Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mercy revisited

I received a note today from a friend, a very good man, who, like we all should, is grappling with mercy. What prompted his note to me was this from last Friday's traditio:
I am always puzzled when Christians insist that mercy is only for the repentant. Mercy is for everyone. I don't know about you, but I want mercy even for the unrepentant. Pope Francis is insistent that The Name of God is Mercy. In other words, God does not withhold mercy from anyone. I suppose it is possible to reject God's mercy. I suspect that for many it's not so much an outright rejection of God's mercy given us in Christ as much as thinking it too good to be true. Hence, those of us who have accepted God's mercy, out of love and in a loving manner, need to demonstrate the reality of this very Good News
While I will keep private what he wrote to me, I will share an edited and expanded version of the substantive part of my reply.

Mercy can be a tricky concept, which makes it all the more important to be clear about what we mean when we use it. This is often the case with simple concepts - the simpler it is, the more complex we're prone to make it. I think this is especially true in matters pertaining to theology, especially for those of us who take it seriously. In the fourth volume of the theological encyclopedia Sacramentum Mundi, theologian Adolf Darlap began his short article on mercy thus: "the readiness of God to come to the aid of his distressed creature out of free grace" (10).

No one can earn or ever "make" himself worthy of God's mercy. All I can do is acknowledge my need for it and then receive it. Only by God's grace are we ever worthy. It is God who makes us worthy. In Christ, the Father has deemed everyone worthy of Divine Mercy. Isn't this St. Faustina's message?

God never withholds mercy. We remain free to deny or refuse it, however. It cannot be stated enough: God does not withhold mercy! God is merciful because God is love (1 John 4:8.16). It is never a question as to whether or not God loves you. The only relevant question is, Do you love God? It makes all the difference in the world to get these things the right way around. If we don't we run the risk of reinforcing the widely held view of "the Christian God," which is that of an angry and demanding tyrant, who demands our acquiescence and remains angry if we refuse to give in. In other words, like the father in Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), God is not vindictive, but patient and actively looking for his child to come home. Of course, the prodigal son could've stayed far away and unreconciled. I think it was Henri Nouwen who suggested that the title of the parable could easily be "The Parable of the Profligate Father."

Divine mercy isn't that different, if it differs at all, from "ordinary" mercy. It's a distinction that makes no sense in Christian terms. It may well be the case that something other than mercy is being invoked, but to play God's mercy off against "ordinary" mercy strikes me as a false move. If there was such a vast difference then the very point of Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son would be rendered moot because we would be incapable of being merciful. But over and again Christ bids us to act mercifully, even telling us "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (Matt 5:7). If we're going to compare mercy to a worldly mindset, then let's just say that according to such a mindset mercy makes no sense at all.

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