Whose Side is God on? My September Column – Full Text

I’m normally a bit of a news freak. I tune in to the news first thing in the morning to find out what’s going on in the world. Recently, however, I find that I’m not so keen to find out what’s going on. All the news seems to be bad news. Refugees are dying, extremists are launching random attacks and the world seems to be in turmoil.

At times like these people often ask where God is in it all. Surely God is on our side? When is he going to step in and ‘smite the wicked’? This thought is not new. Those of us of a certain age may remember the poet Bob Dylan (I hesitate to call him a singer) tackling this question in his song, “With God on our side”. For those of you too young to remember I’ll summarise.

In the First World War God was on our side against the Germans. The same in the Second World War In the cold war God was now on the German’s side. God seems to be a bit fickle in Bob’s mind. He finishes up by concluding that if God’s on our side he’ll stop the next war.

Well the wars have continued to rage on since Bob wrote that in the sixties. So why do we think God is on our side? According to scripture God called Abraham and made a covenant with him. He would be our God and we would be his people. God would be on our side. Of course Abraham was the founder of the Jewish people so God is on the side of the Jewish people and through them to the Christians. The Islamic people are also spiritual descendants of Abraham so God is on their side too.

Now Jesus came to complete the covenant. In Christianity we have the true covenant and so God must really be on our side, surely. The big problem with that is that many of our wars have seen Christians pitted against Christians. So whose side is God really on? It surely must be our side because we are the good guys.

We Christians are the followers of Jesus. In fact we claim to be part of the Mystical Body of Christ. Now you can’t get much closer than that so we must be the good guys with God on our side. That still leaves the question of what God is going to do to our enemies and when He is going to do it.

It’s still a puzzle so I decided to look at it from another direction. How do we know we are the good guys? We must be the good guys if we follow the example of Jesus. Jesus taught us to love our neighbour – even if he is our enemy. In short, Jesus came to save everyone. God is on everyone’s side. As Bob Dylan put it

But I can’t think for you

You’ll have to decide

Whether Judas Iscariot

Had God on his side.

“With God on our side”. Bob Dylan

When the news is all bad it is useful to remember that the news is not the whole story. It is just a sample of what is going on in a chaotic world. We are reminded in this Jubilee Year of Mercy that we have to let the voice of God speak through the clamour of a complex world. His Holiness Pope Francis recently spoke of Benedictine Monasteries being oases of mercy. They allow God to speak amid the deafening and distracted lifestyle of today’s world.

I don’t live in a monastery. I’m out here in this deafening clamour of a modern world. How am I supposed to let the voice of God speak out? The Holy Father also spoke recently on the occasion of the Canonisation of Saint Theresa of Calcutta. He held he up as an example of a single person who worked to let God’s voice be heard in her actions.

Mother Theresa, as she was known, was heavily criticised for her failures. She failed to do anything to cure the people in her care; she just let them die in dignity. She failed to tackle the root causes of poverty but just lived with the poor. These criticisms say more about the critics than they do about Theresa. In failing to cure the root causes of poverty this one woman failed just as every government in the world failed. In living with the poor and being with them in death she threw a spotlight on the failures of a rich world.

If Theresa, one woman, can have such an impact then surely we too can play our part. What can I do, alone in the face of a hostile world? Of course, I’ve got it wrong. I’m not alone. God is on my side. He is there ready to help me face up to my worst enemy. Who would that be, my worst enemy? Is it ISIS? Is it the capitalist world? No, it’s only me. I’m my worst enemy.

I’m the one who lets doubts undermine my resolve to follow Christ’s example. I’m the one who refuses to see Christ in every other human being. I’m the one who allows myself to be deluded by the world into thinking that the simple message of Jesus to love my neighbour might not always apply – especially to an enemy.

I’m the one who can’t see that Jesus never saw an enemy. He was opposed by many and killed for his message but He died for the sinners who opposed Him. This is the real message I take from this Year of Mercy. It’s not about forgiving people. It’s not about letting others get away with things. I think the Year of Mercy is about changing how we see each other.

