traumas with arterial bleeds, active heart attacks and strokes, amputated appendages (my personal favorite), and other intense things, but that’s more the exception than the rule. Thanks to a 1986 law called “Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act” or EMTALA, anyone who presents to an Emergency Department must be treated. EMTALA law is very strict, and violations are taken very seriously. No one can be turned away from an emergency room without being properly evaluated by a provider…even if their complaint is nothing emergent.
And so, a vast majority of my day is can be fielding complaints from mostly healthy individuals. It’s amazing how much people grumble when they’re not emergently ill! And their grumblings have slowly worn me down. I find myself, a patient, grumbling in prayer to to the Divine Physician as my patients grumble to me.
I’ve been reading the Gospels carefully, looking for how Jesus responds to grumblings. He, of course, being Love always responds with love. But in particular Luke 15 stops me in my tracks. Jesus joyfully responds to grumblings with a joyful abundance of mercy. How absurd is that!?
Luke 15 is a series of three parables devoted to mercy after the scribes and Pharisees grumble that Christ takes in sinners. These three parables echo another rebuke. After the scribes and Pharisees grumble that Jesus calls the tax collector and apostle known as Matthew to join Him, He answers simply:
“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”
As a nurse, I take His simple words to heart. But, I see so many patients who are healthy and still think they need a physician! And then they grumble, complain, disrespect me, and otherwise drive me crazy! What about them!?
Jesus answers my grumblings with His parables in Luke 15. He first tells the Parable of the Lost Sheep:
What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?
Um, no one, Jesus. No one. No shepherd in his or her right mind would abandon 99 sheep to thieves, wolves, and the wilderness for one idiotic sheep that decides to abandon the crew, likely hurt itself, and waste hours of time to find it.
And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
Well, that’s an absolutely absurd reaction to finding a lost sheep. “Set it on his shoulders with great joy!?” More like slap that sheep upside the head!
Yet, Jesus continues with the Parable of the Lost Coin:
“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it?”
Um, no one, Jesus. No one. No man or woman in his or her right mind would waste the money on gas to light a lamp to look for a coin. I don’t care if it’s a silver dollar! Gas probably cost a lot more than that!
“And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’”
Well, that’s an absolutely absurd reaction to finding a lost coin. “Calls together her friends and neighbors!?” It’s a freaking coin! Your friends and neighbors are probably going to eat your food and drink your wine and end up costing you more than that dang little coin anyway!
Yet Jesus says of the lost sheep:
“I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.”
Yet Jesus says of the lost coin:
“In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
That’s just absurd!! Yet Jesus continues the parables of mercy with the Parable of the Prodigal Son:
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”
Hot dang. This parable is so rich and teeming with wisdom that a whole book could be written about it. (Well, it has. It’s called The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen, and it’s downright life changing. But I digress.)
So, the younger son is pretty much the worst. That brat essentially declares his father dead while he is still living and wastes everything that he is given. But when he decides to come home and grovel for mercy, he comes home to a father who runs to him, clothes him, and throws him a feast!?
What the what!?
As Pope Francis described of Jesus’s mercy in Misericordiae Vultus:
“…the mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love as of that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this is a “visceral” love. It gushes forth from the depths naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy.”
– Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 6
Ok, so God embraces us like a father. I get it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still ask “What the heck are you doing, Dad!?”
It’s precisely how the Pharisees and scribes were reacting to Jesus’s absurd mercy towards sinners. What are you doing!? Can’t you see I’m over here, trying to live a virtuous life, and you reward them? You accept them? You forgive them? What about me!?
The thing about God’s radical and absurd mercy is it can sometimes feel like it overrides justice. That brat of a son deserved to be punished. That idiotic sheep deserved to be left in the wilderness. That stupid coin deserved to stay lost. Why do those that abandon God get better things than us who work to bring about His kingdom?
It’s just not fair.
