Grace: Where Justice Equals Mercy
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. Mark 5:21-43
In the film, the “Godfather, Part II”, Don Corleone, goes to Rome to negotiate a business deal with the Vatican. He is not simply interested in business; he wants to gain respectability.
In Rome he meets with Cardinal Lamberto, who in the course of their meeting, asks Corleone if he would like to make his confession. At first, Corleone refuses. He makes a little joke about how it would take too long. However, he wants the cardinal’s help, and apparently senses something redemptive in his presence and in this unexpected invitation to confess his sins. So, Corleone begins his confession.
First, he tells of his marital infidelities. Then he admits ordering the murder of his own brother. Overwhelmed by the burden of his guilt, he breaks down and starts to sob. The priest pronounces the simple words of absolution, then says, “I know you don’t believe this, but you have been redeemed.”
Isn’t this story something scandalous? Isn’t this redemption all too simple and too uncomplicated? We have a career criminal, a serial adulterer, a man, cold-blooded enough, to plot the murder of his own brother, and yet he’s assured that he is forgiven and redeemed in the priest’s pronouncing the words of absolution.
Most might say that what’s called for here is not mercy, but retribution, revenge, and a settling of scores. Let the Mafia man taste some of his own medicine! Let him be treated as he treats others. You know, there is that more gut-satisfying brand of justice that is dispensed each time the death penalty is imposed, and a criminal is executed.
Yet if there’s a scandal in the Cardinal’s absolution, is it not the very scandal of Christianity itself? Behind Cardinal Lamberto’s words is the sacrificial love of Jesus, God’s Lamb, who takes away all the sins of the world and, in so doing, actually frees us to offer the justice that is restoration, rather than require the justice that is retribution. God places no one beyond redemption, yet we persist in presuming a right to execute those who are found guilty of capital crimes.
The Spirit of God is hard at work in this encounter with Don Corleone. The Spirit cracks open the hard heart of the mafia Don and gives him tears that bespeak a genuine repentance for the infidelities and the horrors that he has committed. The scene of confession becomes a resurrection moment. Don Corleone is raised from the death brought by his sins into the possibilities of new life that Christ offers him.
Some may still call this a scandal. But doesn’t something scandalous always happen when grace is at work?
Consider today’s Gospel. Jesus raises a twelve-year-old girl from the dead, and He recues, from social death, a woman who has been rendered ritually impure and therefore a social outcaste because she has been hemorrhaging blood for twelve years.
The child is the daughter of Jairus, a big man in town. Jairus makes a fool of himself in public, begging Jesus to help his sick child, insisting that Jesus can restore her to health. Jesus goes with Jairus to his home. Jesus takes the girl by the hand and tells her to get up. She gets up immediately. And then Jesus tells them to give her something to eat.
Do you hear scandal in this story? You may well ask, “What scandal”? Jesus, is, after all, only showing compassion to the girl and her father and to a bleeding woman. But those around Jesus were scandalized. For what does He do with the girl everybody believes is dead? He takes her by the hand! He touches a corpse! There is scandal too in the second miracle. Jesus, a rabbi, allows a woman, and a ritually impure one at that, to touch him.
According to the Hebrew scriptures, touching a corpse or having contact with blood renders a person unclean. The people around Jesus are shocked, much as some people today may be shocked when Cardinal Lamberto absolves Don Corleone. The people around Jesus believe that purity must be maintained, and they have many Bible texts to quote in their favor.
Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus giving some orders. He tells those with Him to get the girl something to eat, and He commands them, strictly orders them, not to let anyone know what has happened to Jairus’ daughter.
We can be confident that the girl is given something to eat. We can be equally confident that the other order is not obeyed, and that the story of Jairus’ daughter spreads like fire through dry tinder. Would you keep such a story to yourself?
Why then does Jesus issue this order? Why does He follow up many of his miracles with the insistence that people keep mum about them? Does He really expect to be obeyed?
It seems to me that He doesn’t want to be labeled simply as someone who comes into town and does a bunch of flashy miracles. He doesn’t want to be known as the go-to-guy when somebody’s sick, or you need bread and fish multiplied.
Instead, He wants people to know Him because of something yet to happen. Yet to happen is that work of grace more scandalous than any other that have preceded it. The Messiah will die on a cross of shame. He will be numbered among the evildoers. Be put to death as a common criminal. Yet, that scandal of the Messiah’s crucifixion will bring grace, not just to one person or a few, but to all creation when Jesus scandalously speaks His final word of unbounded mercy and universal forgiveness.
It will mean not only new life for Jairus’ daughter, dead from some illness, or for a woman who is physically ill, but new life even for the likes of Don Corleone, who, spiritually speaking, has been for a long time a walking corpse, and new life for all of whom have ever tasted spiritual death.
We gather each Sunday, to celebrate the greatest of all God’s scandals: the cross and resurrection. Some people simply cannot stomach it. They want a world that is more orderly and more fair than this. And in a way, their desire makes sense. Does it not? But we are given instead a world of undeserved mercies, where fear gives way to belief, and our small decencies are scandalized by the generosity of God. Yet in this world we quite readily become fixated on scandal, and we overlook grace.
We see a hapless victim dying on a cross. God sees the lamb victorious over evil. We see a crime that deserves divine retribution. God see an opportunity to redefine justice as boundless mercy and to offer forgiveness even to the apparently unrepentant. We see a law-breaking Rabbi who touches a corpse. God sees a once-dead girl restored to her father’s arms. We see a rabbi who allows Himself to be touched by a hemorrhaging woman. God sees an outcaste who is restored to community. We see a Mafia godfather, a man of steely heart and vicious life. God sees one of his children, hard heart now broken, tears flooding forth, offered the possibility of a fresh start. So often what we see is scandal; what God sees is grace.
Can we learn to recognize grace when it happens, sometimes in front of our faces? Can we be party to scandal that may shock the decent, but release the power of resurrection? Have not the decent been shocked again and again, with something like a Court’s decision, to insure the rights of persons of same gender affection to marry?
Each of us is on the receiving end of reconciliation. Christ always addresses us through words like those of Cardinal Lamberto: “I know you don’t believe this, but you have been redeemed.” Christ always risks ridicule and misunderstanding by lifting us from death and restoring us to life like the daughter of Jairus or restoring us to relationship like the woman who was bleeding.
Christ always dares to make present to us his most audacious scandal, the cross and the empty tomb. His grace comes to us free, but its price for Him is the cross. For us He bears shame, abandonment, and death. He does it for us. He does it for all.
One further scandalous demonstration of grace to add to these others: Christ makes each recipient of forgiveness and reconciliation also a minister of forgiveness and reconciliation. His audacious expectation is that those who have been forgiven will forgive; those who know new life will offer new life to others. Christ’s expectation is audacious because in this world, grace appears as scandal, mercy appears unjust and leaves us uncomfortable.
The time comes for each of us, when we can be ministers of God’s audacious grace, if we are willing to weather the scandal. It may be a matter of defiling ourselves, appearing to others as impure by ordinary standards. It may mean announcing to a hardened reprobate that his sins, her sins, do not exceed God’s ability to forgive.
It may mean making room for undeserved mercies for ourselves and for others, understanding that all are sinners and all are redeemed.
May we recognize the opportunity when it is placed before us. May we see past scandal and welcome grace.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
June 27, 2021