I’m writing this on a very early Sunday morning. In six hours I’ll be at Mass and sharing the sign of peace with those around me. I won’t go round the whole church shaking hands with every other person. Not only would that take too long but it would miss the point. In sharing the sign of peace with those beside me I’ m symbolising the sharing of God’s peace with everyone. Not just everyone in the church for that Mass, but everyone.

I must confess that I’d never considered that I was sharing God’s peace with every other human being. I’ve been missing the point all these years. This should be a symbolic statement of what I’m going to do in the world. My outlook must change. Every day must be an occasion for me to allow God’s voice to be heard through my attitude to others and my actions. Just like Saint Theresa, I need to see through the bad news, the political posturing and the negative propaganda to the simple truth of Christ’s message.

Of course I don’t know how to go about this. I’m not smart enough to figure this out for myself. Fortunately I don’t have to. I’m not alone in this. I have God on my side. What I really need to do is to listen to Him. Listen for that quiet voice every day. I don’t need to look for opportunities to help my fellow human beings. God will point them out.

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The Price of Mercy – Full Text

The price of mercy

In this series on Mercy I have quoted from the Holy Father and from the Gospel. This month I’d like to consider a quote from Shakespeare. Now you might think that Shakespeare is not an appropriate source for a quote. He was neither a Pope nor a noted Catholic writer. There is, however evidence that he was a secret Catholic and he is a world famous writer.

In his play, The Merchant of Venice, his character, Portia is pleading for the life of Antonio with the following words;

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

Now I was never the greatest Shakespeare scholar but that quote has stuck in my head for over fifty years. I can agree with some of the sentiments it contains but I disagree on one important aspect. The quote seems to suggest that mercy is free, dropping from Heaven. Now it is true that God’s mercy that brings us to salvation comes from Heaven but it is certainly not free. Jesus paid a heavy price to save us.

It is worth considering if mercy is ever free. The recent case of Fr. Hamel, the priest who was murdered while celebrating Mass in his parish in France poses a question for us. How are we to respond to the threat of such violence against Catholic priests and parishioners? Do we need to step up security in our churches? Will priests require someone riding shotgun at the Mass?

What is the Christian response? Perhaps we should look at the incident in France more closely. It was reported that Fr. Hamel said “Go away Satan” to his attacker. I find this very significant; it’s not what would spring to my mind in that situation. Why did he say that? What did he mean? My first thought was that he was referring to ISIS as the work of the Devil.

These attackers bring death to those whose religious beliefs differ from their own, even among Muslim believers. Christians see God as the giver of life, the great gift we all have from God. Only God can take back that gift. We see the Devil as bringer of death. For ISIS to boast about bringing death to other believers could be seen as being associated with the Devil. It could be then that Fr. Hamel was referring to his attackers as Satan. There may be another explanation however.

His short sentence, “Go away Satan.” Reminds me of the words of Jesus when he was tempted by the Devil in the desert. He said, “Get thee behind me Satan.” Was that in Fr. Hamel’s mind when he was attacked? Surely he was being attacked, not tempted. I would have given a more violent response in his situation. Is that where the clue lies? Did Fr. Hamel see past the immediate danger to his life and recognise another danger? If his response had been one of hate of his attacker than that would be contrary to his priestly life of preaching God’s love. Fr. Hamel perceived the attack as Satan’s attack on his faith.

Fr. Hamel’s response has highlighted the greatest danger that such attacks present. The natural response to violence is violence. Christ’s teaching and example refutes that. His response to violence was love. As Christians we too must resist the pressure to resort to violence. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbour – even when that neighbour is an enemy. If we abandon that then we are abandoning the core of Christ’s teaching and Satan is the winner.

What does that mean for us? Should we defend ourselves against attack or should we turn the other cheek and be killed? I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Followers in the early Church faced oppression and death for the sake of their faith. The Faith not only survived but grew and flourished. The Faith grew because it teaches values that make sense. In our western culture today those values seem out of place.

Human life is not valued as can be seen in modern attitudes to abortion and euthanasia. Human slavery still exists – even in our own country. A society which values money more than human life has a poor future. The biggest flaw in today’s society is the failure to value truth.

