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.