“Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that the Church’s moral teaching has its own ‘hierarchy,’ in the virtues and in the acts which proceed from them.[Cf. S. Th., I-II, q. 66, a. 4-6] What counts above all else is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Works of love directed to one’s neighbour are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit: ‘The foundation of the New Law is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love’.[S. Th., I-II, q. 108, a. 1.] Thomas thus explains that, as far as external works are concerned, mercy is the greatest of all the virtues: ‘In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular to the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree’.” [The Joy of the Gospel, #37] [“For him, mercy, which overcomes the defects of our devotion and sacrifice, is the sacrifice which is most pleasing, because it is mercy which above all seeks the good of one’s neighbour” S. Th., II-II, q. 30, a. 4, ad 1.]
Jesus stuns the crowd, and probably his family, by identifying with – as family – those who do the will of God. Upon reflection, it seems so easy to understand. For Jesus, who would be the closest to him, who would be family to him? It would be those who place themselves next to his heart. To say it another way, we can’t be close to Jesus while opposing God’s action in our lives. Jesus is inviting us to surrender to God’s love for us. He tells us, of course, that if we want to find ourselves – and our happiness and our purpose – we have to lose ourselves, in loving others the way we have been loved..
Jesus says what he desires for us so clearly when he says, in Luke’s Gospel, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” [Luke 6:36] I have spent a lot of my life trying to be in relationship with God, and in service of others, without always being merciful. It is not easy to forgive when we’ve been hurt – sometimes even when we’ve been slighted. We tend to hold on to memories of what we have against others. We can ask God to forgive us, over and over again, and we can celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation many times, and still struggle with forgiving someone close to us. Jesus is asking us to be with him and like him in letting go of all of that.
It is in this light that I was delighted to read what Pope Francis said about St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on mercy as “the greatest of all virtues.” And, I love to hear that mercy “overcomes the defects of our devotion and sacrifice.” On St. Thomas’ feast, it is great to recall these words.
(Adapted from Andy Alexander, SJ)