Hearts of Prayer- Lenten Season
"Let Us Call Even Those Who
Hate Us 'Brother'"
4th Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 30, 2007
1. The mercy of Christ
The beatitude on which we would like to reflect in this last Lenten
meditation is the fifth in the order of St. Matthew's Gospel:
"Blessed are the merciful for they shall find mercy." As we have
done in all our meditations this Lent, we will take as our point of
departure the affirmation that the beatitudes are a self-portrait of
Christ, and, following the procedure we have used in the past, we
will ask how Jesus lived mercy. What does Jesus' life tell us about
In the Bible, the word "mercy" has two basic meanings: The first
indicates the attitude of the stronger part (in the covenant, this
would be God himself) toward the weaker part and it usually
expresses itself in the forgiveness of infidelities and of faults;
the second indicates the attitude toward the need of the other and
it expresses itself in the so-called works of mercy. (In this second
sense the term appears often in the Book of Tobit.) There is, so to
say, a mercy of the heart and a mercy of the hands.
Both forms of mercy shine forth in Jesus' life. He reflects God's
mercy toward sinners, but he is also moved by all human sufferings
and needs; he gives the crowds to eat, heals the sick, frees the
oppressed. The Evangelist says of him: "He has taken on our
infirmities and borne our sicknesses" (Matthew 8:17).
In the beatitude we are considering, the prevalent sense is
certainly the first one, that of forgiving and remitting sins. This
is what we conclude from considering the beatitude and its reward:
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy," that is, with
God, who remits their sins. Jesus' admonition, "Be merciful as your
Father is merciful," is immediately explained with "forgive and you
will be forgiven" (Luke 6:36-37).
We know of Jesus' acceptance of sinners in the Gospel and the
opposition this earns him from the defenders of the law, who accuse
him of being "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors
and sinners" (Luke 7:34). One of Jesus' sayings which is best
attested to historically is: "I have not come to call the just, but
sinners" (Mark 2:17). Feeling accepted and not condemned by him,
sinners listen to him gladly.
But who are the sinners in question? In line with the widespread
tendency today to get the Pharisees of the Gospel entirely off the
hook, attributing the negative image to a later doctoring by the
Evangelists, someone has claimed that these "sinners" were only "the
deliberate and impenitent transgressors of the law," in other
words, the common delinquents of the time and those who had gone
outside the law.
If this were so, then Jesus' adversaries would have been entirely
right to be scandalized and see him as an irresponsible and socially
dangerous person. It would be as if a priest today were to regularly
frequent members of the mafia and criminals and accept their
invitations to dinner with the pretext of speaking to them of God.
In reality, this is not how things are. The Pharisees had their
vision of the law and of what conformed to it or was contrary, and
they considered reprobate all those who did not follow their
practices. Jesus does not deny that sin and sinners exist; he does
not justify Zacchaeus' frauds or the deed of the woman caught in
adultery. The fact that he calls them "sick" shows this.
What Jesus condemns is the relegating to oneself the determination
of what true justice is and considering everyone else to be
"thieves, unjust, adulterers," denying them the possibility of
conversion. The way that Luke introduces the parable of the Pharisee
and the tax collector is significant: "He also told this parable to
some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised
others" (Luke 18:9). Jesus was more severe with those who condemned
sinners with disdain than he was with sinners themselves.
2. A God who prides himself on having mercy
Jesus justifies his behavior toward sinners saying that this is how
the heavenly Father acts. He reminds his adversaries of God's word
to the prophets: "It is mercy that I want and not sacrifice"
(Matthew 9:13). Mercy toward the people's infidelity, "hesed," is
the most salient trait of the God of the covenant and it fills the
Bible from one end to the other. A psalm speaks of it in the course
of a litany, explaining all the events in the history of Israel:
"For your mercy is eternal" (Psalm 136).
Being merciful appears in this way as an essential aspect to being
"in the image and likeness of God." "Be merciful, as your heavenly
Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36) is a paraphrase of the famous: "Be
holy for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 6:36).
