Counting the Cost of Condemnation

This Sunday’s Mass features the well-known Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. In it, the Lord intimates to the men of His day that the severe punishment they want to mete out to this woman may be unwise given that they themselves must prepare for their own judgment.

Before we examine the details, let’s consider a few background texts that may help us to better understand what Jesus is teaching. After each verse, I provide a brief commentary in red.

  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matt 5:7). Notice that it is the merciful who will obtain mercy. Those who have shown proper mercy will be granted mercy on the Day of Judgment. By implication, the severe and merciless will be judged severely by the Lord.
  • Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Luke 6:37-38). The text clearly states that if we use a severe standard of judgment, that same strict standard will be used by the Lord when He judges us. On the other hand, if we are forgiving, merciful, and generous then we can expect a merciful, generous, and kind judgment from God.
  • Speak and act as those who are going to be judged under the law of freedom, for judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:12-13). James gives us three warnings. First, he reminds us that we are going to be judged by the Lord. Second, he intimates that because we are free, we are responsible for what we do. Third, because we are going to face this judgment, in which we will not be able to blame others for what we have freely done, we’d better realize that our judgment will be without mercy if we have not shown mercy. Conversely, if we have shown mercy then we stand a chance on our own judgment day, for mercy will triumph over strict judgment.
  • For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Mat 6:14-15). This warning seems clear enough: if we want to find forgiveness on the Day of Judgment, we had better seek the grace to forgive others.

All these texts teach the bold truth that we can influence the standard against which the Lord will measure us on the day of our judgment. The measure we use for others will be measured back to us. If we have been merciful then we will find mercy, but if we have been harsh, unbending, and unmerciful, the Lord will judge us far more strictly.

We need to be sober about this. We are storing up things for the Day of Judgment by the way we treat others. Because we are all going to need so much mercy and because we cannot endure strict standards of judgment, we should consider carefully the need to be merciful and forgiving to others. And now, on to today’s Gospel!

I. COLLABORATORS IN CONDEMNATION – The Pharisees and the teachers of the law bring forward a woman caught in the act of adultery. (There is something curious about this, though: If she was caught in the act, the man involved must also be known. Why has he not be brought forward? The Law of Moses indicates that the man should be stoned as well.)

The accusers want to “throw the book” at her. They want the strictest punishment meted out: stoning. They also hope to discredit Jesus by putting Him in what they think is a no-win situation.

In their accusatory stance, they have become collaborators with Satan. Scripture describes Satan in this way: the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God (Rev 12:10). Thus, these Pharisees, in seeking to hand her over, join Satan.

When we have been hurt in some way, many of us may wish to both accuse and demand punishment of the person before God; this is unnecessary and unwise.

It is unnecessary because Satan is already accusing them “day and night” before God. In addition, God sees and knows all things anyway!

It is unwise because by demanding harsh punishment for others we set ourselves up to judged by the same strict standard. It’s always a better policy to cry for grace and the conversion of sinners.

II. COUNTING THE COST – As God, Jesus knows the sins of all the men gathered. He must be amazed; surely, they cannot be serious in demanding such a harsh punishment for the woman knowing that the day of their own judgment awaits!

Jesus bends down and traces His finger on the ground, almost as if tracing along with the words of a book He is reading about their deeds. Some suggest that perhaps He is writing down their sins. Some liken it to the finger of God tracing the commandments on stone. Still others recall the mysterious hand in the Book of Daniel, which traces the words MENE, TEKEL, PERES on the wall, announcing doom to the Babylonian king.

Whatever the case, it isn’t good. You don’t ever want Jesus to be writing things down about you!

These Pharisees are slow to appreciate the significance of the gesture, so Jesus tries to reason with them, saying,Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then He bends down again and continues writing on the ground.

It is almost as though Jesus were saying,

Reason with me, men. If you demand strict justice, if you insist that I “throw the book” at her, you’d better first look and see what is written about you in “the book.” If she is to be judged strictly and without mercy, then you, too, will face the same standard.

Gentlemen, there are things in the book about you—serious things. Have you counted the cost of condemning this woman? Are you sure that you want to demand that I “throw the book” at her?

Think about it, men. Think very carefully.

One by one they go away. It begins with the older men, who are presumably less rash than the younger ones (and may well have committed more sins).

The message for us is clear: we will face judgment. We need to be sober about this. We must count the cost of being unmerciful, unforgiving, and vengeful. The measure that we measure out to others will be the measure that God uses for us.

What kind of judgment are you preparing for yourself? Condemnation comes at a high cost. Are you willing to risk storing up wrath and strict justice for the day of your own judgment?

On the other hand, gentleness, compassionate correction, and merciful love will also be given to us if we show it to others. Remember your upcoming judgment. Be like the wise man, who knows he will need grace and mercy on that day because he will not be able to withstand a strict adjudication of his crimes.

III. CORRECTING WITH COMPASSION – The departure of the accusers leaves Jesus alone with the woman. Though He speaks gently, Jesus is clear: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

This Gospel, therefore, does not make light of the woman’s sin. Jesus knows what she has done and so does she. He is clear that she must turn away from sin; she must not commit it anymore. What Jesus does set aside is the condemning “hang-’em-high” mentality that seeks the harshest measures for every situation.

Yes, we must sometimes correct sinners and mete out punishment. This is particularly true if we are a parent, a juror, or someone in a supervisory role.

Before rushing to extreme measures, however, we do well to show mercy and to attempt lesser measures first.

St. Paul has good advice: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should gently set him right. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted (Gal 6:1).