Our God is a God of justice, yes. But justice cannot be the end of the story. If it were, none of us would have a chance at heaven, redemption, or love.
As master of the logical, juggernaut of philosophy, and Doctor of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:
“It is proper to God to exercise mercy, and he manifests his omnipotence particularly in this way.”
– Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 30. a. 4.
Our Lord is just, yes, but He reveals His divinity and power in mercy. God’s power is manifested in mercy more than in justice.
Pope Francis echoes this and writes:
“If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected. But mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelopes it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.”
– Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 21
Justice can never be the end of conversion but merely the beginning! Isn’t change, isn’t conversion, isn’t redemption the goal of justice? It is!
So, if the goal of justice is change for the better, how could mercy and justice ever be in opposition to one another? They simply cannot. Mercy is the continuation of justice, the way the wrongdoer changes for the better.
The thing about us elder sons, the thing about us grumblers, the thing about all of us who feel the world isn’t fair is that we don’t see the whole picture.
The elder son probably had no idea his brother was treated as sub-human. Swine were fed better than his brother, and his brother thought so little of himself that he was content to be treated this poorly. Heck, he was content to be treated as a servant when he is his father’s beloved son.
The thing about my grumbling patients is they have no idea how sick my other patients are. They have no idea that the young guy who was bumped ahead in line has a white count of 30.3 and a ruptured appendix. They have no idea that little old lady who got a bed right away is having a stroke. They have no idea the beds are filling up in the back with an ambulance with someone who currently does not have a pulse.
Even when we’re told why we’re not getting what we feel we deserve, it doesn’t always sink in.
The father tells his elder son, “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32) But for the elder son, it didn’t sink in how incredibly lost and dead his brother was.
I tell my patients, “The doctor is in with a really sick patient right now,” but it usually doesn’t sink in how incredibly healthy he or she is in comparison to that other patient.
And, as I tell my patients, it’s not that they do not matter and their complaints do not matter. It’s just that someone else needs the physician more urgently at the moment. They will get their pain medications (unless they’re a drug seeker). They will get their test results. They will be told what the plan of care is. If anything becomes emergent, I will make sure they are provided for.
If I, a lowly nurse, care for my patients (however begrudgingly), this much, how much more does the Divine Physician care for His beloved patients, sick and healthy?
To us elder sons, us disciples authentically seeking virtue, us Christians who judge others, it probably hasn’t sunk in for us how incredibly healthy and well off we are compared to our lost, sick, and lonely brothers and sisters.
“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”
Let me tell you, it is the sickest ones who need the physician the most. In the same way, it is the most lost, the most broken, the most forgotten, the most bitter, the most cruel, the most awful people who need mercy the most.
I know I’m tempted to stop being merciful to certain people. Somedays, they’re just too mean, too demanding, too hard, too unrelenting, too awful to show mercy to. But who am I to put limits on God’s mercy? As Pope Francis wrote: “Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive (MV, 3).”
And when we get worn out and tired, we need to remember that even those who are healthy need a physician too. We go to primary care providers to make sure our blood pressure isn’t too high, our bad cholesterol isn’t rising, our weight is healthy for our bodies, our systems are screened for major diseases, and that our minor aches and pains are not signs of a more insidious disease.
Just as our annual physical is a check-up on our bodily health, our daily prayer is a daily check-up on our spiritual health. When we pray, it’s our time to see how abundantly loving the Lord is to us, how absurdly merciful He is to us, how incredibly good He is to us. It’s our time of restoration, so we can go out and restore others to spiritual health.
And if God loves us, shows us mercy, and is good to us, who are we to not do the same to one another?
As Jesus tells in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18, and as John states concisely in 1 John 4: “We love because he first loved us.” So, too, we show mercy because God has first shown us mercy.
Pope Francis has written that “Nothing in [Jesus] is devoid of compassion (MV, 8),” yet we can often be devoid of compassion and mercy towards one another.
