Jack was out for his morning walk. Today he was walking along a path that took him on some steep cliffs overlooking the lake. As it happened he got too close to the edge and slipped off. As he was falling he grabbed onto a branch of a tree that was growing from the side of the cliff. Holding on for life he began to call out for help.
“Help! Help! Is anyone up there?” he cried. Then a voice came in reply. “Jack, Jack. Can you hear me?” “Yes,” said Jack. “I’m hanging onto this tree down here.”
“I can see you Jack,” said the voice. Jack was surprised that the person knew him and asked: “Who are you and can you help me?”
“It’s the Lord, Jack, and I can certainly help you.” “The Lord?” replied Jack, “You mean God?” “Yes, it’s me, I’m always here.”
“If you get me out of this jam I promise I’ll do anything for you, I’ll stop sinning, I’ll go to church, I’ll serve you the rest of my life,” said Jack. “Easy on the promises Jack, just listen carefully to what I say.” “I’ll do anything you ask, just tell me what to do,” came the reply.
“Okay. Let go of the branch.” “What?” Jack said. “I said, let go of the branch. Just trust me. Let go,” said the Lord. Finally Jack yelled out, “Help! Help! Is anyone else up there?”
The story of Jack gives a humorous insight into how difficult it can be sometimes to have faith. The call to faith is an ongoing call, one in which we have the opportunity to develop and deepen our faith in the Lord and his Way.
You may recall the story of the father who brings his son to Jesus looking for a cure. The son was possessed by a mute spirit. The father explained to Jesus, “Whenever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so” (Mark 9:18).
Jesus then replies: “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him to me” (Mark 9:19). The boy is brought before Jesus and then is thrown into convulsions by the mute spirit. Jesus asks the father how long it has been happening. When the father tells Jesus he adds: “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22b). Jesus then says: “If you can! Everything is possible to the one who has faith.” To which the father replies, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
At that point Jesus expels the mute spirit and the boy is cured. The father came to Jesus because he had faith. However, there was room for more faith which is wonderfully expressed: “I do believe, help my unbelief.”
The Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy involves faith. The story recalls the time Jesus goes to Simon the Pharisee’s house for dinner. While there, a “sinful woman” comes in with an alabaster flask of ointment and kneels at the feet of Jesus, weeping. She washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and then anoints them.
Simon sees this and thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). Jesus knows what Simon is thinking and asks: “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave both. Which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied: “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” Jesus replies: “You have judged rightly.” He then points out to Simon what the woman has done for him compared with that of Simon, at the end of which he says: “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love.”
Turning to the woman he says: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:48, 50).
The woman places her faith in Jesus that he can save her. She is known to be a sinner. Her sins weigh her down and she wants to be delivered. She recognizes in Jesus the One who can forgive. Her sorrow and contrition pour out of her in tears of love. Her bathing Jesus’ feet, kissing and anointing them are an act of love. She has faith in Jesus and his mercy. This faith leads her to love and the experience of his mercy.
One of the aspects of faith that Jesus asks us to cultivate is that of mercy. The theme is especially prominent this year as we continue to observe the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis. Through faith in Jesus we recognize his mercy and the power of that mercy in our lives. Responding we accept that forgiveness and express our gratitude in love. Faith and love move us to seek God’s mercy, which he readily bestows.
The account of Nathan’s confrontation with King David provides another example of faith and love leading to mercy. David’s sins are identified by Nathan the prophet.
Previous to this passage from Second Samuel we heard the story. David has sinned greatly. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah murdered. In addition to these he was forsaking his duties as king.
When confronted by Nathan, David had to make a decision. He had several choices. He could deny the sins. He could have Nathan eliminated. Or he could acknowledge the sin and seek forgiveness. He chose repentance saying: “I have sinned against God.” Nathan replies: “The Lord on his part has forgiven you, you shall not die” (2 Samuel 12:13).
Although David has grievously sinned he still has faith in God. It is that faith that helps him recognize his sinfulness and acknowledge his sin. God’s response to his contrition is mercy.
The relationship between faith and mercy is worth contemplating in the week ahead. Faith calls us to recognize the experience of mercy, to seek God’s mercy for the times we have sinned and to share that mercy with others. Faith is needed so we can trust in God and his merciful love. Sometimes faith is described as a “response” to God’s love. God is love and that love is poured out upon us even before we were even conceived. It is always there.
Faith opens the door to respond to that love and mercy. Sometimes it might be difficult to trust. Sometimes we might feel like the man hanging onto the branch calling out for help. We might hear God calling us to trust but we are afraid or unsure or timid.
The woman in Sunday’s Gospel passage, along with David in the first reading, give us examples of people who overcome fear, timidity and the weight of unworthiness to respond to the Lord in faith and to experience his loving mercy. We all long to hear the words: “Your sins are forgiven.” Faith opens the door for this experience, as Jesus says to the woman: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.