“Whereto serves mercy, but to confront the visage of offence?” asks Portia in The Merchant of Venice. It’s a good question and one which most of us don’t really think about these days. That’s because, increasingly, we are a culture that only has “mercy” on people who “couldn’t help it” or “didn’t know any better.” The problem is, that’s not mercy because allowing for weakness, ignorance, or some other excuse is not mercy. It’s excusing. Now, it’s a fine thing, in any conflict, to search first for reasons why somebody who appears to have acted in malice did not really do so. We should always do this as our first act of charity. But a curious thing has happened in our culture, something that impinges even on Christians who ought to know better. As we reject God more and more, we have allowed more and more space for excusing evil and less and less space for admitting sin. Result: we have arrived at an era in which everything must be excused and nothing may be forgiven.
We see this in the weird combination of sophistry and mercilessness that is post-modernity. Straining credulity, we create enormous and preposterous excuses for all manner of moral derangement precisely because we believe there is no mercy for sin. Then, when somebody finally does cross the line into what is undeniably sin (Nazis, child molesters, racists, terrorists, tobacco lobbyists or some other category of culturally inexcusable evil), we simply rain down on their heads all the contempt and vilification in the world—and live in fear of what judgment awaits us should we fail to find an excuse for our own sins.
That’s not hard to grasp. Apart from the miraculous forgiveness of the gospel, what else should we expect? When we look sin in the eye—real sin in all its vicious, willful, sneering, lying malice—well, who wants to forgive that? Why, if you did that, that bastard would get off scot free! Forgive that tool I work with, the one who has been gunning for my job and spreading ugly rumors about me at the office water cooler? Forgive that bitch who spent years beating me as a kid and laughing at my tears? Forgive that zit-faced moron who deliberately keyed my car when I confronted him about tormenting the neighbor’s cat? Forgive Osama bin Laden? NO!
But Jesus does, in fact, demand exactly that mercy of us. In fact, both here and in the Our Father, he predicates any hope of our receiving mercy on our willingness to extend it to others. Be merciful and you shall obtain mercy. Forgive and you shall be forgiven.
Of course, being raised in a Christian culture, we know we are supposed to forgive—in moderation. Like St. Peter, we might even be rather proud of our magnanimity, saying, “Lord, the rabbis say you should forgive somebody three times, but since I’m a That Sort of Chap, I’m going to go out on a limb and up the ante. Suppose we raise that to seven times?” Jesus’ famous reply is way more than we bargain for: Not seven times, but seven times seventy times. Forgive everybody. Always. Forever. Indeed, Jesus tells us “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions.” (Mark 11:25). Note the complete unconditioned nature of that demand. We are to forgive whether or not the person against whom we have a grievance has repented. That’s because we are to love our enemies. To be sure, God will be their final judge and if they die impenitent, then they will face the divine music. But since we are not God, that’s not our affair. Our business is to extend forgiveness—in a word, love—to our enemies whether they will have it or no. And coupled with that is the equally stark warning: If we do not forgive, neither will Jesus’ heavenly Father forgive us. Period.
That is extremely difficult. So difficult, in fact, that I have long believed the most scandalous part of the Church’s entire moral teaching lies here, and not with all the yah yah we hear in the media about the various pelvic issues that so obsess our culture of apostate Puritanism. Everybody, apart from grace, recoils in fear and anger when we are confronted with the reality of Christ’s teaching about mercy. Presented in such stark terms, this ought to give us real pause and make us ask, as the disciples remarked of another unbelievably difficult saying, “Then who can be saved?”
Who indeed? But the answer of our Lord also obtains: “With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
This points us to a curious contrast between Jesus’ teaching on mercy in the Sermon on the Mount and the way in which the Church after Jesus speaks about mercy. Some take this as evidence that “the Church has departed from the primal message of Christ”. But, of course, the only reason we know about Jesus’ “primal message” is because the Church has carefully preserved it. So I think a wiser approach is to assume the contrast is a complement and not a contradiction and that the teaching of the Spirit through the Church is of a piece with the teaching of Christ who gives us the Spirit. What is that contrast?
Very briefly it is this: Jesus sounds as if he’s saying God’s ability to forgive you is predicated on whether you forgive. With Paul, the lesson is very clearly that your ability to forgive is entirely predicated on the mercy of God. So, for instance, Paul tells us:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:12-13).
So what gives?
The more precise question is “Who gives?” And the answer is “God”, who pours out his undeserved and unearned mercy on us and brings us into a covenant relationship with himself in baptism—and then enables (and expects) us to live out his life in the world. In short, the forgiveness of sins is a miraculous sign of his power and presence. We can’t do it without him. Our ability to forgive requires our first having received the grace of God. Like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet, we find that it is the one who has been forgiven much who is capable of forgiving much, not only out of fear of what await us if we act like the Unmerciful Servant, but out of genuine love for God and neighbor—because mercy is liberating.
The good news of the gospel is that we are sinners and not merely victims or passive patients. We are not people so helpless about our moral choices that everything we do is a “mistake”. The gospel tells us, shockingly, that some things are excusable and everything is forgivable (save the refusal of forgiveness). That’s lovely to hear in our own case and it is why the experience of baptism and confession can be so overwhelming and beautiful for an adult received into the Church after a long life of sin.
But God’s mercy is uncompromising. Just as we have been given forgiveness and loved when we were enemies of God, so we must extend forgiveness and love our enemies. This is not because God works on some system which says “Forgiveness is a freebie the first time, but after that you have to earn it.” Rather, it’s because God’s love is always freely given, but our unforgiveness enslaves, hardens and blinds us. The fist clenched in unforgiveness at another cannot receive the mercy of God with an open hand. The command to forgive (and the warning against unforgiveness) is not given because God is a martinet with arbitrary rules who is longing to slam you when you step out of line. The command to forgive is given because God has been laboring to open us to his mercy since the day we were born and will go on doing it till the day we die and beyond. His command of mercy—and the blessing he places on it—is a promise of an eternity of peace and love—if we will abide in it.
The gospel stands in stark contrast to the contempt that is the sure mark of the presence of Satan just as joy is the infallible sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The “cycle of violence” which John Paul II so often warned of is, above all, a violence of the soul that sees the sinner, not as the object of God’s love and Christ’s redemption, but as someone—something—beyond the pale of love. Such contempt is wholly and entirely satanic and forms no part whatsoever of the revelation of Christ. The fundamental lie at the heart of such contempt is the belief that, by rejecting the sinful Other, we somehow ensure our own salvation. Christ exposes this lie in the strongest possible terms and assures us that it is only by having mercy on our enemy—that is, only by willing his good and not his damnation—that we open ourselves to the same hope. The promise is as stark as the warning is strong: If we give no mercy, we can expect none. If we choose to show mercy, we shall—absolutely shall—obtain mercy.