“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
So runs the opening verse of our responsorial psalm this Sunday. The idea of the Mercy of God is not something new. It is not the brain-child of Pope Francis or Saint Faustina. It is as old as the Old Testament itself. Countless Old Testament passages speak of it. In fact the very first mention of God’s merciful heart comes from God himself. When Moses asks God to “show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18), God passes before him and describes himself to Moses in this way: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). It is a self-description which is echoed throughout the Old Testament by various psalmists and prophets. The experience of Israel throughout her history is marked by God’s mercy, even if it is, at times, and due to Israel’s manifold sinfulness, a “severe mercy.”
If this is so, what happened to God’s justice, his punishment of sin? Well, it is there, in Exodus 34, but it comes right at the end of God’s self-description, when he says: “by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation”. Even this is an expression of a “severe mercy”, because God is saying that he draws a line under how far punishment for sin will go down a family line, whereas blessings flowing from a person’s faithfulness, extends to “a thousand generations“.
It seems then, that, in placing a priority on God’s justice over God’s mercy, as was done in past generations, we have exactly inverted God’s order of priorities. God wants to be known firstly, as a God of mercy, and only latterly, as a God also of justice. What Pope Francis and saint Faustina have done is to put the list of God’s qualities “right side up.” And in fact, Pope Francis is not the first pope to mention God’s mercy. In his book “The Name of God is Mercy” ,he highlights the teachings of Pope St John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI . He quotes Pope Benedict : “Mercy is in reality the core of the Gospel message: it is the name of God himself, the face with which he revealed himself in the Old Testament and fully in Jesus Christ, incarnation of Creative and Redemptive Love. This love of mercy also illuminates the face of the Church, and is manifested through the Sacraments, in particular that of the Reconciliation, as well as in works of charity, both of community and individuals. Everything that the Church does and says shows that Gods has mercy for man.”