In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, in today’s Gospel yet another dramatic scene unfolds as Our Lord approaches His death on the Cross for our sins. He is coming upon Jerusalem, the City of God among men, and He is beholding the hustle and bustle of a people and a place about to meet their self-inflicted doom. God is merciful precisely because He is just. We may have hope in Him precisely because we know that God alone will uphold what is right and put down what is wrong. With everyone else there is always the possibility of moral cheating, lies, deceits, the granting of favors that forestall the reward or the punishment that is rightly due. But with God there is no nepotism, no fudging the line, no arbitrary tipping of the scales, for even His Son will be sacrificed for sins He did not commit in order to satisfy the debt that men themselves cannot pay. And so we can trust that God is not mercurial, a situational relativist, a gladhanding politico up in the sky. Our ability truly to trust in Him is the greatest mercy that He bestows on us, for in Him there is finally the peace that comes from certainty, the rest that comes from knowing that there will be no double jeopardy, no invoice that falls upon our laps after we think that the bill has been paid. In God we trust, for in God only may we trust, and this is the greatest mercy we may ever know in our lives.
That is all good on paper, but we know from experience that suffering for our sins is just that. It is a hard business to be the endpoint of a pilum spear thrown by a Roman Legionnaire. It is a lot more than a bad day to be on the wrong side of a column toppled by Roman combat engineers. This is what is in store for Jerusalem and her people. The people are mad with their materialism and their idolatry, the syncretistic corruption of their worship, the many collusions with Caesar, the moral blindness of the self-righteous Sanhedrin, so much tawdriness and amoral cowardice that the sins seem now to capture the tenor of the city more than the historic associations with God and His judges, prophets, and kings. The scales have been weighted down one side far too much, and so what is in store for Jerusalem and her people at this point cannot be avoided. The sins are real, and so the sufferings will be real as well. And we are meant to see this as merciful? That God is Just, that we may trust in Him, does not feel particularly merciful to the man dying in the face of a war crazed Roman. That God pays off our debts, that He never shows nepotism nor fudges the line, does not feel particularly merciful to the woman smashed under a column. What seems merciful on paper seems to fall short of the mark in action when many of the men and women about to die had little power, if any, to correct the course of events. Consider the street merchant pushing his carts of linen and wares through the busy foot traffic, or consider the aging seamstress putting needle to thread in a back room of a desert hot bazaar. Consider the smiling, shoeless, messenger boy timing himself as he dashes from one end of that big city to another to relay a first century version of a telegram. These people have no say in the grand politics of the time. They cannot advise the Sanhedrin to stand firm against Roman corruption, nor stop their fellows from indulging in pagan cults that run contrary to God’s commandment; and yet when the Emperor Titus seizes Jerusalem, and tears down the Temple, these folks will be among the dead carted outside the city walls to be burned. Where is the mercy here? Does it even make sense to speak of mercy when all too often the innocent die in wars they had no say in starting, while the well groomed negotiate or simply pay their way out of the hostilities?
It should be noted that God does not bring any evil into the world. Rather, He allows for man to reap what man has sown. When God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, He was not punishing them so much as acknowledging that, on account of their transgression, they had lost that innocence that made them suitable for Eden. Adam had chosen the bread that comes from the sweat of his own brow, rather than the bread offered unto him by God, and so Adam and his heirs would eat the bread that comes from their own toil and trouble. They would drink of the tears of their own sorrows. If man insists on being his own god, then his kingdom is going to be a place ravaged by iniquities, a history marked by injustices, where men sacrifice blood to their own egos and imagine themselves strong by trampling the weak. As St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Romans, “the wages of sin is death.” This is not the wage that God pays us, so much as the wage we insist upon paying ourselves for the illusion that we can be the masters of our own destinies. Man rather would be subject to death than subject to God. This is the great madness that afflicts man and, apart from Christ Jesus on the Cross, keeps him mired in a cycle of murder and retribution, of lies and compounded lies, of wanton excess in youth and scarcity in old age. God is not the author of this dark, tragic play. Adam is the author, and we, his heirs, are the stagehands and the players acting out this play each and every matinee to ourselves. If the innocent suffer, if the moral pay the tab, while the amoral check out before the bill is due, then this is because we keep insisting on acting out that dark, tragic play. Ours is the longest and deadliest run in theatrical history, and though our show has been getting consistently bad reviews we keep it going no matter the cost to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to the many innocents who have suffered along the way.
And yet even if we concede that we have wrought this wretchedness upon ourselves, is it then merciful for God to allow for the innocent to suffer from the wrongs committed by others? Is it not merciful instead to protect them especially from the wars and the hardships perpetrated by the political and cultural elites? In considering these questions it is important to note that man never sins in a vacuum. What he may consider to be his personal and private flaw, the sins that he thinks he has kept hidden in his heart or indulged out of view, in fact have ramifications far beyond himself. Contrary to what some modern-day Libertarians may like to think, no one man is an island unto himself. We are social creatures, and yet as good deeds ripple outward to have effects beyond what could have been contemplated at the time, so do our sins. Indeed, given how truly fallen our world is, sin is often much more a contagion than grace. Sin is more easily transmissible, a kind of delta variant on steroids, and too few of us are willing to social distance from it. If the innocent suffer, then that is because that is the nature of a world given over to sin and death. It is not because God is callous. Rather, it is because He allows for man to live out his life as he chooses; and so far at least too few have chosen to abandon the freak show that man is staging. Too few have been willing to give up their front row seats to that show and instead to venture outside where they might find Christ Jesus and His disciples walking on to Jerusalem.
In today’s Gospel, we read that “when He was come near, He beheld the city, and wept over it.” On paper, God may seem an abstraction, the Just One in whom we may trust because He alone balance the scales without showing favoritism or fudging the line; but the Incarnate God walks with us. He shares our pain, our sorrows, our righteous anger at the costs to be borne by many because of the amoral self-dealing of the well-connected few. He does not only weep for us. He weeps with us, alongside us, holding our hands in His when it seems we cannot bear any longer the sufferings inflicted on us. This is what we mean when we speak of divine mercy. Yes, there is mercy in that we may trust in Him; but there is also mercy in that we may lean our teary-eyed faces upon His shoulder. Until Christ Jesus returns, we the faithful are His surrogates in offering up our hands to the outstretched hands. We are His surrogates in offering up our ears to those who need for someone to listen to them. We are His surrogates in offering up our hearts to the lonely, the infirm, the addicted, the sick, and the dying. This is our work for one another and for the world at large. We can do this because Christ Jesus wept for us and knows viscerally all the pain and sadness we have inflicted upon ourselves and one another. We can do this because at the heart of divine mercy is the ever living relationship between ourselves and God in His Son.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.