Truth is the basic value in any society. In a court of law we must promise on oath to tell the truth because we can never reach a correct conclusion based on lies. The recent referendum threw up many examples of people telling lies to persuade voters in one direction or other. Unfortunately there was no independent authority who could remove the lies from the debate. Now that we have a decision many people still know if we have done the right thing. People who told the lies, then admitted it have either walked away or are running the country. Truth still seems to be an outlaw.

As Christians we must be willing to tell the truth and be willing to pay the price for that. We must act with mercy towards our enemies and pay the price for that. It is interesting to remember that when Christ was crucified he prayed, “Father forgive them” for those who had lied, accused him falsely and killed him. As these acts of terror come closer to home will we be able to demonstrate the strength of faith that so many in Syria have shown by dying rather than convert?

So what should our response be if we are attacked? We can and should defend ourselves but proportionately. We must act out of love not hate. We can’t just bomb the Middle East out of existence as one American politician apparently suggested. And if you do die for your Faith; what then? Perhaps the many young people whose view of Christianity has been distorted by an untruthful society will see some value in love and mercy and return to Jesus.

 

Joseph McGrath

My July Column – Getting it Wrong Full Text

Which one is the Muppet?

Which one is the Muppet?

Getting it wrong

Since my last column it seems many things have gone wrong. The big issue was the referendum on the E.U. and what we were told was going to happen. We were told that the Remain camp would win by about 52% to 48%. The reverse was the real outcome. We voted by 52% to 48% to leave the E.U. and take back control.

Those who supported Remain were very unhappy. Those who supported Leave were not so happy either. Lots of things we were told would happen turned out not to be. Let’s take a look at what we were told. The Prime Minister told us that he would remain in post to see us through the exit from Europe if we voted for that. The day after he announced his departure – after his summer holidays, that is. He got it wrong.

We had been promised that £365 million that went to the E.U. each week would be saved and could be spent on the NHS. Now is seems that was a mistake. They got it wrong. We would take back control of our borders and cut out immigration. It seems we got that wrong as well. However we would have experienced charismatic political leaders to negotiate our terms for leaving the E.U.

Sadly, it seems that they have found it impossible to accept the job, possibly as a result of internal squabbling. Surprisingly, some of those who voted to leave didn’t expect to win, thinking everyone else would vote to stay. They got it wrong.

I saw a comment from one prominent Leave politician saying we should hire some experts from Asia to negotiate our exit. This was the man who said we should disregard experts. It seems he got it wrong. The same man then stood up in the European Parliament and told all the other M.E.P. s that they had never held a proper job. He was surrounded by scientists, prominent businessmen, entrepreneurs and others who held very senior posts. He just got it wrong.

Getting it wrong is more common that we like to think. I was listening to the news this morning and heard that Southern Trains is going to cut out hundreds of trains because they have been unable to get people into London on time for work. They didn’t explain how having fewer trains will help people get into London. They will just have fewer trains arriving late. I think they got it wrong.

Fortunately, as Catholics, we can have confidence that we got it right. We joined the right Church and if we go to Mass on Sundays, get to confession (just before we die) and avoid a criminal lifestyle then we are assured a place in Heaven. I’ll avoid telling the story of Ian Paisley being shown round Heaven by Saint Peter, coming on a high wall with “Silence!” notices displayed. “What’s in there?” He asked. “That’s where the Catholics are. They think they’re the only ones here.”, came the answer.

Sadly, I think we Catholics do get it wrong – often. All too often we are presumptuous. We assume that having declared ourselves to be on God’s side He will be on our side too. We can go about our business knowing that God is looking after us. We have done our bit and now it is up to God to keep his side of the bargain.

Many Catholics recognise that Jesus showed us good examples to copy and spend their lives in good works to earn a place in Heaven. The more we do here on Earth the higher the place we will have in Heaven. This is not a new idea. In Mark’s gospel we see James and John, the apostles, ask Jesus about their place in Heaven.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached him. “Master,” they said to him “we want you to do us a favour.” He said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in glory”. “You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I must drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I must be baptised?” They replied, “We can”. Jesus said to them “The cup that I must drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I must be baptised you shall be baptised, but as for seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted”.

Mark 10: 35, 40

This is a curious passage and it raises many questions. James and John have given up everything to follow Jesus. They are willing to face whatever befalls them for His sake. They expect to be rewarded in Heaven and are asking Jesus how they will fare. Jesus recognises their sacrifice but tells them that what they do will not earn them a high place in Heaven. They got it wrong.

