Healing and the Mercy of God

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I am sure we are all familiar with the story of the blind man, Bartimeus. It is told by St Mark. (Mk. 10:46-52) Jesus was leaving Jericho and as he was passing by a blind beggar, Bartimeus, discovering who it was tried to attract his attention. We are told that he began to shout out. He was told to be quiet but shouted all the louder. His words were "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus called him over, ask what he wanted and restored his sight.

What I would like to highlight is that the plea of Bartimeus took the form of a begging for mercy. This cry for mercy directed to Jesus is common in the Gospels. Thus, St Matthew records two blind men issuing a similar plea: "Have mercy on us, Son of David!" (Mt 9:27) The Canaanite woman pleaded for her daughter in these words, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." (Mt 15:22) The father of an epileptic child said: "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. “(Mt 17:15) The group of ten lepers said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" (Lk 17:13)

There is a common theme in these stories. The people involved are in desperate circumstances. It is from their desperation they cry out to Jesus for mercy. In every instance Jesus responds.  Desperation abandons all dignity, all pretence, all pride and independence. Desperation does not ask for favours. Or negotiates. Or demands. Desperation has just one word which expresses the depth of need, and that word is the word mercy. Lord, they are saying, please come to my aid motivated by a spirit of mercy.

Each of these stories is about the need for some form of healing. In ancient times, lacking the sophisticated medical assistance we have at our disposal today, each of these situations were completely debilitating. The blind man was reduced to begging. The mother was at wits end because her child was possessed. They knew that there was no other remedy available. Their only hope was in Jesus and his evident power to heal.

Prayers of the Psalmists
A number of the prayers found in the psalms express a personal cry for mercy. The psalmist is in some desperate situation but it is not necessarily physical healing that is sought as rather a healing of the spirit. Thus, for example, Psalm 6 says, “Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. (Psalm 6:2) From the situation of sensing powerlessness and hopelessness, the psalmist asks for mercy. In this instance the psalmist speaks about the experience of great anguish of heart; “I am worn out with groaning”, he says. He feels surrounded with enemies. Often the psalmist experiences rejection and isolation, often due to their desire to remain faithful to God. In their situation of feeling abandoned and alone, they turn to their own source of hope; they pray to God expressing the depth of their need.

In Psalm 59 the psalmist asks to be rescued from his enemies. He is under attack, he says, “from evil men”. They are strong and threatening. He is weak and vulnerable. So he prays, “Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed by”. The psalm is ascribed to David hiding from Saul in a cave. The psalm is a desperate cry for personal protection. It is also a cry to help in the midst fear and anxiety. They need reassurance and a rediscovery of hope. From their extreme vulnerability they have only one source of hope. God alone is their refuge and strength.

The other element present in the psalms which pray for mercy is that of asking for forgiveness. The great expression of this is Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me God in your kindness, in your compassion blot out my offence”. The psalm asks to be washed clean of sin and guilt. The psalmist readily admits personal responsibility for his sins. He asks to be purified. The healing sought here is a healing of the soul. This healing is understood as only able to come from God who is rich in mercy (see Psalm 103:8). As the Pharisees remind Jesus only God can forgive sins.

The fundamental Christian prayer
The cry for mercy is one of the most fundamental of all Christian prayers. Indeed the Lord says that this is the prayer that will be heard on high. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the temple (Lk 18:9-14), the Lord in strong terms says that the self-justifying prayer of the Pharisee gains no traction with God, but the honest and heartfelt prayer for mercy by the publican is accepted in heaven.

This teaching of the Lord finds many echoes in the tradition of Christian prayer. It is enshrined in the Liturgy as the first prayer we pray at Mass – in the Penitential Rite we pray three times Kyrie Eleison, “Lord have mercy”; this prayer repeated before we receive Holy Communion – “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”. Thus the Christian people dares not enter the sacred liturgy without asking for forgiveness, and further dares not approach the reception of Holy Communion without first humbly seeking mercy, because as we say, “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” (a reference to the Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant).

