Divine Mercy 101: St. Luke: The Gospel of Mercy

A weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy

WEEK 8: Saint Luke: The Gospel of Mercy

If the Son of God Himself is overflowing with merciful love, it is no wonder that the New Testament encourages everyone to place all their trust in Him, and in His heavenly Father. In St. Matthew's story of Jesus walking on the water, for example, the underlying message is not only that Jesus manifests His divine power over nature by this miracle, but also that Christians are encouraged to trust in Him in the midst of all the raging waters and threatening waves of this trouble-filled life:

So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me." Jesus immediately reached out His hand and caught him, saying to him, "O man of little faith, why did you doubt?" And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped Him, saying, "Truly, you are the Son of God."

In Matthew 6:26, Jesus called His disciples to trust in the merciful providence of God, whose tender care is even manifested to some extent in nature: "Look at the birds of the air: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?"

Another important mercy theme in the life of Jesus is His exhortation to be merciful to others as God is merciful to us: "Be merciful, as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36). Divine Mercy is not just to be received for oneself; it is to be shared with others. Indeed, our Lord teaches that this is one of the most important aspects of the moral law (Mt 23:23): "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, and mercy, and faith." Indeed, it is a recurrent theme in the teaching of Jesus that if we refuse to pass on the mercy we have received, we are in danger of judgement: "Blessed are the merciful, for they [the Greek here implies "only they"] shall obtain mercy."

All this is vividly illustrated for us in Jesus' Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, in which a servant who was forgiven a huge debt by his Master then turned around and had one of his fellow servants thrown into prison for the latter's inability to pay him what he owed. The Master summoned the unforgiving servant and said to him: "You wicked servant! I forgave all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?" Indeed, to forgive the sins of others is a truly Christ-like manifestation of merciful love. As Jesus said (Lk 17:3): "Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive him."

St. Luke: The Gospel of Mercy
One gospel in particular, the Gospel According to St. Luke, has traditionally merited the title "the Gospel of Mercy." First of all, the theme of God's merciful love really ties the whole book together from beginning to end: Mercy is its "leitmotif," one might say. Secondly, the gospel contains a cluster of parables in chapter 15 which are unique to St. Luke's gospel, and which especially highlight the merciful love of God. Finally, St. Luke places special emphasis on the universal scope of Divine Mercy, portraying it as a distinctive characteristic of the Kingdom of God dawning upon the world through Jesus Christ. 

Let us begin with a look at how the theme of God's merciful love runs through the entire book. 

In its opening chapter, St. Luke's gospel begins with two great canticles in praise of Divine Mercy: the Magnificat and the Benedictus. The Magnificat is essentially a hymn of thanksgiving to the God of hesed-mercy: A god of steadfast love and faithfulness. In verses 46-50, for example, Mary praises God for showering His mercy upon her:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name;
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation. 

Mary then praises God in verses 51-55 for His mercy upon the faithful poor of Israel, who trusted Him to keep his promises to send the Messiah:

He has shown strength with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his posterity forever.

In the Benedictus in verses 67-79, Zechariah praises God for keeping His covenant promises to Israel: "As he spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant." Thus, Zechariah rejoices that the true Israel will be established, just as God had promised through His prophets. But Zechariah also recognizes that the new Israel will not be exactly the same as the old one; in verse 77 he acknowledges that the new Israel will be built upon deliverance from sin: "To give knowledge of salvation to His people, for the forgiveness of their sins." The new Israel will be spiritually renewed in every respect, all this will be a manifestation of the Lord's tender mercy: "Through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace." Here also the phrase about giving "light to those who sit in darkness" is probably an allusion to Isaiah 9:2 : "The people who walked in darkness [that is, the Gentiles] have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has the light shined."

In short, God will keep His promises to restore the Kingdom of Israel, but it will be a spiritually renewed Israel, and somehow the Gentiles will be brought in as well. All this comes from the "tender mercy" of God. The phrase used here in the Greek original text of St. Luke's gospel is "splagchna eleous," which literally means through the "bowels" or "guts" of God's "mercy"-a phrase that expresses how deep the mercy of the Lord for us really is.

This series continues next week on the theme, "The Parables of Divine Mercy"

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of The John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

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