|12/3/2015 9:00:00 AM|
The price of mercy
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGERWe are at the dawn of a holy Year of Mercy for the Catholic Church. On Dec. 8, Pope Francis will open the symbolic bronze doors at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as a reminder of God's extraordinary compassion for sinners, for anyone who wants to turn away from sins and sinful habits and be given a fresh start, surrounded by grace and love.
Are you ready?
Like any act of pure love, mercy is always a gift, never an entitlement. In fact, mercy is probably the purest act of love. The one who offers mercy removes the burden of the offense from -- and therefore heals -- the wrongdoer. The forgiver takes on the full weight of the offender's guilt while still bearing the wounds of the offense, so that the forgiven one can be free.
The one who gives mercy, in other words, suffers twice.
God does this so naturally and consistently that we often tend to just take it for granted. It is easy to forget that there is a price to pay for every act of mercy.
An example from a human experience that is not all that uncommon may help illustrate the point. Say someone -- a person whom you considered a good friend -- deliberately or even inadvertently makes up or passes on a defamatory rumor about you.
You and this "friend" have known each other for a long time. Your families may have eaten, played or even traveled together. You go to the same church.
Over the years, however, your paths have taken different directions. Things have been going well for you, but the other person has not been so successful. You've tried to offer counsel and support, but to no avail.
Now, that person bears a hidden and growing resentment toward you, and becomes vulnerable to gossip: namely, a rumor that you were seen in a restaurant with someone who is not your beloved spouse.
Of course, this is not true -- and, if asked, you could prove it, because you were with your spouse at one of your children's school plays. Who started this rumor? Who knows? It may be a case of mistaken identity, but who's checking on the facts? (If it's a good story, why bother?)
Your friend starts passing along the sordid tale that you may be carrying on an affair. Not only are you embarrassed because this starts circulating around, but your spouse and your children are affected, as well.
You've been given a bad name. Your reputation has been wounded, perhaps irreparably. You have no idea how the rumor got started.
Time passes. The person's conscience begins to speak louder. Feeling at least partially responsible for the rumor, your "friend" comes to you and asks to be forgiven, seeking your mercy.
You could say, "OK, I'll forgive you, but you must first pay me back for all of the pain and suffering that this has caused my family and me."
If it were just you who had been offended, you might be able to say you will "let it go." But the detraction -- the calumny, actually, because it was false, not just defamatory -- has also wounded your loved ones as word got around the neighborhood and your circle of acquaintances.
Shouldn't your mercy-seeker be asking every member of your family for forgiveness, as well, and admit the lies to everyone else?
You decide that you want to show this person mercy. You say, "I forgive you." In so doing, you not only relieve the terrible burden the rumor-spreader was carrying, but you bite down on your own hurt and that of your family (can you really forgive this person for the wounds inflicted on them?), and you absorb in your own heart and soul all of the hurt and pain and evil inflicted by the other, and by those who spread the nasty story.
This is paying twice! Even more. You cancel the vicious cycle of sin in one free act of pure love, because it is the only way that the power of the wrongful action can be stopped.
It isn't exactly neutralized, like an antacid might do to a hyperacidic stomach. You still bear the wounds in your heart. Forgiving, after all, is not the same thing as forgetting, although you can -- with another act of pure, willed love -- decide not to dwell on the past and to "reset" your relationship with the offender. But can you now go back to the friendship as it was before?
This is the price of mercy. And this is the price Jesus pays for forgiving us, every time we ask for His mercy. Yes, God's mercy will never be outdone. But when we ask for it -- as the heart of Jesus invites us to, all the time -- it seems only right that we understand the depth of His love for us, so that we do not have to live in our sins, but have our life restored.
As famed author C.S. Lewis put it, on the cross, Jesus took upon Himself the punishment that we deserved so that we could have the reward that He deserved.
As we pray for an outpouring of God's mercy on us and everyone who seeks it, may we remember how costly and loving a gift it is. The sinner who has been forgiven is the luckiest person in the world!
(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)
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