Gentle and clear correction is the best course. More significant punishments should only be a later recourse. We must be careful not to be tempted to harshness, anger, mercilessness, and lovelessness.

OK, you get the point: count the cost. Be very careful to remember that the measure you measure out to others will be measured out to you. Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Counting the Cost of Condemnation

There Was a Man Who Had Two Sons – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

The Gospel this Sunday is about a man who had two sons, both of whom forsook him and refused to relive in relationship with him. Although the sons seem to have very different personalities (one outwardly rebellious, the other outwardly obedient), their internal struggles are similar. In effect, neither of them really wants a relationship with his father. Both prefer what their father has or can give them to their father himself.

In the end, one son repents and finds his way to the father’s heart. We don’t find out what happens to the second son. The parable didn’t tell us what happened to him because the story is really about us; it is we who must finish it. The question we must answer is this: What do I really want? Do I want the consolation of God, or the God of all consolation; the gifts of God, or the giver of every good and perfect gift?

Let’s look at this Gospel in four parts.

Renegade Son – Most of us are familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We tend to focus on the younger (and obviously sinful) son rather than the older one. This is interesting because the Lord Jesus seems to have His focus on the older son (the parable is addressed to the scribes and Pharisees, who see themselves as obedient). Nevertheless, let’s observe three things about this renegade son, this prodigal son.

Corruption – This is an angry young man, alienated from his father. He wants what his father has yet wants nothing to do with him. In effect, he tells his father, “You’re not dying fast enough. I want to be done with you and get what’s coming to me right now.”

His effrontery is even more astonishing given where and when it happened. Today, reverence for parents and elders is sadly lacking, but if our times are extreme in the one direction, ancient times in the Middle East were so in the other. In telling this parable as He does, Jesus shocks His listeners, who lived in a culture where no son would dream of speaking to his father in this way. Indeed, a son could be killed by his father for such insolence! Even to this day, so-called “honor killings” still occur in parts of the Middle East. If a child brings dishonor to the family, it is not unheard of for the father to kill him or her. While most governments forbid these practices, in many cultures people will look the other way and the perpetrators are seldom prosecuted.

Yes, Jesus must have shocked His listeners with such a parable. Here was a son who did something so insolent, ungrateful, and daring as to be practically unthinkable.

Even more astonishing than the son’s behavior, however, is the fact that the father actually gives him his inheritance and allows him to leave.

This is Jesus’ veiled description of the patience and mercy of the Father, who endures even greater insolence from us, His often-ungrateful children. We demand His gifts and take them with ingratitude; we want what God gives us but do not want Him.

Consequences – The renegade son sets off to “a distant country.” It is always in a distant country that we dwell apart from God. The consequences of the son’s behavior are great indeed.

This parable does not make light of sin. The Lord Jesus describes well a young man who chooses to live apart from God and in sinful rebellion. The result is that this renegade son lives in anguish and depravity. When he runs out of money, he finds he has no friends, no family, and no experience of his father.

So awful is his state that he becomes hungry for the disgusting mash that pigs eat. Yes, he is lower than the most unclean animal Jews can imagine: a swine.

Sin debases the human person and if its effects are not avoided, it orients us increasingly toward depravity. What was once unthinkable becomes easier and easier.

St. Augustine wrote of sin’s hold on individuals in his Confessions: “For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together (whence I called it a chain) a hard bondage held me enthralled” (Confessions, 8.5.10).

The renegade son is suffering the consequences of his sinful choices. He is debased, debauched, and nearly dead.

Conversion – In an almost miraculous turn of events, he comes to his senses. Too many, especially today, suffer a darkened intellect due to the debasing effects of their sin; it would seem that no matter how debased, confused, and even enslaved they become, they still do not come to their senses, for their senseless minds have become darkened (cf Romans 1:21).

Thanks be to God, the renegade son does come to his senses, thinking, I shall arise and go to my father. In this passage, the Greek text uses the word anistemi, here translated as “arise”—the same word used to describe the resurrection of Jesus. The young man’s father will later joyfully describe him as having been dead but then coming back to life.

St. Paul reminds us that we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive in Christ (cf Col 2:13). Thanks be to God for His mercy and for the conversion that He alone can effect in all of us, His renegade children, who ourselves have been debased and debauched and are dead in our sins. The conversion of this renegade son, we pray, is also our conversion, our rising and going back to the Father.

Rejoicing Father – The astonishing nature of this parable is only just beginning, for Jesus goes on to describe a father who is shockingly merciful. He does things that no ancient father would ever do. As Jesus describes this father, so filled with love and mercy that he sacrifices his personal dignity, we must remember that He is telling us that this is what His Father is like.

As the parable continues to unfold, we hear that the father sees the son while he is still a long way off. This tells us that he was looking for his son, praying and hoping for his return.

Such mercy is rare. Most people who are hurt and have their dignity scorned would be resentful, saying, “Never darken my door again!”

How shockingly different this father is, lovingly and longingly awaiting the day when his son will appear on the horizon.

Upon seeing his son, the father runs out to meet him, something no ancient nobleman would ever do. Running was a sign of being in flight or of being a slave out on an errand. Further, in order to run, the ancients (who wore long garments) had to bare their legs—a disgraceful thing for nobility. Only common workers and slaves had their legs exposed.

Yes, this is the portrait of a father willing to debase himself so that he can run and greet his returning son. When we take one step, God takes two or more; He comes running to us!

In the parable, the robe and the ring that the father puts on his son are signs of family belonging or restoration. This is the full restoration of a young man willing to live as a slave in his own father’s house. The father will have none of it. “You are my son whatever your sins. They are forgotten. You are my beloved son!”

