Fr. Gaston, the protagonist of Bruce Marshall’s 1949 novel, To Every Man a Penny, knows the complexity of God’s world, how not everything is clean and clear-cut, that there are shades of grey and sometimes difficult decisions. And he also understands God’s extravagant and abundant mercy, how God is willing to bend to meet us where we are in complex life circumstances. The novel is set in France between the wars, in a Church with many “shoulds” and “oughts.” In this rigid, rule-bound setting Fr. Gaston frequently runs afoul of Church authorities. For example, Fr. Gaston gave permission to one of his favorite catechism students, Amelle, to become a model – not something Catholics did at the time – and incurred the ire of his fellow prelates. Fr. Gaston’s best friend from the war, Louise Phillipe, became a Communist, and Gaston was shunned because of his continued loyalty to his friend. When the hierarchy forbade clergy from going to the barbers to get a hair cut (on account of the risqué magazines kept by French barbers at the time) Gaston kept going to the barber to whom he had gone for years… and was punished by the Bishop. Finally, when Amelle, upon her mother’s death, resorted to prostitution to support herself, Father Gaston arranged for her out-of-wedlock baby to be taken in by a local convent, further isolating him from his peers.
One scene in particular captures for me Gaston’s appreciation for the complexities of life and God’s willingness to bend and meet us with abundant mercy. During the First World War, Gaston heard the confession of a captured German soldier who was about to be executed. As part of his confession the soldier told of his many escapades with young women. Father Gaston reminded the soldier that absolution required repentance; he first needed to repent.
“But how can I repent?” the young soldier asked. “It was something I enjoyed, and if I had the chance, I would do it again, even now. How can I repent?”
Father Gaston, desiring to set the young man’s conscience at ease, in a flash of inspiration, replied:
“But are you sorry that you are not sorry?”
“Yes,” the soldier blurts. “I am sorry that I am not sorry.”
Which opens the door just enough for Gaston to give absolution…
The books of 1 & 2 Kings are a record of God’s willingness to bend in order that He might more readily show us mercy amid the complexities of life. In Kings, God does everything possible to give people every opportunity to repent and return. For example:
- Early in I Kings God told Solomon that “If you… turn away from following me… I will cut off Israel from the land… and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight” (I Kings 9:6-7). And yet… even after Solomon’s wives turned his heart from God, even after Shishak of Egypt took parts of the Temple away (14), even after King Ahaz replaced the altar of Moses with one more to his liking (2 Kings 16), yet the Temple still stood.
- Or remember the unnamed prophet’ s warning to King Jereboam after Jereboam set up two golden calves: that a king named Josiah would arise and would sacrifice on the altars those priests who had offered incense to idols. It would be more than 30 chapters – and innumerable acts of unfaithfulness by subsequent kings – before Josiah finally appeared to end the idolatry.
- Or remember the wickedness of King Ahab – “there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (I Kings 21:25) – and yet, when Ahab repented and put on sackcloth, the Lord did not bring disaster upon him.
Time and again in 1 & 2 Kings, God bends to show mercy in complicated circumstances. In Kings, God seems less like a God who conquers armies and leads peoples and commands respect, than he seems an indulgent and spoiling grandmother who always says “Yes!” God does everything possible to give people every opportunity to experience his mercy.
Which brings us to today’s story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian, a story in which little is black and white, and in which God bends significantly to make his mercy known. In today’s lesson from 2 Kings:
- God heals a foreigner. Bending the “rules,” God works outside of his chosen people.
- God heals an enemy. Not only is God willing to work outside of his chosen people, but God is willing to show mercy to Israel’s enemies.
- God used an ostensibly “treasonous” act to show mercy. Elisha could have been put to death for aiding and abetting the enemy.
Perhaps the most poignant detail that shows God’s willingness to bend and to show mercy is just beyond today’s lesson, in the verses that follow. After his healing…
Naaman said… “Your servant will no longer offer… sacrifice to any god except the Lord. But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon… may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” [Elisha] said to him, “Go in peace.”
The prophet Elisha – whose master Elijah slew hundreds of the prophets of Baal, who himself was committed to the worship of the one true God and the abolition of idolatry – when asked by Naaman for pardon when Naaman bows down in the house of the god Rimmon, says “Go in peace.” “Go in peace,” because Elisha appreciates the complexity of Naaman’s circumstances. “Go in peace,” because Elisha knows that God bends to show mercy. “Go in peace,” because Elisha understands that God doesn’t always “play by the rules” and will work to save even outside Israel. “I know your circumstances are complex,” Elisha says, in effect, “and I also know God to be merciful, that he loves you and wants you and is willing to bend to meet you where we are.” We know that life is complex. Sooner or later it happens, for example:
- that a baby in utero is discovered to have a disease, and a decision is made to go forward with the pregnancy (or not)
- that a family member becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol
- that a daughter gets pregnant or a son gets somebody pregnant, or a child is arrested
- that a partner has an affair
- that a decision must be made about “pulling the plug” at the end of life
The list could go on…
There is much in God’s world that is not clear-cut or black and white. 1 & 2 Kings bears witness that God loves us and is so extravagantly merciful that he is willing to bend, to make accommodation, to meet us where we are.
Towards the end of his book, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis writes:
Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people. (Ev. Gaud., 270)
We are about to receive the Eucharist – tokens of Jesus’ wounds. I hope that our reception of Christ’s body and blood might help us know Jesus’ wounds and to enter into the reality of this world Jesus has made. I hope that this sacrament might help us know the power of his tenderness, and that our lives might “become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people.” A people who belong to a God who is merciful and who does everything possible to give people every opportunity to know his love and mercy.