Mercy and Moral Idiocy
In the First Reading, the Israelites, who have just been freed from slavery in Egypt by spectacular miracles that God did for them, those same Israelites have made molten metal into the statue of a calf and declared that the calf is their God who brought them out of Egypt.
God is very angry at the people in consequence. This people is hopeless, God says to Moses; I ought to destroy them and make a new Israelite people out of you, Moses. But God means to be merciful to the Israelites, and he is inviting Moses to be merciful by first showing Moses the evil of the people. If you don’t see the evil in what others are doing, you aren’t merciful. You are just a moral idiot.
In response to God’s anger at the Israelites, Moses is merciful; and he wants God to be merciful too. And so the reply of Moses to God’s anger teaches us something about mercy.
Moses does not try to see what the Israelites are doing as not so bad, as somehow acceptable or excusable. If he did, then Moses really would be a moral idiot. But he doesn’t. Rather, Moses entreats God to be merciful by reminding God of the past history of the Israelites. Don’t you remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses asks God? They were your servants and so pleasing to you! For the sake of what the Israelite people were in the past, have mercy on them now!
The Second Reading is about mercy too. Paul explains that he once was a persecutor of God’s people. He doesn’t gloss over his own evil then or make himself a moral idiot, any more than Moses did. But Paul says that he obtained mercy from God anyway, because God could see the man that Paul could become. For the sake of the man Paul could be in the future, God had mercy on him.
Here is one moral of the readings then. You must not be a moral idiot. When you look at the conduct of your father, or your friend, or your boss, if that person is being sinful, then you need to see clearly that he is. But what you see when he is evil is not all there is to him. There is what he was in the past, the small boy his mother loved, for example. He wasn’t always the sinner he is now. And then there is what he could become. Maybe like Paul, who once was the chief of sinners, your sinning friend could become glorious in the service of the Lord in the future.
So, see clearly the evil in your neighbor now, but remember that what you see is not all there is to him. Like the Lord in the readings, have mercy on him, for the sake of all the rest of him, the person that he once was and the person that he can still be.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University