When we do good works here on Earth to earn a high place in Heaven – we get it wrong. We are not promised a high reward for our work. I wonder who those people are, to whom those places are allotted. Jesus does not tell us. It is worth remembering that we do not know the mind of God.

Does this mean that we don’t need to do any good works to get into Heaven? We can find the answer in Luke’s gospel.

“Which of you, with a servant ploughing or minding sheep, would say to him when he returned from the fields, “Come and have your meal immediately”? Would he not be more likely to say, “Get my supper laid; make yourself tidy and wait on me while I eat and drink. You can eat and drink yourself afterwards”? Must he be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told? So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.”

Luke 17:7, 10

So there you have it. We are no more than servants and do good works because that is what we have been told to do. We are not earning a high place in Heaven – we got that wrong. We can only get to Heaven by the mercy of God. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the outreaching hand of God’s mercy to pull us into Heaven.

Just as an aside, I wonder about this idea of sitting in Heaven on Jesus’ right hand or left hand. Think about the saints you know. Saint Anthony never gets a minute for people like me asking him to find things they have lost (and making a few pounds for the poor in the process). Saint Pio is constantly bombarded with requests and Saint Rita seems to spend hours finding parking places for my wife.

If these great saints are kept busy in Heaven what lies in store for the rest of us lesser beings? It doesn’t sound like an easy time, but it might be fun.

My May Column – Through the Holy Door – Full Text

Through the Holy Door

The Holy Father, Pope Francis instituted the Holy Year of Mercy by opening the Holy Door on the 8th December 2015 at the Vatican. Each diocese has its own holy door and we are all invited to pass through this door. Since last month’s article I have been on a pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome as part of my Holy Year. I have passed through Holy doors in Assisi and at the Vatican as well as other basilicas in Rome.

So what is it like to pass through this door? What happens as you pass through? Well it’s like passing through any other door. What happens is you go from the outside to the inside. Going through the door doesn’t do anything to you. It is a symbolic act. It symbolises my coming in from the world’s values into the values Christ taught us. By walking through the door I express my willingness, my intention to change, to follow Christ’s teachings of mercy.

Walking through the door is only the start. We are expected to stop and pray, contemplating our coming to Christ’s mercy. To gain the jubilee indulgence we are also expected to receive the sacrament of reconciliation and the Eucharist soon after. Confessions in a range of languages were available in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran when we went through that particular holy door and our parish priest; Fr. Eamon Sweeney celebrated mass with us every day of the pilgrimage.

This was my first time in Rome. The Vatican is a magnificent setting. Saint Peter’s Square, (It’s not really square) filled with people is something to be experienced. Security in The Vatican City is very tight with armed police and soldiers at strategic points. We had to pass through airport type scanners each time we went in. That didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds.

I didn’t find Saint Peter’s to be the place I had expected. The architecture, the history and the artworks are very impressive but it felt, to me a bit like a museum. The crowds of tourists milling around taking pictures added to this feeling. I was looking for the centre, the core of the Church and it didn’t seem to be here. Turning round I met a young man from the Balkans with his little daughter Matilda on his shoulders. Now that is where the core of the Church lies; in the people, especially the children.

My image of the Vatican has changed. I don’t see it as the core of the Church but as a kind of pin that Catholics all over the world are linked to and through that linked to each other. It’s a symbol of our unity together under the leadership of the Holy Father. However I can understand why Pope Francis decided to live somewhere other than the Papal apartments.

During our time in Rome we attended the Papal blessing and the Holy Father’s general audience. His address during the audience was enlightening. He referred to the parable of the Good Shepherd and the lost sheep. The Pope told us that Jesus doesn’t see any of us as lost sheep but just sheep waiting to be found. His intention is for everyone to be saved. Just as the Good Shepherd rejoices in bringing back the lost sheep, Jesus rejoices in the return of the sinner.