What kind of father is this? No earthly father would behave this way. This is the heavenly Father. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like!”

Resentful Son – Now we turn our attention to the older brother. His sinfulness is more subtle. Outwardly, he follows his father’s rules; he does not sin overtly. Unlike his prodigal brother, he has never openly rejected his father; inwardly, though, he is not so different. Like his younger brother, the older son wants his father’s goods, not his father himself. To understand the subtlety of his struggle, let’s look at some of the details of the story. Notice the following fundamental issues with the resentful older son:

He is distant. It is interesting that the older son is the last person to find out about the feast. This is a son who is distant from his father, unaware of the happenings in his father’s life.

Off on some far-flung part of the property, he is going about his duties, which he seems to fulfill adequately. However, we get the feeling that there is a sense of distance between father and son.

Why doesn’t he know that his father, worried about his younger brother, has been looking for him each day? Even the slaves in the household are drawn into the preparations for this celebratory feast; the older son is the only one who knows nothing about it. Even more telling is that he is unaware of his father’s joy at his brother’s return.

Yes, the resentful son is distant, miles away from the heart of his father.

He is disaffected. When the older son learns of the feast and the reason for it, he becomes sullen, angry, and resentful. He is disaffected. He stays away from the feast, refusing to enter.

So bitter is he that his father hears of it and comes out to plead with him.

Do not be too quick to scorn him, however, for we are too like him. We die the death of a thousand cuts as we see other sinners finding mercy. We become envious when others are blessed.

He is disconsolate. The father emerges from the feast to plead with his older son to come in. Again, such a thing would be unheard of in the ancient world! Any father in those days would have commanded his son to come in to the feast, expecting immediate obedience.

This father is different, for he represents the heavenly Father, rooted in love more than in prerogatives and privileges. He has already demonstrated his love for his renegade son and now does so for his resentful older son.

The fact is, he loves both of his sons. Yes, the heavenly Father loves each one of us.

Tragically, the resentful son is unmoved by this demonstration of love. He remains disconsolate and must be confronted in his resentful anger.

He is disrespectful. Now we see the ugly side of the apparently obedient son. He doesn’t truly love or respect his father; he doesn’t really know him at all. He disrespects his father to his face. He speaks of him as if he is a slave master, saying, I have slaved for you … I have never disobeyed any one of your orders.

Orders? I have slaved for you? Where is his love for his father? He does not see himself as a son but rather as an unwilling slave, one who follows orders only because he must. In effect, he calls his father a slave master, a despot.

Further, he accuses his father of injustice. He views the mercy his father has shown to his brother as evidence of a lack of due mercy shown to himself. He considers his father unreasonable, unjust—even despicable. How dare his father show mercy to someone that he, the “obedient” son, does not think deserves it!

In calling his father an unjust slave owner and taskmaster, the son disrespects him to his face. The father stays in the conversation, though, pleading with his son to reconsider.

He is disordered. Among the older son’s complaints is that his father never gave him so much as a kid goat so that he could celebrate with his friends. Our goal in life is not to celebrate with friends; it is to celebrate with the heavenly Father.

Note how similar the two sons actually are. Previously, the renegade son saw his father only in terms of what his father could give him; his father was only valuable in terms of the “stuff” he could provide. Despite his outward obedience, the older son has the same problem, seeming to value only what his father can give him. It is not his father he really loves or even knows. He is interested only in what his father can give him.

In this way, the resentful son is disordered. He misses the whole point, which is not the “things” his father can give him but their relationship. The goal in life is to live with the Father forever in a relationship of love.

Again, be careful before you condemn the resentful son. It is so easy for us to want the good things of God but not God Himself, to want God’s blessings and benefits but not His beloved self, to want the gifts of God but not Him who is the giver of every good and perfect gift.

Yes, the disorder of this resentful son is too easily our disorder. There is something about our flesh that wants God to rain down blessings, yet once we have received them, we want to keep our distance from God. Relationships are complicated and dynamic. Our flesh prefers trinkets. We prefer to receive gifts on our own terms. Our flesh says, “Give me the priceless pearls, but begone with the powerful person who gives them!”

Response – The father is outside pleading with his resentful son to enter the feast. At this point, Jesus abruptly ends the parable. Yes, the story ends! Does the resentful son enter the feast or not? Why is the story left unfinished?

Simply put, it is because we must finish the story, for we are so easily the resentful son.

Right now, the heavenly Father is pleading with us to enter the feast. Too easily we brood and say that we have our reasons for not wanting to go. After all, that renegade son is in there, our enemy is in there. If Heaven involves meeting our enemies and celebrating with them, we don’t want anything to do with it.

Here is the great drama: will we enter the real Heaven? The real Heaven is not of our own making, defined by our own parameters.

Are we willing to enter on God’s terms, or will we stand outside resentfully, demanding that Heaven be on our own terms? Further, do we see Heaven as being with the Father, or do we just view it as a place where we get the things we want?

The heart of Heaven is to be with the Father, with the Holy Trinity. The danger, even for the religiously observant, is becoming the resentful son. The Father is pleading with us to enter the feast, to set aside our prejudices and notions of exclusivity.

To the resentful son the father says, your brother was lost and is found, was dead, and has come back to life.

The Father is pleading with us to enter the feast—not some made-up feast where we choose the attendees—but the real, actual feast of Heaven, where some surprising people may be in attendance.

This parable is unfinished; you and I must finish it. Will you enter the feast? The Father is pleading with you, saying, “Come in before it’s too late.” What is your response to His plea? Answer Him!