But the most surprising thing about God's mercy is that he feels joy
in being merciful. Jesus ends the parable about the lost sheep
saying: "There will be more joy in heaven over one converted sinner
than for ninety-nine just people who have no need to convert" (Luke
15:7). The woman who finds her lost coin calls out to her friends:
"Rejoice with me." In the parable of the prodigal son also the joy
overflows and becomes a feast, a banquet.
We are not dealing with an isolated theme but one deeply rooted in
the Bible. In Ezekiel God says: "I do not rejoice over the death of
the wicked person but (I rejoice!) in his desisting from his
wickedness and living" (Ezekiel 33:11). Micah says that God "takes
pride in having mercy" (Micah 7:18), that is he takes pleasure in
But why, we ask ourselves, must one sheep count more on the scales
than all the others put together, and to count more it must be the
one that went away and caused the most problems? I have found a
convincing explanation in the poet Charles Péguy. Getting lost, that
sheep, like the younger son, made God's heart tremble. God feared
that he would lose him forever, that he would be forced to condemn
him and deprive him eternally. This fear made hope blossom in God
and this hope, once it was realized brought joy and celebration.
"Each time a man repents, a hope of God is crowned." This is
figurative language, as is all our language about God, but it
contains a truth.
The condition that makes this possible in us men is that we do not
know the future and therefore we hope; in God, who knows the future,
the condition is that he does not want (and, in a certain sense,
cannot) realize what he wants without our consent. Human freedom
explains the existence of hope in God.
What should we say about the ninety-nine prudent sheep and the older
son? Is there no joy in heaven for them? Is it worthwhile to live
one's entire life as a good Christian? Remember what the father said
to his older son: "Son, you are with me always and all that I have
is yours" (Luke 15:31). The older son's mistake is to have thought
that staying always at home and sharing everything with the father
was not an incredible privilege but a merit; he acts more like a
mercenary than a son. (This should put all of us older brothers on
On this point reality is better than the parable. In reality, the
older son -- the First Born of the Father, the Word -- did not
remain in the Father's house; he went into "a far off land" to look
for the younger son, that is, fallen humanity; he was the one that
brought the younger son back home and procured the new clothes for
him and a feast to which he can sit down at every Eucharist.
In one of his novels Dostoyevsky describes a scene that has the air
of having been witnessed in reality. A woman holds a baby a few
weeks old in her arms and -- for the first time, according to her --
he smiles at her. All contrite, she makes the sign of the cross on
his forehead and to those who ask her the reason for this she says:
"Just as a mother is happy when she sees the first smile of her
child, God too rejoices every time a sinner gets on his knees and
addresses a heartfelt prayer to him."
3. Our mercy, cause or effect of God's mercy?
Jesus says: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will find mercy,"
and in the Our Father he has us pray: "Forgive us our trespasses, as
we forgive those who trespass against us." He also says: "If you do
not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your sins"
(Matthew 6:15). These statements might make us think that God's
mercy toward us is an effect of our mercy toward others and that it
is proportionate to it.
If it were this way, then the relationship between grace and good
works would be totally reversed, and the purely gratuitous character
of divine mercy would be destroyed. God solemnly announced the
gratuitous character of his grace to Moses: "I will give grace to
whomever I wish, and will have mercy on whomever I choose to have
mercy" (Exodus 33:19).
The parable of the two servants (Matthew 18:23ff) is the key for
correctly interpreting the relationship between God's mercy and
ours. There we see how it is the king who, in the first instance,
without conditions, forgives an enormous debt to the servant (ten
thousand talents!) and it is precisely his generosity that should
have moved the servant to have pity on the other servant who owed
him the tiny sum of one hundred denarii.
We must be merciful because we have received mercy, not in order to
receive mercy; but we must be merciful, otherwise God's mercy will
have no effect on us and will be taken back, just as the king in the
parable took back the mercy he had shown to the pitiless servant. "Prevenient
grace" is always what creates the duty: "As the Lord has forgiven
you, so you also must forgive," St. Paul writes to the Colossians
If in the beatitudes God's mercy toward us seems to be the effect of
our mercy toward our brothers it is because Jesus links it to the
perspective if the last judgment ("they will find mercy," in the
future!). "The judgment," writes St. James in fact, "will be without
mercy for those who have not been merciful; yet mercy triumphs over
judgment" (James 2:13).