He also mentioned that the rest of the flock rejoices in the return of the lost sheep. That raises the question of how we, the rest of the flock, view the return of the sinner. That was a bit puzzling. I’m not sure whether I am one of the rest of the flock or a sinner making a return. I suppose I am both. My life seems to go in cycles when I am sometimes out of touch with God and times when I get closer. However, it does imply that I should be rejoicing when sinners return to the fold. That raises the question of how I respond to returning sinners. Do I welcome those who have seen the error of their ways or am I dismissive of their motives? Jesus spent a lot of time with people who were widely regarded as sinners. Some thought that made him a bit suspect. Am I willing to be thought suspect by welcoming sinners?

Another important theme in the story of the Good Shepherd is that the lost sheep can’t find its way back on its own. Just like the sheep we can only find our way back to Jesus because He reaches out to us. The Church provides the paths back to Jesus through the sacrament of reconciliation, bringing forgiveness and the Eucharist, nourishment for the soul. How can we act like Jesus and help bring lost sheep back to the fold? I pose the question but I’m afraid I can’t give the answer. I can suggest what not to do. We should never condemn sinners; for two reasons. The first reason is that I am a sinner and I’d rather not be condemned and the second reason is that Jesus never condemned anybody.

If I can come back to the Holy Door for a moment, I’d like to point out that after going in through the Holy Door I came back out. If going in through the Holy Door was a symbol of turning back from worldly ways to the gospel teaching, then going back out can only be symbolic of taking the gospel out into the world. Passing through the door and taking the other steps to gain the indulgence offered is only the first step, not an end in itself. There is no going back to our old ways. We are now on a new path, bringing mercy to our fellow sinners.

Perhaps we could take a leaf out of the Holy Father’s book. When we attended the General Audience in Saint Peter’s Square the security was highly visible and very strict. Armed police and soldiers screened everyone entering the square and the Pope’s personal security men kept very close. Despite this and the threats that lay behind it, he was joyful on his tour round the square. His face lit up as he toured and the crowd cheered.

Our gospel story is the greatest story ever told. It is the good news and that should surely show in our faces as we make our daily rounds of work, shopping and our home life. I have to ask myself if I am showing the joy that Christ’s message brings or if I’m just a grumpy wee bald guy, muttering to himself as he goes about his day. I’ll have to give that some thought. Am I encouraging others by my joyful outlook or am I putting people off by giving the impression that the Church is a solemn, glum place to be?

If you would like to hear the Holy Father and the English translation of the summary of his talk you will find it below.

My April Column – Mercy in Marriage? – Full Text

My latest column in the Scottish Catholic Observer was published last week. The full text is below. It’s on the theme of the Jubilee Year of Mercy and looks at the Holy Father, Pope Francis’ thoughtd on marriage.

Sinners

My wife recently insisted I install the Pope App on my tablet. She has been using it for a while now. I was a bit sceptical at first but soon realised this was a direct line to the Holy Father’s thoughts. I thought I’d find out a bit more about his thinking on mercy. This morning I opened the app and there was a record of his comments in the general audience this week.

Pope Francis was talking about sinners. “Ah, what will he say about them?”, I thought. His message was that we are all sinners. There is no ‘them’. It is all about ‘us’. He spoke about Jesus’ attitude to sinners. In short Jesus is all about sinners, all about ‘us’. That made me have a closer look at how Jesus treated sinners he met. The incident that came to mind was the story about the woman taken in adultery.

The religious leaders came to Jesus who was teaching in the temple. The brought along a woman they said had been caught in the act of committing adultery. They quoted the Law of Moses which said she should be stoned to death and asked Jesus his opinion. This was not the first time they had tried to trap Jesus. They obviously didn’t understand who they were up against.

Jesus started writing on the ground with his finger. They persisted with their question and Jesus replied that the man who has not sinned should throw the first stone and continued to write. They began to walk away, starting with the eldest, till they were all gone.

Now I can see the wisdom of his answer, but I am puzzled about what he was writing on the ground and why. I did some research on this. One commentator drew a distinction between writing in a book and writing in the dust. He suggested that if your name was written in the book it meant salvation but writing the name in the dust meant quite the opposite. Could it be that Jesus was writing the names of the accusers in the dust to warn them about their own fate?

