(This is the talk given during the Holy Week Reflection on Holy Monday, April 3, 2023 delivered at St. Clement’s Church, Iloilo City.)
Are we being punished? Are we being condemned because of our sins? Has God abandoned us? Has God given up on us?
When Covid-19 hit us in 2020, we were all afraid and anxious. The world seemed to stop, and the many restrictions of our movements contributed so much to our feeling of being isolated and helpless. With this health crisis, economically or financially, we were being challenged in many ways. Many have lost their jobs and the most vulnerable among us were those who worked and earned on a daily basis and the poorest of the poor, the homeless and street children.
Likewise, every day many were haunted by anxiety of being infected by the deadly virus, or we might have been so worried for those family members and friends who were at the frontline fighting against the virus and ministering the infected. Or we might have been sobbing and grieving in those days because we have lost a family member, a close friend, or a colleague because of the virus.
In total, there are about 761,071,062 cases worldwide of covid infections, and a total of 6,879,644 deaths worldwide as of March 26, 2023. (Last Update)
On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and this war brought economic challenges worldwide especially of the inflation of oil which affected us here in the country. This war continues until now which already affected 14 Million people being displaced , with 140,000 infrastructures destroyed, with 15,000 people missing and 42,295 deaths.
Just last February 6, this year, a 7.8 magnitude of earthquake struck southern and central Turkey as well as the northern and western Syria which affected 24 million people, 2.5 million displaced persons and 56,00 deaths.
At the local level, at least in this post-pandemic time, no natural disaster has greatly affected the whole country except Odette in 2021 or any war that has ravaged the country. Yet, what is alarming, aside from the inflation of commodities is the rise of poverty level in the country. According to the recent DSWD Listahan 3, that survey found out that there are 5.6 million Filipino Families living in poverty. In terms of individual persons, there are 2 in every 5 Filipinos who are poor. This is equivalent to 30 million poor Filipinos which is 27% of the 111 million population.
These are just some figures and images of suffering in the world and beyond these, there are more pain, suffering, and deaths unknown to us, not covered by statistics or by many news media. There are many who suffer in silence.
Thus, we ask again, are we being punished? Are we being condemned because of our sins? Has God abandoned us? Has God given up on us?
God’s Caress of Mercy and Friendship. This is the over-all theme that I would like to share with you tonight. We understand “caress” as an action that expresses, closeness, affection, love, concern and gentleness.
As Pope Francis said in one of his homilies, “God forgives not with a decree but with a caress.” And with mercy, “Jesus too goes beyond the law and forgives by caressing the wounds of our sins.”Tweet
Mercy has touched the Pope so much that he led us into the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2015-2016. Thus, Pope Francis affirmed that “mercy is God’s identity card.” Indeed, Mercy is the name of God.
Again, Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation called, Christus Vivit addressed to the Young People and to the Entire People of God, he wrote, “Friendship is one of life’s gifts and a grace from God. Through our friends, the Lord refines us and leads us to maturity.” This is how friendship that we have developed helps us to grow and become the person God wants us to be.
Moreover, an author, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, wrote a section of his book with its title, Friendship is Liberating Too, that, “Friendship can save us. Loving, challenging friends who can melt our bitterness and free us from the need to be angry are as critical within the spiritual life… To neglect friendship is to court bitterness and perversion.”
This explains to us how friendship also plays a role in making ourselves free, free from anger and hatred, from bitterness and corruption that will only bring us into isolation and sadness.
Hence, as I journey with you tonight, let us refresh our hearts and minds with scriptural texts that would bring deeper into God’s caress of mercy and friendship.
I would like to invite you now to the story of Jonah.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah, son of Amittai:
Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; for their wickedness has come before me.
But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish, away from the LORD. He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down in it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.
Jonah was quite rebellious to God because he was sent by God to do something, which he did not want to do. If you remember, Jonah did not like this assignment to go to Nineveh because he hated the people. They were Assyrians, the traditional enemies of Israel who oppressed and attacked them. These Assyrians were known to be brutal invaders.
That is why, Jonah was so against God’s plan of sending him there to call them for repentance. Jonah was anxious that the people might believe in God and thus, God might show mercy to them and spare them from death. Jonah wanted this people to die. He wanted revenge against these people whom he thought were Godless. This was all because he was angry and he disgusted those people.
Yet, this is what really happened. When Jonah called the people to repent, they repented and believed in God and that was why, God showed mercy to them and saved them from death.
Jonah’s attitude may not be far from many of us who cultivate a narrow and vindictive mentality. Like Jonah we too might have asked God, How could you love worthless, good for nothing people Lord? How could you show mercy to those who do not even recognize you as God? How could I also be merciful to them when they oppressed my people?