Just for fun, here is a retelling of the parable in the “key” of F:

Feeling footloose and frisky, a feather-brained fellow forced his fond father to fork over the farthings and flew to foreign fields and frittered his fortune, feasting fabulously with faithless friends.

Fleeced by his fellows, fallen by fornication, and facing famine, he found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy farmyard. Fairly famishing, he fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from fodder fragments. “Fooey! My father’s flunkies fare finer,” the frazzled fugitive forlornly fumbled, frankly facing facts. Frustrated by failure and filled with foreboding, he fled forthwith to his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he forlornly fumbled, “Father, I’ve flunked and fruitlessly forfeited family favor!”

The farsighted father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged the flunkies to fetch a fatling from the flock and fix a feast.

The fugitive’s fault-finding brother frowned on fickle forgiveness of former folderol. But the faithful father figured, “Filial fidelity is fine, but the fugitive is found! What forbids fervent festivity? Let flags be unfurled. Let fanfares flare.”

And the father’s forgiveness formed the foundation for the former fugitive’s future faith and fortitude.

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: There Was a Man Who Had Two Sons

God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

balance-1475025_1920One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him. Both of these are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, but how?

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive, or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the wicked.

A recent reading from the Letter to the Hebrews at daily Mass (Saturday of the First week of the Year) presents us with a balance. It speaks of two very different experiences of God, both of which are needed to balance each other.

The word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help (Heb 4:12-16).

The two parts of this passage are very different. The first uses somewhat violent imagery in describing how closely the Word of God examines us, exposing our hidden thoughts and actions. It speaks to God’s justice, His passion to set things right. The emphasis is on the sobering and frightening truth that we will have to render an account to the Lord for every word, thought, and action, no matter how hidden. Jesus is our savior and brother, but He is also sovereign Lord and judge of the world. He is not to be trivialized, minimized, or domesticated. He is the Lord and we will have to answer to Him.

In contrast, the second half of the passage bids us to remember that we have a compassionate Lord, one who sympathizes with our weakness and offers us mercy, grace, and help. We are encouraged to approach the throne of grace. The emphasis here is on a merciful and kind Lord, ready to be approached and to give us every assistance we need in order to be saved.

So, notice the balance in this passage between God’s justice and His mercy. Remember that both are necessary. God’s mercy is needed now because there is a day of judgment. God is not going to stop being God. He is all-perfect and all-holy. He is the Truth Himself, the refulgent light of all glory. We cannot simply walk into His unveiled presence without first being prepared and purified. And thus He makes every help and grace available to us. He is good to us and patient with us. He is merciful and kind.

In this way, God’s mercy and grace prepare us for us his Justice. But there is no justice if sin is unanswered, or injustice is not rectified. That is why we need both His grace and His mercy. Their purpose is to bring the needed changes so that we can be ready for the day when we shall see the Lord.

As a whole, the text therefore speaks of the Lord Jesus in tightly woven tapestry of darker and lighter themes. It requires careful balance.

Too easily in our times we set mercy and justice in opposition to each other. But where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good; that is why the balance of this passage is necessary. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

So, orthodoxy is in the balance. Both visions of the Lord in the reading from Hebrews above are accurate and necessary. To overemphasize or minimize one is to harm the other.

A mercy that would cancel the requirements of justice would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, a justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

So, balance is the stance of orthodoxy. We cannot ever hope to attain to the glory of God without both the justice and mercy of God.

Balance or bust!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

How Justice and Mercy are Alike with God

Many people today set mercy and justice in opposition to each other, but where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to the justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

Mercy that canceled the requirements of God’s justice and His law would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him; both are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the unrepentant and wicked.

The balance of orthodoxy holds that justice and mercy are alike with God.

  • The LORD loves righteousness and justice. His mercy fills the earth (Ps 35:5).
  • Righteousness and justice are the habitation of your throne: mercy and truth shall go before your face (Ps 89:14).
  • Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! Because of your faithfulness and justice, answer me (Ps 143:1).

Yes, in God, justice and mercy meet.

https://youtu.be/XFj-3RHGkrY?t=2786

Seeing More as God Does

Today I’d like to reflect further on the Gospel reading from today’s Mass (Thursday of the 13th week of the year). It tells the story of the paralyzed man whom Jesus tells to have courage because his sins are forgiven.

In one sense this is a rather peculiar response to a paralyzed man: Jesus looks at him and says, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” Now we might be tempted to tap Jesus on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, Lord, but this man is paralyzed. His problem is paralysis; that’s what he needs healing for!” (The Pharisees and scribes get all worked up for a different reason: they don’t think that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins.)

Of course, Jesus is neither blind nor lacking in intelligence. Unlike us, however, when Jesus looks at the man he does not consider paralysis to be the most serious problem. To Jesus, the man’s biggest issue is his sin.

Living as we do in this world, most of us have the world’s priorities. The Lord sees something more serious than paralysis, while we wonder what could possibly be more serious than paralysis! But not as man sees does God see. For God, the most serious problem we have is our sin. We don’t think like this even if we are told we should think like this.

Influenced by the flesh as we are, most of us are far more devastated by the thought of losing our health, or our money, or our job, than we are by the fact that we have sin. Threaten our health, well-being, or finances, and we’re on our knees begging God for help. Yet most people are far less concerned for their spiritual well-being. Most of us are not nearly so devastated by our sin (which can deprive us of eternal life) as we are by the loss of our health or some worldly possession.

