While mercy is free, it's not cheap
Mercy is a gift freely given. Does that make it cheap? (Pause for a moment and consider Bonhoeffer’s classic meditation on “Cheap grace.”) Does mercy blunt justice, or does mercy burnish its majesty? There has been much talk lately, especially since the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, about mercy. And now that Pope Francis has announced a Holy Year of Mercy, I think we would do well during this season of Lent, with the Cross of Christ at its center, to reflect on the meaning of mercy. I think we must have a proper understanding of mercy, or we shall miss out on the (truly) awesome and glorious graces of both Lent and Easter.
Very often, I hear folks speak of mercy as if it were a cancellation of justice. On this view, “justice” means, “you have to pay off your debt—or else.” “Mercy”, then, says, “About that debt—never mind!” And who wouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief when told that one’s debt has been dismissed, made irrelevant? That’s an appealing, even tempting image of justice and mercy, especially if you’ve ever been deeply in debt. Unfortunately, such a view tragically distorts justice and mercy. If left uncorrected, such a view runs the risk of making us unable to see or feel what is, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, “the weight of glory.” In other words, the roots of human dignity and the very character of God may be obscured by such a facile, beguiling, and impoverished view of mercy and justice.
To dismiss the demands of justice with a casual, “Never mind!” is not an exercise of mercy but is instead a dismissal of the moral order. To act as if mercy is a cancellation of the demands of justice is to act as if good and evil do not matter. But God is not glorified and man is not dignified by an erasure of the moral order. If the obligation to do good and avoid evil is not an ineradicable absolute, then God’s character and wisdom cannot be discerned in His creation. At the same time, that man is made in the image and likeness of God is made irrelevant. But surely no sane person could intend to bleach out the moral order with such a thoughtless propagation of such a casual and meaningless view of mercy as amoral and justice as dispensable. So, let’s try to recover the proper friendship between mercy and justice.
Mercy, as we have seen, simply cannot mean that the demands of justice have been made irrelevant. In a true moral order, justice demands that good be named as good and rewarded as good; likewise, justice demands that evil be named as evil and punished as evil—but we must say more than that. In our present culture, we tend to think that reward and punishment are arbitrary; rewards and punishments are associated with actions according to the whim of whoever is in charge. That view represents a misunderstanding of the moral order. The moral good is good because it reflects the moral character of God; the moral good done by humans humanizes them—that is, it leads to their flourishing by enhancing their likeness to God as rational and free. Moral evil is evil because it contradicts the goodness of God; moral evil done by humans dehumanizes them—it frustrates the vocation of their nature to imitate (and ultimately unite with) God as rational and free. Justice simply acknowledges our proper use or our actual misuse of our freedom to move towards or away from God. Mercy, on this view, does *not* say, “You moved away from God by choosing evil—but it’s okay because that doesn’t matter.” No! True mercy says, “You moved away from God, and you cannot return to God on your own—but someone else will do what is necessary to restore you to God’s friendship.” Doing what is necessary for us to be restored to God’s friendship—that is the essence of mercy. And that, while free, is never cheap. God’s mercy is rooted in the Cross.
I once saw a three-year-old boy spill grape juice on a white carpet. As his mother screamed in horror, he said, “Don’t worry Mommy, I’ll just magic it away!” Couldn’t God do that with our sin? Couldn’t He “just magic it away”? Couldn’t He just snap His fingers or wiggle His nose or pull on His ear lobe to wipe away all of the sin of the world? Wouldn’t it just be easier, wouldn’t anything be easier than Calvary? Couldn’t God have picked a simpler, cleaner, less violent, less bloody way to be our Savior?
I suppose He could have. I don’t want to be seen putting limits on God’s absolute power. But God always gives His best. And in choosing to save us through the Passion and Death of the Christ, He saved us the best way of all.
Here’s an illustration of what I mean. In 2009, I found myself sitting in the sanctuary of the Oratory of Ave Maria on Good Friday, listening to a homily. During the homily, I looked down at the color of my vestments—red. When I returned home, I wrote the following:
RANSOMED: WEARING RED VESTMENTS ON GOOD FRIDAY
I used to be a son.
One day, I slapped my father’s face,
took what I thought was mine,
Far from my father’s home,
but never far from his sight,
I found what I thought I wanted.
Gladly, I sold myself into slavery
to get what I thought I wanted.
Gladly, I filled myself
with what always left me empty.
Eventually, even I,
the great self-deceiver,
could not deny
my hunger and my grief.
I wanted to stop living as a slave.
Even if I could not go home again
to my father’s house,
I wanted to leave the pit
I had dug for myself with my own hands
and had paid for with my own soul.
But I could not leave.
I could not break the chains that I had made,
and my freedom required a price
that I could not pay.
I had sold myself into slavery forever.
Now I am back in my father’s house.
I have shoes on my feet.
I have a ring on my finger.
I have more than enough to eat.
I know that I did not break
the chains that I had made.
I know that I did not pay
the price that I could not pay.
But someone broke my chains.
Someone paid the price.
Today, I looked at myself
and began to see
the cost of my freedom.
Now I know that I am a ransomed man,
for now I see that I am covered in blood.
The mercy at work at Calvary, and its message of hope revealed at Easter, will be triumphant only if we accept the full horror and glory of its blood-soaked nature. Only the Cross of Christ could prove decisively that mercy is free but not cheap, that the moral order cannot be eradicated, and that God’s love, paradoxically, is both resistible and undeniable. Mercy is rightly received and ratified not by treating it as divine permission to persist in sin and the illusion that sin can ever be without consequence, but only when we treat this underserved second chance as our opportunity to love the goodness of God and hate our own evil that would separate us from Him. Divine mercy, expressed at the terrible cost of the violent death of God’s Only Begotten Son, is worthily received when we choose to repent of the sin we could not get free of on our own. The proof that God’s mercy was not wasted upon us is shown when we live our gratitude for mercy by striving after holiness with zeal and joy.
When I next write, I will consider how the fruition and perfection of God’s mercy in us is seen when we extend mercy to others. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.