We might also find ourselves wishing suffering and death to those whom we hate, especially those who have caused us so much pain. We might have wished and cursed those people who did something terrible to others too. When a violence and or a crime is done to an innocent, we might have demanded also the same violence and crime to perpetrators. Like Jonah, we too might have believed that justice is attained through a gruesome death to our enemies. Like Jonah, we also could tend to believe that God should not show mercy to those who have hurt us, to our enemies and people who did terrible things to the innocent.
Yet, with Jonah, the people of Nineveh and God, there is something very interesting here. Jonah was totally honest to God about his thought and feelings against Nineveh. Jonah was comfortable enough to complain to God, to express his dismay and anger over this people. Jonah even tried to escape from God and argue with the Lord. And the Lord God, listened to him, the Lord God accompanied Jonah and allowed Jonah to grow and become mature as a person and as a prophet by being able to recognize his own limitations and biases against others. The Lord challenged Jonah to see beyond himself, beyond his pain and frustrations and to recognize that God’s mercy and friendship are for all.
Now, this exchange between Jonah and God expressed closeness and intimacy and that is evident in Jonah’s confidence to express himself before God. Is it not friendship at all? It is! Jonah was a friend of God. God is Jonah’s closest friend. And it is in this friendship that Jonah was called, challenged and was transformed. In a way, Jonah was the first to receive that caress of mercy and friendship with God which the Lord wanted Jonah to share with the people of Nineveh.
This helps me to realize now that God’s mercy and friendship are not limited to any group of people. God is a God of everybody, of bad and good people, of sinners and righteous, of criminals and law-abiding citizens.
God showed this concretely to us in the person of Jesus, the ultimate sign of God’s mercy and friendship with us. Pope Francis reminds us, “Friendship is so important that Jesus calls himself a friend: ‘I do not call you servants any longer, but I call you friends.’(Jn 15.15)” Thus, in Jesus, the Father tells us that we are never abandoned, that there is always hope and goodness in each of us no matter how broken we are, and sinful we have turned to be. God always sees goodness in us, because we too are God’s friends.
This is the same invitation that we have heard from Jesus when he addressed the adulterous woman brought by the scribes and Pharisees. Like Jonah at the beginning, the scribes and the Pharisees were filled with so much hatred and anger. This made them to become condemning towards the woman. With this attitude, they refused to give another chance and opportunity for the woman to change and to redeem herself.
Thus, they wanted to stone her to death as what “the law” told them to do. But what did Jesus do? Listen now to the Gospel of John chapter 8, verses 7 to 11.
But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
This is what Jesus showed to the woman. Jesus said, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” God has delivered his judgment, showed His mercy and offered friendship. Jesus freed the woman and was commanded to sin no more and not to go back to her old sinful self. She had, surely, found her way to freedom and peace in Jesus.
Pope Francis in his homily on this Gospel story said, “Jesus forgives. But here, there is something more than forgiveness because Jesus goes beyond the law. Though Jesus was pure and the only person who is worthy to cast the first stone against the woman, but Jesus did not because he showed mercy.”
Mercy, as the Pope says, is difficult to understand. “Mercy does not erase sins. It is God’s forgiveness that erases our sins. But then, mercy is the way in which God forgives.”Tweet
Thus, unlike the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus saw more in the person of that woman. The limited awareness and refusal of the Scribes and Pharisees to see more, prevented them to discover that there was always hope in every sinner, and that there was more in a person’s weakness and imperfection. This is how Jesus defends us, sinners from the just condemnation of death. Again, (because) God always sees goodness in us and offers us his friendship that we may be renewed and find peace in his presence.
God of Mercy and Friendship, I am confident that it is not your desire to punish and bring us to condemnation, but to caress us with your love. Allow my heart to be ever closer to you, to grow in faith and affection towards you. As you see goodness in me, let me also see the goodness in others that I may learn to caress with mercy and friendship. Amen.
 Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli, translated by Oonagh Stransky (New York: Random House, 2006), xii-xiii.
 Ibid, 9.
 Pope Francis, Christus Vivit: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of the Holy Father Francis to Young People and to the Entire People of God (Philippines: Paulines, 2019), n. 151, 64.
 Ronald Rolheiser, OMI., “Friendship is Liberating Too,” in Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Love Beyond Our Fears (USA: Doubleday, 2005), 34-35.
 Jonah, Introduction, The New American Bible.
 Pope Francis, Christus Vivit, n. 153, 65.
 Jonah, Introduction, The New American Bible, xvi.