Even many of us who have some sense of the spiritual life still struggle with this obtuseness and with misplaced priorities. Even in our so-called spiritual life, our prayers are often dominated by requests that God fix our health, improve our finances, or help us to find a job. It is not wrong to pray for these things, but how often do we pray to be freed of our sins? Do we earnestly pray to grow in holiness and to be prepared to see God face-to-face? Sometimes it almost sounds as if we are asking God to make this world more comfortable so that we can just stay here forever. This attitude is an affront to the truer gifts that God offers us.

So it is that Jesus, looking at the paralyzed man, says to him, Your sins are forgiven. In so doing, Jesus addresses the man’s most serious problem first. Only secondarily does He speak to the man’s paralysis, which He almost seems to have overlooked in comparison to the issue of his sin.

We have much to learn about how God sees and about what are the most crucial issues in our life.

Joseph and Mary were told to call the child “Jesus” because He would save the people from their sins. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI writes,

Joseph is entrusted with a further task: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). … On the one hand, a lofty theological task is assigned to the child, for only God can forgive sins. So this child is immediately associated with God, directly linked with God’s holy and saving power. On the other hand, though, this definition of the Messiah’s mission could appear disappointing. The prevailing expectations of salvation were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the kingdom of David, on Israel’s freedom and independence, and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people. The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.

Benedict then cites the story of the paralytic and comments,

Jesus responded [to the presence of the paralyzed man] in a way that was quite contrary to the expectation of the bearers and the sick man himself, saying: “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). This was the last thing anyone was expecting; this was the last thing they were concerned about.

The Pope Emeritus concludes,

Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady.

Yes, God sees things rather differently than we do. There is much to ponder about the fact that Jesus said to the paralyzed man, Your sins are forgiven.

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Fatherhood and Mercy

Blog-07-19Last weekend I was out in Anacortes, Washington (about a hundred miles north of Seattle) preaching at the Faith on Fire conference. One of the talks I gave was entitled “Mercy and Fatherhood.” In it, I spoke about how a father can show mercy to his children. What follows is my notes for that talk. What does a priest know about being a father? Why don’t you read this post and then tell me? Remember that I have been the son of my father, I have two brothers, and I am uncle to 12 nieces and nephews. I am also a careful observer of life.

So consider these seven observations from an outsider and observer.

I. The merciful father loves the mother of his children.

One of the most merciful things a father can do for his children is to love their mother with tender affection and gentle, protective support. Children bond with their mother very closely, especially in their early years. They are reassured by seeing love, tenderness, and support shown to their mother.

In contrast, when children see their mother dishonored or, even worse, abused by their father, they are easily struck with fear and a sense of dread.

How beautiful is this mercy of a father! It also helps his sons understand how to treat women, and helps his daughters understand how men should treat them.

II. The merciful father attends to his own healing and maturity.

All of us have character defects and “issues” that affect others around us. Some have anger issues; others are too fearful and non-assertive. Some have problems with drinking; some with pornography. Still others can be lazy or impatient.

A father can show mercy to his children by working on whatever ails him and thereby avoid inflicting frustration and pain on his children. Scripture says, They made me keeper of vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept (Song 1:6).

It is a work of mercy for a father (and a mother, too) to work through his own issues and thereby spare his children pain. There is an old saying, “If I get better, others get better too.” In doing this, not only are children spared pain, but they are better able to grow in virtue.

III. The merciful father does not allow his career to eclipse his vocation.

Whatever career a man has, his vocation as husband and father is more important. And while the two are not wholly separate (since a father provides for his family), there is far more to being a father than being a breadwinner.

Children need their father in their lives, not merely off in the distance sending money. It is a great work of mercy for a father to cherish his children and to share in their lives. It is a necessary component of their maturity for him to manifest the masculine genius of being human even as their mother manifests the feminine genius.

Children want their father’s support, encouragement, and approval. A young man deeply needs his father’s model. He also needs his father’s affirmation as he grows into manhood. There is perhaps no greater mercy than for a son to hear his father say, “I’m proud of you; you’ve done well.”

A daughter delights in twirling her skirts and in being the apple of her father’s eye. He models for her the love of a man who loves her for her own sake, without lust. This can help her learn to distinguish love from lust and to develop the self-esteem that will help her to navigate the complex years of courtship and to discern a good husband.

A man who is more wedded to his career than to his family is too seldom around to have these crucial effects, which are far more precious than the extra money or additional possessions earned by long hours at the office.

Be careful, fathers. Career can be big on the ego and it can easily ensnare you. Home life may be less glamorous and less immediately rewarding in terms of money, but there is no greater satisfaction than to have raised your children well. The rewards will be enormous for both them and you. And this is a very great mercy.

IV. The merciful father is the spiritual leader of his home.

He establishes the structures of grace. In our culture, too many men leave the spiritual and religious lives of their children to their mother. But Scripture says, Fathers … bring up your children in the training and discipline of the Lord (Eph 6:4). This does not mean that the wife has no role, clearly she does.

A father is to be the spiritual leader in his home, sanctifying his family (see Eph 5:25-27). He should be the first one up on Sunday morning, summoning his children to prepare for Holy Mass. His wife should not have to drag him along to Mass. He should read Bible stories to his children and explain their meaning. He should teach them God’s law. While his wife should share in this, the father ought to lead.

Surveys show that the highest predictor (by far) of children going on to practice the faith in adulthood is whether their father practices the faith.

A father should also seek to establish his household with the structures of grace. He should live under obedience to God and insist that his children do likewise. This makes for a home that, while not free of sin, makes it easier to live the Christian faith rather than more difficult.

