A youth minister once shared with me how he had led a group of young people in song outside a high security prison. After some time, hands were seen sticking wet pieces of toilet paper on the prison wall’s small slit windows. Letters began to emerge, then a complete message. It read: “Pray for us.” “We went to visit our brothers in prison,” the speaker explained to me, “because Jesus was a prisoner too.”
As I listened to this, I recalled another conversation, this time with a parish volunteer. Her pastor had asked her arrange for parish children to stuff Christmas goody bags of toiletries for local inmates. She was appalled at this suggestion and flatly refused. Those people were being punished for their crimes, she insisted; they didn’t deserve any goody bags.
What a contrast between these two people. Both are committed Catholics. Yet they held very different attitudes about the exercise of mercy. In today’s gospel, Jesus makes clear what he wants our attitude to be. He spoke of prisoners, the sick, the poor, and strangers in our midst – people we might be tempted to judge, condemn, dismiss, ignore, or neglect out of selfishness, indifference, and hardness of heart. Yet Jesus refers to them as his brothers, and explained that we serve him when we serve them. His challenge to us today, then, is to extend mercy to others, just as he has showered his mercy upon us.