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Birds on a Branch

July 6, 2016

“We’re like birds sitting on a branch. We don’t know if we will leave,” the monk told the Muslim villager. But the villager corrected him: “We’re the birds, you’re the branch. Without you we will lose our footing” (“Of Gods and Men”). The film is based on the true story of the gut-wrenching decision facing the monks from the Atlas Abbey of Tibhirine in Algeria in 1996, when terrorists began killing foreigners in the region. The Abbot argues that they should stay: “The Good Shepherd doesn’t abandon his flock to the wolves.” Interspersed throughout the tense moments of the film are interludes of the monks’ singing of the psalms. To anyone who has visited a monastery, the psalm singing at various times throughout the day is familiar and comforting. Included among the many psalms sung is Psalm 86:6: “O Lord hear my prayer; listen to my cry for mercy.” Calling on God to come to our aid while enemies surround us or when we face other challenges is a common theme of David’s psalms, including the psalm for this Sunday: “O Lord have mercy on me.” (Psalm 41:1, 10). “Of Gods and Men” is one of several recommended films to watch during this Jubilee Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church.

Mercy is the subject of this week’s Scripture texts, which approach the subject from the perspective of our need for mercy and the perspective of our obligation to show mercy to others.[1] The monks of the Atlas Abbey demonstrate both perspectives in the current reality of today’s world. The film shows the monks seeking God’s mercy, and asks the same question that the lawyer asked Jesus in this week’s gospel lesson: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10: 29). The question is really “To whom am I required to be merciful?” Clearly, the peaceful Muslim villagers were the monks’ neighbors, but what about the terrorists who came to the monastery for medicine and medical care? Brother Luc, the physician monk, answered the question in the affirmative when he treated a wounded terrorist from the same group that would later kidnap and kill them. We have a tendency to look down on the priest and the Levite who avoided helping the Samaritan. The question “Who is my neighbor” is not always easy to answer, especially if that person is an enemy. But that is the point of the parable.

Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7). Jesus told us that receiving mercy from God is directly related to the mercy that we show to others. We are told by both Moses and Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18b; Luke 10:27). Love includes showing mercy to those in need.

What is mercy?

John Piper suggests that there are four components of mercy: “An eye for distress, a heart of compassion, an effort to help, in spite of enmity—that’s mercy.” [2] These four components are all present in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37): (1) He noticed the beaten man (v. 33); “he had compassion” (v.33); (3) he bound his wounds, transported him to a board and care facility and paid for it (v. 34-35); (4) The wounded man was a Samaritan, a race that the Jews hated (v. 33).

How can I become merciful?

Paul tells us that we should “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work.” (Col.1:10). We know from the gospel lesson that showing mercy to those in need is pleasing to the Lord, who told the lawyer: “You go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37). The Old Testament lesson gives us some examples of showing mercy: give food to the poor; don’t oppress your neighbor; pay your employees what you owe on time; don’t put obstacles in the way of the disabled; judge impartially; love your neighbor as you love yourself. (Leviticus 19:10-18).

R.Z. Meyer preached a sermon at our church on compassion a few weeks ago (“The Compassion of Jesus: Essential for Our Life and Ministry.”). The key takeaway of the sermon was that in order to carry out the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, God expects us to look at each other through the eyes of Christ. Christ loves each person on earth. There is an opportunity for each of us to use our resources, including our individual talents and skill sets to help the grieving, the poor, the ill, and disadvantaged.

 How does God bless the merciful?

Piper counsels that “If you want to be blessed you must make war against the bondage of . . . trifles and devote your life to weightier matter of the law: justice, mercy, faith. Mercy is no trifle. It is one of the weightier matters in all life.”[3]

Psalm 41 begins with a prayer for God’s mercy on the sick and abandoned. God assures us that he is with us while waiting for test results, when we are sick, or abandoned. We are not alone. As we put our arms around those who are in need, God envelopes us in his love and grace. He forgives. He comforts. He guides us through rocky shoals. He is our fortress. He is there for us. He is here with us now.

Jesus told the lawyer and he tells us “You go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37). It is fitting in this Year of Mercy for us to dedicate ourselves to showing compassion to others in our everyday lives. Churches and community organizations provide many opportunities to get involved in helping the Samaritans of our society. Dedicate financial and other resources in the coming months to reaching out to those in need within your family, your community and to the world at large. Be the branch that reaches out to others, and beckons them to stop and rest. Be the branch that provides a safe footing and canopy of leaves to shelter those in need through the life’s storms. Be the branch that is there, for others—that bends but does not break. Be the branch that provides a place for a friend to rest and receive support. Be there.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan









[1] The Scripture texts for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost are Psalm 41; Leviticus 19:9-18; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37.




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