All of this is a great mercy that a father extends to his children. Through his leadership, a father molds his family into the beloved community where God’s justice and mercy are esteemed and exemplified. By God’s grace this mercy reaches his children.

V. The merciful father listens and teaches.

It is a beautiful work of mercy for a father to actively listen to his children and to give them his undivided attention whenever possible. It bestows on them a sense of dignity, because they see that what they say and think matters to their father. And it reassures them that he cares for their welfare and what is happening in their lives.

After listening, a father should also respond and teach, giving his children guidance. Too many children today are not being taught by their parents, especially regarding the critical moral issues of our day. If parents do not teach their children, someone else will! And that “someone” is not likely to be an individual with godly views. More often it will be some pop-star, musician, or teen idol. Perhaps it will be a gang leader or a rogue school buddy. Maybe it will be the police officer or a judge in a legal proceeding.

Fathers, it is a great mercy to teach your children. You have their best interests at heart. You want what is truly good (not merely apparently good) for them. Their lives will be much simpler and more productive if you insist that they do what is right from an early age. Otherwise, hardships and painful lessons await them. Show them mercy. Instruct them in the ways of the Lord.

Scripture says, Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). He who raises a fool does so to his sorrow, And the father of a fool has no joy (Prov 17:21). A foolish son brings grief to his father and bitterness to the mother who bore him (Prov 17:25).

When a father brings up his children in the discipline of the Lord, it is mercy not only to them, but to others as well!

VI. The merciful father praises and punishes.

Children are delighted to get their father’s esteem and approval. They love to be praised, especially when they believe they have done well.

A paradoxical form of mercy is for a father to punish his children. The purpose of punishment is to allow the child to experience in a small way the consequences of his transgression so that he does not experience the full and more painful consequences later. Scripture says,

My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son … For what children are not disciplined by their father? … We have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-11).

And thus punishment, properly understood, is a great mercy, because it saves children from great woes later on. Clearly, punishment cannot simply be a father venting his anger or exacting revenge. Punishment is not for the benefit of the father; it is for his children’s sake.

VII. The merciful father uses his authority and has his children’s long term interests in mind.

The cultural revolution of the late 1960s was not just about sexuality, drugs, and feminism; it also ushered in a wide-scale rejection of authority from which we are still reeling. And it is not just that those under authority reject it, but that those who have authority have become reluctant to use it. Too many clergy and too many parents do not make necessary decisions, enforce important policies, or punish when appropriate. Too many who have lawful authority are more concerned with being popular; they do not want to risk being questioned or resisted.

Authority involves a lot of effort and brings with it a great deal of stress. Many seek to avoid all this and thus those who need leadership and guidance often do not get it. Scripture says, And indeed if the trumpet gives an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? (1 Cor 4:18)

Whether they like to admit it or not, children need their father to be strong and to lead. And when he does this it is a great mercy. It may not always be appreciated in the moment, but most children eventually recognize with gratitude the leadership of their parents, of their father.

Every leader needs to know that he will sometimes take some heat for his decisions, and he must be willing and courageous enough to make those decisions anyway. A father must remember that he has to be more concerned with his children’s long-term interests than with their current, short-term happiness. Their anger or discontent in the present moment will usually be replaced gratitude and relief in the future.

A good father will mercifully hold the tension of the moment and keep his children’s best interests at heart. He will serve their true good (not merely their apparent good) through the use of his authority and through his decisions on their behalf. And this is a very great mercy!

These are some of my thoughts on mercy and fatherhood.

Justice and Mercy Are Alike for God

Justice and MercyI recently prepared a talk to present to a group of lawyers on the relationship between justice and mercy. The following is a summary of the basic points:

I. Distinctions – From our perspective as humans, we tend to distinguish sharply between justice and mercy.

For us, justice is the rendering to each person what is due to him or her. There is a kind of “You did it, you get it” mentality (whether praise or rebuke, reward or punishment). For us, justice is about exactness; it about what is required or due.

In contrast, mercy to us is the giving beyond what is strictly required or the withholding of due punishment. Mercy is about tempering the stricter requirements of justice.

Not only do we tend to distinguish between justice and mercy, but we also often set them in opposition to each other. Thus mercy challenges justice and asks it to lessen its demands.

In God, however, justice and mercy are alike; they are as one, simply. God has no “parts” as we do; He is utter simplicity. He is I AM.

As an illustration, think about how, even in created things, aspects that we distinguish from one another exist simply so as to be one. Consider a candle flame. We can discern many different aspects of the candle flame: its heat, its light, its color, and so forth. And while these distinctions can help us, in reality they cannot be so simply separated. I cannot wield a knife and separate these qualities so that I put the heat over here, the light over there, and the color in yet another place. In my mind I can distinguish between these different aspects, but in reality they are so together as to be one.

In God we can distinguish many traits, but in Him they are so together as to be one. Justice and mercy are like this. They are not “opposite” modes in which God acts as if He were subject to mood swings. In God, justice and mercy are not isolated or opposed; they are united as if to be one. This is true with all of God’s aspects. What we isolate, divide, and distinguish, are in God more simply united. They are one in Him, who is being itself, who describes himself simply as I AM.

Therefore, when we discuss the relationship between justice and mercy in the Church and in God, we must avoid distinctions that merely see them in opposition. We must seek to see them as rooted in God, simply, and in a way that harmonizes them.

