Cleanliness is next to godliness. It’s better to give than to receive. Phrases like these abound in the English language but it’s good to remember that they were likely coined by frustrated parents trying to get their teenagers to do their chores rather than by Scripture scholars. When we reflect on the readings this week we realize that God tends to get intimately involved with the messiness of our lives and that, when it comes to mercy, we need to receive first before we can give.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah provides an interesting case. Here’s a classic story where God is portrayed as a punishing God, ready to smite the unrighteous citizens of these two cities. But look at what actually happens in the passage. No smiting or punishment ever occurs. Rather, when God hears that things are unravelling in Sodom and Gomorrah — that their actions may deserve punishment — God decides to go and have a look. God will not judge them on hearsay. Then, God allows a mere mortal, Abraham, to plead on their behalf. A God intent on punishment would not stop to listen to Abraham’s defence.
Finally, when it comes to the end of the proceedings, no sentence is ever delivered. If humans were dealing with a judging God, Sodom and Gomorrah would have long been destroyed. What Scripture reveals instead is a God whose default position is mercy, who will recognize even the slightest good within us in the hope that we will, eventually, return to God’s embrace.
In this year of mercy, God’s penchant for mercy has been given a lot of airtime. Pope Francis, in his book The Name of God is Mercy, highlights how God’s mercy flows into our human experience. Our lives are broken by sin — both social and personal — but God enters directly into the messiness of it all. Our God stands in solidarity with us at our worst, embracing us with merciful love so that we can become our best. So the question then becomes, how do we receive God’s give of mercy?
First, we need to recognize the need. In The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis tells the story of a prisoner of war about to be executed. The priest comes to hear his confession but the penitent faces a dilemma. He has spent years womanizing and does not feel sorry for his actions. Then the priest asks, “But are you sorry for not being sorry?” When the man says “yes,” the priest offers God’s mercy. Being sorry for not being sorry is enough of a crack for God’s consolation to seep into our broken lives.
Second, we need to trust that God’s mercy will ever sustain us. When Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, he tells them (and us) to ask God for our daily bread. God’s mercy is a constant companion, like our daily bread, that nourishes us through all of our human experiences. If we can trust that God will give us the grace, daily, to deal with the joys and anguish in our lives, we can “use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast . . . to those that endure” (Collect, 17th Sunday in OT). We can rest in God’s merciful love rather than anxiously cling to those things that pass away and only provide momentary consolation.
Third, we need to be receptive. That’s why the phrase, “it’s better to give than to receive,” doesn’t apply to our relationship with God. When it comes to our encounters with the divine, we must be open, first, to receiving God’s merciful love. Only in this context, when we are plugged into God, will our own giving have meaning. If we put the cart before the horse, and give without first receiving, our generosity quickly depletes us. By becoming conduits of God’s mercy to the world, we give what we have ourselves received. We become co-constructors of God’s vision for humanity and builders of God’s kingdom on earth.
Finally, as humans, our most proper stance toward God is one of gratitude. If the name of God is mercy, then the name of humanity must be gratitude. With the psalmist we must give thanks with our whole hearts for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. At best, prayers of gratitude would be the first ones on our lips in the morning and the last ones we pray as we fall off to sleep at night. God’s mercy is freely offered to us, it sustains our every moment of existence, and it transforms us into God’s adopted children. What more can we say than “thank you” with every moment and every action of our lives?
So, perhaps, it’s time to retire those well-worn phrases that tell us that only our cleanliness will allow us to come close to God and that our giving has merit on its own accord. Rather, let us bring our messiness to God and open our hearts to receiving God’s mercy. Then we will be able to claim our own name: Gratitude.
Rompré is the director of Mission and Ministry at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.