Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 31, 2003
Sacrament offers God's mercy
Encounter with divine mercy should lead us to be merciful too
By ARCHBISHOP THOMAS COLLINS
The more we become conscious of our sins, the more we give thanks for the mercy of God that we experience in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Our personal encounter with divine mercy should then lead us to be merciful to others.
Mercy has to be set within the context of justice. When we sin we always offend against divine justice, for we are misusing the human gifts entrusted to us by God. This is not just. Many sins also involve injustice against others: lying, adultery, stealing, slander - in fact, almost every sin is an act of injustice. There is a wrong that needs to be righted.
We cannot ignore the demands of justice, though for many reasons it is often hard to set right the evil caused by a sin. One step towards that is certainly stopping the evil action. Beyond that, it may be possible to undo some of the harm. This might include an apology to a person who has been hurt. If property has been stolen, perhaps it can be returned. If not, some kind of donation to charity can, at least in a general sense, help to re-establish the balance of justice.
If the sin involves destruction of another person's name, then it may be difficult to set right the wrong, but some effort can be attempted. There is a story told of a person who spread gossip about another and was asked as a penance to release the feathers of a pillow to the winds, and then try to catch them - so difficult is it to undo the harm done by the tongue. Often there is simply no way in which an action of the repentant sinner can undo the harm that has been inflicted. That is one reason why justice is limited, and why mercy, more profound though less logical than justice, is ultimately at the heart of the Christian experience.
A more basic reason can be stated this way: who among us would stand if God insisted on justice in his dealings with us? In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the righteous brother who stayed at home and did not sin sees the return of his sinful sibling within the perspective of justice. He is undeniably correct in his summary of his brother's sins, and if justice alone were the governing norm, then his brother would have no hope.
But the father is working within the context of mercy, not strict justice. He does not even say, "I told you so" to his repentant son. He does not pause to answer the unanswerable arguments of justice. He runs down the road to embrace his sinful son.
Another place where Our Lord speaks of the interplay of justice and mercy is in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35). The master, in justice, could rightly demand that the servant be punished, for he had no way of repaying his debt. But instead, he shows mercy, and forgives the debt. The servant then goes out and demands that in justice a fellow servant repay him in full. He has a right to do that, but the master punishes him, since he who had received mercy did not show mercy to others.
Many people's lives are consumed by the corrosion of anger arising from injustices suffered in the past. This, of course, can happen on a national as well as a personal level, as our never-ending cycle of wars shows us. There has to come a point when the cycle is broken if international or inner peace is to be attained.
In such situations, especially in personal relationships, a definitive and satisfying righting of the wrong may not be possible. Perhaps the wrongdoer is dead, or is not likely to change. We are very limited in our ability to change others. If for no other reason than that an evildoer should not be granted the power to dominate the rest of another person's life, the only way forward can be to try to let go of the justifiable grievance. There is a point at which the over-riding power of mercy can bring life where the strict fulfillment of justice cannot.
When we confess our sins, and regularly experience the mercy of God through sacramental absolution, it should change the way we relate to those around us. We Christians need to imitate our heavenly Father, and take note of the unusual divine title that is used in the first words of the prayer through which we are absolved of our own sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation: "God, the Father of mercies."
(Fifth in a series)
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