As always, St. Thomas Aquinas is of great help in both distinguishing between and uniting justice and mercy. He reminds us that our understanding of God’s justice must always include that fact that it presupposes His mercy and is founded upon it! To those who would set justice and mercy in opposition St. Thomas says,

It is said (Psalm 24:10), “All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth.” … Thus justice must exist in all God’s works. [But] the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon …. We may say, for instance, that to possess hands is due to man on account of his rational soul; and his rational soul is due to him that he may be man; [but] his being man is on account of the divine goodness. So, in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy. In all that follows, the power of mercy remains, and works indeed with even greater force; as the influence of the first cause is more intense than that of second causes … (Summa Theologica Pars Prima, q. 21 art 4).

In other words, whatever may seem due to us by God (given that He has created us and that we require certain things in order to be what we are), we ultimately confront the truth that we are not necessary beings; we are contingent beings. Our entire existence is therefore an act of pure mercy and love by God. Yes, whatever might seem due to us on account of God’s justice is ultimately founded upon an act of His grace and mercy: our very existence.

For God, therefore, justice and mercy cannot so easily be set in opposition to each other. On account of His mercy in creating us, his justice is built and it flows. Though justice and mercy are distinct in our minds, In God they exist more simply. Some of this is brought out in the Book of Psalms, where the rhyme is in the thought rather than the sound. Similar thoughts are paired together and rhyme. Consider just three examples:

  • The LORD loves righteousness and justice. His mercy fills the earth (Ps 35:5).
  • Righteousness and justice are the habitation of your throne:
    mercy and truth shall go before your face
    (Ps 89:14).
  • Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! Because of your faithfulness and justice, answer me (Ps 143:1).

Notice that in God, justice and righteous rhyme with mercy and faithfulness. That is to say, they are more alike than different.

II. Definition – How, then, can we define God’s justice?

God’s justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises. This definition unites God’s justice and mercy and shows how His justice rests on His mercy and presupposes it.

As an illustration, consider one of the most fundamental promises of God in the Old Testament and see how it makes for the foundation of God’s justice and the whole of the moral law:

[O My people], I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my statutes (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

This merciful promise of God to us should revolutionize our understanding of His law and the justice it declares. It moves law from a merely prescriptive set of requirements to a more descriptive assertion of what God will accomplish for the believer as a work of His mercy. God’s law is a description of the transformed human person. It is what become like when God mercifully cleanses us of our idols and then takes our stony hearts and gives us true, transformed hearts.

This is a very different understanding of God’s law than conceiving of it merely as a list of requirements (that we’d better do, or else). No, God’s justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises to save us from our sins, to transform us, to configure us to what is right and just, and to restore us to a right relationship with Him and one another. It is a work of God’s mercy to conform us to His justice!

III. Delineations and Difficulties – We see that God’s law is not a threatening or oppressive expression of raw justice in the detached, worldly sense. Rather, it is an expression of His merciful promise to restore us and transform us.

The law does provide metrics. The transformed human person is one thing rather than another: he is generous rather than greedy, chaste rather than impure, he loves God and neighbor, he has authority over his anger, and so forth. The law paints a picture; it is a description before it is a prescription.

True charity and mercy do not abridge or dilute the law. Mercy points to the law, it is its origin and manifestation. To dilute the law or to think that mercy merely sets it aside is a foundational error and is in fact most unmerciful.

But what about difficulties and seemingly paradoxical realities such as punishment, warnings about Hell, and suffering?

Punishment – Scripture is clear that God’s punishment is rooted in His mercy and love:

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-11).

Punishment is, therefore, an aspect of mercy. The purpose of punishment is to help us to experience the lesser consequences of our sin so that we do not experience the fuller, more dire consequences. Punishment also imparts a greater a greater understanding of God’s justice and vision for us, as opposed to the false promises offered to us by this world.

For many of us today, it is difficult to see punishment as an aspect of mercy, because we tend to equate love and mercy with mere kindness or approval. It is an immature notion of love that says, “If you love me you will always be nice and kind, and you’ll let me do and be whatever I please.” God loves us too much to yield to that notion of love and mercy.

Hell – I have written much on this topic before. Briefly, Hell exists as a manifestation of God’s respect for our freedom. By a sheer act of His mercy, God created each of us and summoned us to love. But love requires a fundamental freedom that is not haphazardly abridged (or set aside altogether) by God when we make choices that reject His plan for us. Scripture indicates that many people mysteriously reject God, and they do so in ways that tend to become ever more firm over the years if they do not yield to the grace of repentance that God consistently offers. Heaven is not a designer paradise. It is the full manifestation of the truths and values of God’s Kingdom. It includes the deep love and ongoing worship of God. It fully manifests things like love of one’s neighbor (and even one’s enemy), esteem for the poor, chastity, forgiveness, and generosity. There are some people who do not esteem or want things like this; God will not force them to esteem or accept such virtues or the fruits that come from them. Hell is a place apart that some mysteriously prefer in an ever-deepening way. There comes a moment when our decision becomes final and forever fixed. Judgment and the “Depart from me!” that God utters is rooted in His respect for our freedom. This freedom is a glory He mercifully gave us and which He mercifully respects, even if it means accepting that we reject Him and the Kingdom He offers. To force Heaven on those who do not want what it clearly is, would neither be just nor merciful.

Suffering – God offered Adam and Eve the paradise of the Garden of Eden. But despite being warned of the suffering and death it would bring, they still freely chose to know and experience evil for themselves rather than trust God’s teaching. As a result of this, we now live in paradise lost. All of us have ratified their choice by our own sins. In His just respect for human freedom, God did not overrule Adam and Eve’s free choice. Instead, he mercifully works with and through the very suffering and death they/we chose as a way back. It is the way of the cross, and justice and mercy meet at the cross. Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced (Psalm 85:11). In the suffering heart of Christ on the cross, we see the truest and most vivid way that justice and mercy are alike in God. While there are many mysteries related to suffering, God permits it for some greater good. In allowing suffering, God respects our freedom. Most of us know that suffering promotes growth in us, prunes our heart of often-disordered desires, and bestows on us greater wisdom than do the mere frivolities of this life.

