A God of Mercy, Then as Now
A few years ago ABC aired an episode of the sitcom "Dharma and Greg" in which Greg, a lawyer who had recently given up his career to search for true meaning in life, tells his wife Dharma that he plans to read the entire Bible cover-to-cover. Dharma tells Greg that he doesn't need to do that because she can summarize it for him: "Part one, don't mess with God. Part two, be nice to people."
The line got big laughs, probably because many of us suppose Dharma's view of the Bible to be true. Do we assume that God was vengeful and strict in the Old Testament and forgiving in the New? Do we believe that people were just expected to offer blood sacrifices to God before Jesus came and got new orders to love each other after He came?
If so, a closer look at the Old Testament will show us that the message of mercy that Jesus gave to St. Faustina is not as new as we may think. The ancient Israelites heard it, too, through the books in the Old Testament, including those from the prophets who came before Jesus and whose writings we hear at Mass so often at this time of year.
Jesus' preaching reminded His fellow Jews of what they had already heard: that Yahweh is, and always has been, a God who gives and demands mercy. Let us take a look at two major themes of the Diary of St. Faustina — love of neighbor and forgiveness of sin — and see how these ideas show up in parts of the Bible we may not expect.
Love of Neighbor
We all know the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable, Jesus showed that the priest and the Levite, although they lived by the traditional rituals of the temple, did not obey God's supreme law of love.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus taught again and again that love is supreme. He criticized the legalism of the lawyers and Pharisees, who thought no work — including works of mercy — should be allowed on the Sabbath. Jesus admonished them: "If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?" (Lk 14:3). Jesus repeated this primary need for love of neighbor to St. Faustina in the 1930s when he told her, "I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbor always and everywhere. ... Yes, the first Sunday after Easter is the Feast of Mercy, but there must also be acts of mercy" (Diary, 742).
Jesus explained to St. Faustina that even though He was giving aching mankind new channels or forms of devotion to receive the outpouring of His grace — new channels that include venerating the Image of The Divine Mercy, celebrating the Feast of Mercy (Divine Mercy Sunday), praying the Chaplet and the Novena to The Divine Mercy, and prayer at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the Hour of Great Mercy — these channels were not ends in themselves. Rather, they are to be reminders of "the demands of My mercy, because even the strongest faith is of no avail without works" (Diary, 742).
My guess is that few of us are surprised to hear Jesus place love above liturgy, but what if we heard an Old Testament prophet do the same? Generations before Jesus came, Micah reminded the Israelites that the covenant they had with God was founded on His commandments to treat people with love and justice, not on ritual offerings.
" 'With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?' God has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, to walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:6-8).
The author of the book of Jonah also knew that God wanted us to put concern for each other's well-being above the letter of the law and above our own wills. When Jonah, the story's reluctant prophet, finally preached to Nineveh, he became angry with God for not dealing out the punishment He had promised. Later, Jonah complained against God again, this time for killing the bush that Jonah was using for shade. God replied, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left ... ?" (Jonah 4:10-11).
Jonah's story was written to remind Israel of the high value God placed on people and of his demand that the Israelites serve each other, the same demand Jesus made of St. Faustina when he told her, "My daughter, you do not live for yourself but for souls; write for their benefit" (Diary, 895).
Forgiveness of Sin
The story of Nineveh points to another important theme in the Diary and in Scripture: God's readiness to forgive repentant sinners.
John the Baptist promised we could be forgiven if we turned away from sin, and Jesus gave a dramatic illustration of that promise in the parable of the prodigal son. In the Diary, Jesus repeatedly told Faustina how eager he is to rush out and meet sinners who take even the smallest step toward Him. He assured her, "Even if there were a sinner most hardened, if he were to recite [the Chaplet of Divine Mercy] only once, he would receive grace from My infinite mercy" (Diary, 687).
Likewise, the ancient prophet Isaiah taught Israel that no sin is greater than God's mercy. When the Israelites had broken God's covenant, Isaiah first condemned them to make them know their guilt: "Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!" (Is 1:4)
After rebuking them, however, Isaiah assured the people that God's forgiveness could be theirs: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool" (Is 1:18). Clearly, the God of today is the same as the God of yesterday: "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing" (Jonah 4:2).
Finally, remember King David. He committed one of the worst sins in Scripture when he had an affair with Bathsheba, the wife of his foot soldier Uriah, and then had Uriah killed when he found out that Bathsheba was pregnant and he could not cover it up. The prophet Nathan shamed David by reminding him that God had blessed and anointed him, and in return David had broken God's commandments against adultery and murder. David repented, saying, "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Sam 12:13), and Nathan replied, "Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die" (2 Sam 12:13).
Although Bathsheba's baby died, David's remorse and grief were so complete that God blessed the couple with another son, Solomon. Despite David's sin, God did not abandon him. No wonder the psalmist who reflected on God's covenant with David began his psalm with these words: "I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens" (Ps 89:1-2).
When Jesus was born into Judaism, he inherited a tradition founded on God's mercy to mankind and on his command that his people practice mercy, too. Remember that Jesus himself quoted Hebrew Scripture when he said that the two greatest commandments are "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deut 6:5) and "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18).
If we ever feel tempted to view the God of the Bible as distant or uncaring, we can read these words from Jesus to St. Faustina, "My child, do you fear the God of mercy? My holiness does not prevent me from being merciful ... I am not surrounded by a retinue of guards. You can come to me at any moment, at any time; I want to speak to you and desire to grant you grace" (Diary, 1485).
Lord Jesus, teach us to obey the law of Moses and the prophets, the law of love that your Father gave to our spiritual ancestors out of His great mercy.
Marian Tascio is a freelance writer and school teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.