That is why Pope Francis has called for a Jubilee of Mercy, a time where we are reminded and especially called to love others like the Father loves us. Pope Francis has called for us to be visible signs of God’s love and mercy in the world.
“[God] does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible. Love, after all, can never be just an abstraction. By its very nature, it indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviours that are shown in daily living. The mercy of God is his loving concern for each one of us. He feels responsible; that is, he desires our wellbeing and he wants to see us happy, full of joy, and peaceful. This is the path which the merciful love of Christians must also travel. As the Father loves, so do his children. Just as he is merciful, so we are called to be merciful to each other.”
– Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 9
So, in this jubilee year, he has asked for particular reflection and devotion to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the concrete actions we can take to show God’s love and mercy to one another. Remember that brilliant dude Thomas Aquinas who said God shows His power in mercy? He also formalized the Christian tradition of loving one’s neighbor into the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Corporal works of mercy relate to the physical needs of our bodies, such as clothing the naked, feeding the poor, and giving drink to the thirsty. Jesus speaks of these acts of mercy in Matthew 25 when he judges the righteous based on how they mercifully treated their neighbor. They are:
To feed the hungry
To give drink to the thirsty
To clothe the naked
To shelter the homeless
To visit the imprisoned
To visit the sick
To bury the dead – referenced in Tobit repeatedly and seen in every Gospel when Jesus is buried after the crucifixion
Spiritual works of mercy relate to the spiritual needs of our souls. Jesus speaks of these acts of mercy throughout the Gospels. They are:
- To admonish the sinner – Luke 15:7
- To instruct the ignorant – Mark 16:25
- To counsel the doubtful – John 14:27
- To comfort the sorrowful – Matthew 11:28
- To bear wrongs patiently – Luke 6:27-28
- To forgive all injuries – Matthew 6:12
- To pray for the living and the dead – John 17:24
Some of these sound great! Admonish the sinner!? Instruct the ignorant!? Sure! Let me rah rah rah away and beat those fools into conversion! Feed the hungry!? Clothe the naked!? Sure! Let me get rid of all the food in my pantry and clothes in my closet that I don’t like all that much and give it to them!
But it is not enough just to do these works of mercy. That’s what the legalistic scribes and Pharisees did, and Jesus rebukes them throughout the Gospels.
Whatever we do, we are commissioned to do it with love. Jesus welcomes the lost son home happily with a feast, finds the lost coin with rejoicing, and takes back the lost sheep with joy. Jesus’s mercy is abundant, and our goal is to imitate that absurdly abundant mercy to one another.
It’s not enough to just admonish the sinner. How can I admonish the sinners in a way that affirms their dignity and how much I love them (or at least how much Christ loves them)?
It’s not enough to just instruct the ignorant. How can I have a conversation with someone who doesn’t hold the same beliefs as I do in a constructive, open manner that is not condescending, taking their opinion to heart, and maybe changing myself and the ways I’m hypocritical?
It’s not enough to just feed the poor. How can I feed the hungry without making them feel inadequate for needing help?
It’s not enough to just clothe the naked. How can I give quality clothes to the naked?
Our works of mercy are going to look different for each one of us because each one of us has unique talents, unique lives, and unique circumstances. But at the core, we need to ask ourselves, are we giving our best to one another, or are we just giving each other the minimum?
As Pope Francis wrote:
“The Church is commissioned to announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the Gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the heart and mind of every person. The Spouse of Christ must pattern her behaviour after the Son of God who went out to everyone without exception…Her language and her gestures must transmit mercy, so as to touch the hearts of all people and inspire them once more to find the road that leads to the Father.
The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ. The Church makes herself a servant of this love and mediates it to all people: a love that forgives and expresses itself in the gift of oneself. Consequently, wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident. In our parishes, communities, associations and movements, in a word, wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy.”
– Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 12
Our Lord gives us His very self to each one of us, without exception, without limits, without bounds. We are commissioned to do the same.