IV. Duties – Having set forth some insights into the relationship between mercy and justice in God’s Law, I cannot in a brief reflection propose a complete legal philosophy for civil lawyers. As human beings we cannot comprehend all things or embrace them “simply,” as God does. God’s Law as revealed is perfect and eternal; our laws are imperfect and passing, as circumstances sometimes require.

And yet what is best in our human legal system does reflect God’s law, which we access by both reason and revelation. In order that our imperfect legal system may better reflect God’s perfect law, let me propose to you that as Catholic and Christian lawyers you do well to ponder (especially in this Year of Mercy) how to make it better reflect that mercy and justice are not opposed to each other, but go hand in hand.

Thus, one error to avoid is that of legalism, which idolizes the letter of the law and forgets that even its human authors conceived of it for the common good. The law is a mercy before it is a mandate. It is meant to be for man, not against him; It is meant to promote our welfare not imperil it. As such, the law must have some leeway that accounts for special circumstances and unforeseen situations. Law speaks to the general, but not to every specific. “Zero tolerance” policies should be rare; they often result in foolish, excessive outcomes.

And yet the opposite error is also to be avoided: dismissing the role of law in setting norms and ensuring an equitable playing field. Too often today, sentimentalism seeks to supplant the role of law in ensuring justice. Paradoxically, ensuring justice is actually a very merciful thing to do. It makes the world more certain and stable; it enables people to maneuver more freely and to have recourse when problems arise. The truest freedom is a limited and circumscribed one. Too much freedom is anarchy, which promotes the bondage of chaos, power struggles, and the tyranny of relativism. In its best moments of securing justice and equity, the law supplies precious mercies such as stability, recourse and redress, commonality, and protection.

If God’s Justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises, then a Catholic and Christian lawyer ought to consider if and how our legal system enshrines the merciful promises that our Constitution seeks to promote: justice, equity, equality, the common good, individual dignity, and the individual rights of every person (including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).

If God’s law paints a picture of the transformed human person, then our laws should also paint a picture of the virtuous citizen, who properly provides for himself and his family and who also participates in and respects the common good.

If God’s law provides for punishment with a remedial purpose in mind (and this is mercy), then a Catholic and Christian lawyer ought to consider if our penal system does this to the appropriate degree. Incarceration and other punishments may be necessary to protect the wider citizenry (and this, too, is a mercy), but how do we assist the criminal in becoming a better and more productive citizen (thus showing mercy to him as well)?

Justice and mercy therefore are not opposed to each other; they come from the same font, which is love. Love rejoices in the truth, which the law seeks to enshrine. It is the truth that sets us free, and this is a very great mercy! Even in civil law, justice and mercy walk together and seek the same goal: liberation in the truth.

With God, justice and mercy are alike. Why not with us, too?

Blessed (and also very smart) are the Merciful

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by RRKennison|Rebecca K Licensed under Creative Commons

If, on the way to court, you received advice on how you could influence the judge to be less severe in your case, would you not consider following that advice? Surely you would, unless the “way” involved bribery, or something corrupt.

And in fact Jesus, our very judge, has described an upright way that we can avoid severity on the Day of Judgment. Simply put, the way is for us to show mercy.

Now I don’t know about you, but I am going to need a lot of mercy on the Day of Judgment. So I, and probably you as well, am glad that the Lord has shown how we can positively influence the Day we are judged and see that mercy is magnified. Consider some of the following texts:

  1. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matt 5:7)
  2. For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt 6:14-15)
  3. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. But mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12-13)
  4. If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered. (Proverbs 21:13)
  5. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)
  6. For the measure with which you measure others, will be the measure by which you are measured (Mark 4:24)
  7. And then there is the terrifying parable too long to quote here of the man who owed a huge debt he could never repay. The king cancelled the whole debt. But the man refused to cancel the debt of one who owed him a smaller amount. To this unmerciful man the King then decreed: You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt 18:32-35)

So the basic point is clear enough: if we want to be shown mercy in our judgment (and trust me, we’re all going to need a LOT of it), then we need to pray for a merciful heart.

Let’s go so far as to say that if anyone is harsh, mean-spirited, unforgiving, hypercritical, or condemning, he is a fool. He is simply storing up wrath for himself on the Day of Judgment. Now why do that?

Mercy is our only hope of avoiding strict judgment. And these texts show us that mercy here will lead to mercy there.

It is true that there are times in this world when punishments must be issued and penalties assessed. But to the degree that these are made with an eye to correction and reform, they are part of love, and relate to mercy. For fraternal correction is a work of charity. It is better to suffer punishment here that leads to reform, than to evade punishment here and possibly end in hell. Thus, not all punishment is excluded by the edict of mercy, but, only let mercy and love be the sources from which it comes.

So, some advice to the wise: bury the hatchet now. Ask the Lord for a merciful and forgiving heart, or suffer the full force of a strict judgment. Pay attention! The judge is willing to be influenced on our behalf and has signaled what will move him in our direction. Why hesitate any longer? The merciful are blessed because they are going to be shown mercy. And without mercy, we don’t stand a chance.

Here is the great Miserere by Allegri. The text, sung in Latin is Psalm 51 which begins, “Have Mercy on me Lord in your great mercy.”