I’m not sure that theory is right. Given that they saw Jesus as an imposter and a fraud, his writing their names wouldn’t have much effect. I think that his writing had such an effect because Jesus wrote things that nobody else knew. I think that Jesus exposed all of them as sinners and that came as a shock. They were the authorities, the people who thought of themselves as holy, not sinners. Jesus was showing them that they were not better than the woman, just sinners.

We can be very illogical when we make judgements. The Jews brought the woman caught in adultery but did not bring the man. Adultery is something that takes two people to commit. They saw the woman as the sinner but not the man. How often do we see sin in others but not in ourselves? Some sins are more visible than others. The big issue in the Church at the moment is that of divorced and remarried Catholics. Divorce and remarriage is very public. Catholics in that situation are often made to feel excluded from the Church while the rest of us can continue to sin and still be accepted.

STOP PRESS!

Now this is a very strange coincidence. Just as I’ve written this a message has popped up on my screen telling me that His Holiness has just published his thoughts on marriage. His document, ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (The Joy of Love) was dated 19th March, Saint Joseph’s day, but has only just been published because of the time taken to translate it into different languages. Isn’t it strange that it was dated on the feast of the saint faced with a marriage difficulty but carried on, in love to take Mary as his wife? I need to stop and have a read at what Pope Francis has to say.

There were many voices predicting that Pope Francis would announce a change in Catholic teaching on marriage, recognising divorce and remarriage. They have been proven wrong. His Holiness has not proposed any change in the laws of the Church. What he has proposed is a change in us. It’s not the Church’s teaching that’s the problem, it’s how we see those teachings. Pope Francis points out that none of us knows what problems others face in their private lives. The Church holds up the ideal for us to aspire to. How many of us really understand what the sacrament of matrimony is really about?

Many people think the sacrament is the wedding. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sacrament is the married life the couple live. That should help us to understand why the Church takes marriage so seriously; it’s not just an agreement between two people it is a sacrament and that involves God. If the couple do not understand that when they get married then they are not properly prepared. Rather than just quoting ‘Till death do us part’ and expecting people to get on with it we should be more understanding and supportive of those in difficult situations.

I think it is important to remember that the laws of the Church are intended to help us and never to put us in harm. We are presented with an ideal to work towards. We ourselves are not ideal creatures. We have a nature that is not easy to understand. I saw a quote from C.S. Lewis the other day that stopped me in my tracks. It is this;

You do not have a soul.

You are a soul. You have a body.

The first sentence stopped me. I have always been taught that I had an immortal soul. The next part clarifies it. We are essentially spirit. That’s the real us. We have a body to enable us to live on this earth and that body has its needs and desires that can be different from our spirit self. The body’s needs can take control. You can’t kill yourself by holding your breath. Your body will switch you off, you faint and the body starts you breathing again.

These conflicts in our natures can cause people to do things they would never plan to do. How many mild women have murdered their abusing husband when driven over the edge? That’s an extreme example. The Holy Father is encouraging us to stop judging people. We have to remember that the Church’s role is to bring people to Christ, not exclude them.

I have not read the whole of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ it is 264 pages long, but I did read the summary. Both of these documents are available online. I have made a link to them in my webpage and I would encourage you to have a read at the summary if not the full document. The link to my page is at the end of this article. Have a read; you will be uplifted and encouraged. There is hope for us all in Francis’ words.

Joseph McGrath

My March Column – Full Text

Lord have mercy

Lord have mercy

In this jubilee Year of Mercy we are being encouraged to be merciful as God is merciful. This month I’d like to look more closely at that. How do we see God being merciful and is it possible for us to emulate Him? If you ask people how God is merciful you will get some surprising answers. Some people see God’s mercy in ways we didn’t imagine while others don’t think God is merciful at all.

Many people look at tragedies and decide that God is not being merciful. These might be personal tragedies such as sudden deaths or incurable illness. It is understandable that when we suffer the loss of a loved one we may feel that God is being unfair to us. “That’s not right” or “why should this happen to me” are typical responses in those situations. How can God be merciful when He allows someone to die young or to suffer a long illness?

Sometimes these things are taken a step further. If God is not merciful then He is not the God I believe  in, some will say. If that’s the case then I don’t believe in God anymore. You can see the train of thought but it’s not really logical. You can’t blame God for things and then not believe in Him because of what He does. If He does not exist then He can’t be blamed. Logically, then we can believe in a bad God who is not merciful. Does that make any sense?