4. Experiencing divine mercy
If divine mercy is the beginning of everything and it demands mercy
among men and makes it possible, then the most important thing for
us is to have a renewed experience of God's mercy. We are drawing
near to Easter and this is the Easter experience par excellence.
The author Franz Kafka wrote a novel called "The Trial." In it there
is a man who is put under arrest without anyone knowing the reason
why. The man continues his normal life and work but also carries out
extensive research to find out the reasons, the court, the charges
and the procedure. But no one knows what to tell him except that he
really is on trial. In the end two men come to carry out the
During the course of the story it comes to be known that there are
three possibilities for this man: true absolution, apparent
absolution, pardon. Apparent absolution and pardon would not resolve
anything; with them the man would remain in mortal uncertainty all
his life. In the true absolution "the trial procedures will be
completed eliminated, the whole thing would disappear; not only the
charge but also the trial and the sentence would be destroyed, all
will be destroyed."
But it is not known whether there have ever been any of these true
absolutions; there are only rumors about them, nothing more than
"beautiful stories." The novel ends, as all the others of this
author do: Something is glimpsed from far away; it is anxiously
pursued like in a nightmare, but there is no possibility of reaching
At Easter the Church's liturgy conveys the unbelievable news that
true absolution exists for man; it is not just a legend, something
beautiful but unattainable. Jesus has "canceled the bond that stood
against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to
the cross" (Colossians 2:14). He has destroyed everything. "There is
no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," exclaims St.
Paul (Romans 8:1). No condemnation! Nothing at all! For those who
believe in Christ Jesus!
In Jerusalem there was a miraculous pool and the first one to climb
into it when the waters were stirred up was healed (John 5:2ff). The
reality, even here, is infinitely greater than the symbol. From the
cross of Christ there flowed water and blood, and not just one but
all who step into this fountain will leave it healed.
After baptism, this miraculous pool is the sacrament of
reconciliation and this last meditation would like to serve as a
preparation for a good Easter confession. A confession different
from the usual ones, in which we truly allow the Paraclete to
"convince us of sin." We could take as a mirror the beatitudes
meditated on during Lent, beginning now and repeating the ancient
expression, which is so beautiful: "Kyrie eleison!" "Lord have
"Blessed are the pure of heart": Lord, I see all the impurity and
hypocrisy that is in my heart, the double life I live before you and
before others. … Kyrie eleison!
"Blessed are the meek": Lord, I ask your forgiveness for the hidden
impatience and violence in me, for rash judgments, for the suffering
I have caused those around me. … Kyrie eleison!
"Blessed are the hungry": Lord, forgive my indifference toward the
poor and the hungry, my constant search for comfort, my bourgeoisie
lifestyle. … Kyrie eleison!
"Blessed are the merciful": Lord, often I have asked for and quickly
received your mercy, without reflecting on the price you paid for
it! Often I have been the servant who was forgiven but who did not
know how to forgive. … Kyrie eleison! Lord have mercy!
There is a particular grace when, not only the individual, but the
entire community places itself before God in this penitential
attitude. From this profound experience of God's mercy we leave
renewed and full of hope: "God, rich in mercy, out of the great love
with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, he made
us alive again in Christ" (Ephesians 2:4-5).
5. A Church "rich in mercy"
In his message for Lent this year the Holy Father writes: "May Lent
be for every Christian a renewed experience of God's love given to
us in Christ, love that every day we must, for our part, return to
our neighbor." This is how it is with mercy, the form that God's
love takes in relation to sinful man: After we have had an
experience of it we must, for our part, show it to our brothers, and
do this at the level of the ecclesial community and at a personal
Preaching from this same table during the retreat for the Roman
Curia in the Jubilee Year 2000, Cardinal François Xavier Van Thuân,
alluding to the rite of the opening of the Holy Door, said in a
meditation: "I dream of a Church that is a 'Holy Door,' open, that
welcomes all, full of compassion and understanding for the pain and
suffering of humanity, completely ready to console it."