It is expressed in the Eastern spiritual tradition in the use of what is known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. This prayer is repeated over and over again. The idea being that constant repetition will convert the heart, and lay it open to grace.

Disposition of heart
In asking for mercy the key to its effectiveness is the disposition of heart that prompts the prayer. We noted before that those afflicted with physical disabilities like blindness were is a desperate human predicament and knew that only God could help them. Similarly the psalmist felt overwhelmed by circumstances and experienced vulnerability and serious threat to their very life. They turned to God to act in some way on their behalf. They could see no human resolution of their situation. Finally the recognition of personal responsibility for sin knows that sin can only be forgiven by a merciful God.

The disposition of heart is one of complete dependence on God. No human solution can be found. Only God can meet the need that is experienced. A person asks for mercy from God because God is the only means of healing or salvation.

In the cry for mercy a person expresses complete dependence on God. They know their own fragility. They are aware of their inability to save themselves from their predicament. They turn to God knowing God as a God of mercy and compassion. They know that God is love. They appeal for Love to save them.

They also know that they do not deserve the favour asked. They know that they cannot earn the right to be heard. They know that they cannot demand a response. They cannot bargain for attention. They throw themselves before God, like many of those who sought a healing from Jesus. The Gospels record that many who sought healing threw themselves at the feet of Jesus. The woman with the haemorrhage desperately reached out to touch the hem of the garment Jesus was wearing.

Thus, there is a certain abandonment. All sense of being in command of their life has gone. They know that they are not in control. They are not in any position to claim their self-sufficiency. Their circumstances have revealed to them that they are in desperate need. In this they have come to a point of deep personal humility.

The cry for mercy is a cry of abandonment. It is a prayer motivated by radical trust. They open their hearts and lives in surrender to God. They have nothing left. They can see no hope. They know that only God can save them and restore their wellbeing.

They are a creature before their Creator. They are children appealing to their Father. They are sinners before the All Holy One. They are acutely aware of their fragility before Almighty God.

At this moment they are in fact in the perfect position to receive help. Their hearts and their hands are open. They have no trust in themselves any more. All their trust is in God.

God cannot refuse their pleas. And God does not refuse their pleas.

Jesus often said after he healed someone – “go in peace, your faith has saved you”. When a cry for mercy emerges from the depth of our heart and is completely genuine, we are in fact in the perfect situation to be saved. For God came amongst us not to condemn but to save as St John expressed it.

Psalm 13:5 says, “But I have trusted in your mercy; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me”. Indeed the heart who experiences mercy being given to them becomes a heart full of joy. It was Mary who declared that her heart rejoiced in God her savior because he had granted mercy to his people.

Meaning for us
What does this mean for us?

Firstly, we are reminded that the most important prayer after the Lord’s prayer is the short prayer of three words: “Lord have mercy”. It is a prayer we can pray often and pray it from the heart. Indeed the more we pray it the more it can take possession of our hearts.

Secondly, it only becomes a powerful prayer when it is prayed from a heart which has reached a point to know that they cannot save themselves. We like to be self-sufficient. We like to think we are in control. Often it is only through experiences of powerlessness that we come to know our own fundamental vulnerability and fragility. These can be moments of grace and truth. It will be out of our own need that we seek the mercy of God.

Thirdly, that it is a prayer that is heard. Indeed, prayers made in times of personal security and satisfaction can lose their value. It is when we come as dependent children before Abba, our loving Father, that our prayers rise in purity and effectiveness. Humility is the fundamental disposition of the human heart before God.

Finally, the answered prayer becomes the inspiration for praise. So much so that like the psalmist we can say, “I will praise my God all my days”. Our joy in in the Lord, and even not in our own situation. We rejoice in what the Lord has done. We rejoice in the bountiful love of God. We rejoice is the knowledge that our lives and our salvation are safely in the hands of God.

The experience of mercy heals the human heart, as much as meeting the needs of the body.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, May 28, 2016