I suppose it all boils down to people believing in a different God. We might like to believe in a God who will be looking out for us and making things work out the way we want. We can believe in a God who will always give us what we ask for. That is not the God of Abraham and Isaac. It’s not the one God. Perhaps we really believe in Santa Claus; a Santa Claus who doesn’t restrict his work to Christmas but is always on tap.

Sadly I don’t believe in Santa Clause. It’s true that God expects us to be childlike in many ways but He expects us to take an adult view of our faith. God gives us the gift of life. It is only a temporary gift in this world. It will be taken away and replaced with a better version. Is that cruel or merciful? Imagine you are driving a fifty year old Ferrari and God takes it away (sad) but replaces it with the latest model (delighted). Would you complain? That’s a silly question; some people would complain.

What I’m saying is that we have been given a life in this world and we are constricted by the physical laws of our universe. We can’t fly like superman and we don’t have X-Ray vision but we have been given much greater powers than the rest of creation. We are the only species that has the intelligence that enables to reshape our world. We have free will to choose how to behave. Sometimes we get it wrong. How does God behave when we get it wrong? He forgives us.

So, this year I’m going to try to be more like God. That might sound a bit pretentious. After all, God is the Supreme Being, all powerful and omnipresent. I’m not very powerful (not in our house anyway) and I’m only ever in one place at a time. How can I become more like God? How forgiving must I be?

Let’s see how forgiving Jesus was. When Peter asked him how many times he must forgive his brother Jesus’ answer must have surprised him.

Then Peter went up to him and said, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?”  As often as seven times? Jesus answered, “Not seven, I tell you but seventy seven times.”

Matthew 18:21,22

 

Seventy seven times is a great deal of forgiving but I don’t think it stops there. Jesus was not putting a limit of seventy seven times on forgiveness. It was His way of saying that we must just go on forgiving. I must say I can see Peter’s point. Having forgiven seven times I would expect the other person to get the message and stop whatever he was doing.

That’s where I’m falling down. How many times have I gone to confession and confessed the same sin? I can tell you it’s much more than seven times, probably more that seventy seven times. Each time Jesus gives His forgiveness.

How can we understand forgiveness like that? Jesus gives us the answer in the story of the prodigal son. The younger son is cheeky and feckless. He wants his inheritance while he is still young enough to enjoy spending it. That’s just what he does. He goes off and spends the lot on living the high life. When the money is gone he finds himself in a foreign country and is starving. He sees how wrong he was and returns to his father to ask to be a servant.

The father is watching out for him and goes to meet him. Everything is forgiven because he loves his son so much. The older brother who stayed and worked for the father gets annoyed because the son who returned is welcomed and he gets no recognition.

There are hard lessons here. Jesus is telling us that it is love that will enable us to forgive. It is in forgiving that we show our love for our neighbour. The younger brother does well in this story but the older brother feels hard done by. Where do you fit into this story? Are you the prodigal, happy to be forgiven or the older brother getting annoyed when sinners are forgiven? I think I’m the prodigal and if you are the older brother I ask your forgiveness also.

Long before this Jubilee Year of Mercy, forgiveness was a big issue for us. One of the first prayers we were taught was the Our Father. We say it at every mass, at the start of each decade of the rosary and it is often the prayer that unites Christians of different churches. However it must not be taken lightly. It is a dangerous prayer.

In the Our Father we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. Do we really want God to treat us in the same way we treat people who have ‘trespassed against us?’  That’s what we are saying. Perhaps the Year of Mercy has come along at just the right time for me. I have to think about how I treat other people, especially the ones who annoy me or actually harm me in some way. I might feel righteously aggrieved and feel I have every right to make them pay. Be that as it may, I must learn to forgive, even if it’s only so that God will forgive me in turn.

It’s a few months since my last confession and I’m going before Easter. I’m not going because I can earn forgiveness by going (although I find it very hard as someone who is always right to go and admit I’m often wrong) but I’m going to experience that great Love that God has for me just like the father for the prodigal.

Happy Easter.