The Church of the God who is "rich in mercy," "dives in misericordia,"
cannot itself fail to be "dives in misericordia." We can draw some
criteria from the attitude of Christ toward sinners that we examined
above. He does not make light of sin, but he finds the way to not
alienate sinners but to draw them to himself. He does not see in
them only what they are, but what they can become if reached by
divine mercy in the depths of their misery and desperation. He does
not wait for them to come to him; often it is he who goes in search
Today, exegetes are fairly in agreement in admitting that Jesus did
not have a hostile attitude toward the Mosaic law, which he himself
scrupulously observed. What he opposed in the religious elite of his
time was a certain rigid and sometimes inhuman manner of
interpreting the law. "The Sabbath," he said, "is for man and not
man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27), and what he says about the Sabbath
rest, one of the most sacred laws of Israel, holds for every other
Jesus is firm and rigorous about principles but he knows when a
principle must give way to the higher principle of God's mercy and
man's salvation. How these criteria drawn from Christ's actions can
be concretely applied to new problems in society depends on patient
study and definitively on the discernment of the magisterium. Even
in the life of the Church, as in Jesus' life, the mercy of the hands
and of the heart must shine forth together with the works of mercy,
which are the essence of mercy.
6. "Put on mercy"
The last word in regard to the beatitudes must always be the one
that touches us personally and moves each of us to conversion and
action. St. Paul exhorts the Colossians with these words:
"Put on, then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion,
kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another
and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive" (Colossians
"We human beings," said St. Augustine, "we are vessels of clay that
are damaged by the slightest nick" ("lutea vasa quae faciunt invicem
angustias"). We cannot live together in harmony, in the family
and in any type of community, without the practice of reciprocal
forgiveness and mercy. Mercy ("misericordia") is a word composed of
"misereo" and "cor"; it means to be moved in your heart, to be moved
to pity, in the face of suffering or by your brother's mistake. This
is how God explains his mercy when he sees the people going astray:
"My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred" (Hosea 11:8).
It is a question of responding not with condemnation but with
forgiveness and, when it is possible, excusing. When we consider
ourselves, this saying is correct: "He who excuses himself, God
accuses. He who accuses himself, God excuses." When it is a matter
of other people the contrary must be held: "He who excuses his
brother, God excuses him. He who accuses his brother, God accuses
For a community, forgiveness is what oil is for a motor. If one
drives a car without a drop of oil, after a few kilometers
everything will go up in flames. Forgiveness that lets others go is
like oil. There is a psalm that sings of the joy of living together
as reconciled brothers; it says that this "is like perfumed oil on
the head" that runs down into Aaron's beard and clothing to the very
hem (cf. Psalm 133).
Our Aaron, our High Priest, the fathers of the Church would have
said, is Christ; mercy and forgiveness is the oil that runs down
from the "head" raised up on the cross, it runs down along the body
of the Church to the edges of her robes to those who live on her
margins. Where we live in this way, in reciprocal forgiveness and
mercy, "the Lord gives his blessing and life forever."
Let us try to see where, in all our relationships, it seems
necessary to let the oil of mercy and reconciliation run down. Let
us pour it out silently, abundantly, this Easter. Let us unite
ourselves with our Orthodox brothers who at Easter do not cease to
"It is the day of the Resurrection!
Let us radiate joy through this feast,
Let us call even those who hate us 'brother,'
forgiving all for the love of the Resurrection."
* * *
 Cf. E.P. Sanders, "Jesus and Judaism," London: SCM, 1985, p.
 Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, "Gli albori del cristianesimo," I, 2, Brescia:
Paideia, 2006, pp. 567-572.
 Ch. Péguy, "Il portico del mistero della seconda virtù," in
Oeuvres poétiques complètes, Paris: Gallimard, 975, pp. 571 ff.
 F. Dostoevskij, "L'Idiota," Milano, 1983, p. 272.
 F. Kafka, "Il processo," Garzanti, Milano, 1993, pp. 129 ff.
 F.X. Van Thuân, "Testimoni della speranza," Roma: Città Nuova,
 St. Augustine, Sermons, 69, 1 (PL 38, 440)
 Stichirà di Pasqua, testi citati in G. Gharib, Le icone festive
della Chiesa Ortodossa, Milano 1985, pp. 174-182.
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
This page is the work of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and