The Law, Mercy And Judgment

The Law, Mercy And Judgment August 8, 2021

Sir John Everett Millais: The Unmerciful Servant / Wikimedia Commons

We should be conscious of our own sins, that is, of all the ways we have failed doing what is right when we can do so. Nonetheless, we should also appreciate that God is merciful, and will show us grace and love despite all that we have done. All that we have done can be forgiven. Even all the things we have done which we did not know was wrong, or all the things we have forgotten, can be forgiven. To show God thanks, we should show similar mercy to others. Sadly, many, if not most of us, find this difficult. We feel that others must be made to pay for all that they have done. We don’t give them any mercy, especially for those sins they have done which we have not likewise done. Even if those sins are not so grave, because we have not done them ourselves, we still think ourselves as being better than them. We condemn them without mercy, not realizing that as a result, we risk losing grace and heaping up condemnation upon ourselves. All we are concerned about is showing why we think someone is worse than us without realizing that the reasons why we don’t do as they do might lie with some greater sin or intention on our part.  “You didn’t rest properly on the Sabbath because you cut your grass, something I won’t ever do.” Yes, because we like to be lazy and use the Sabbath to excuse our sloth instead of realizing that the person who cut their grass on a Sunday might have had some reason why they had to do so (perhaps it is the only day they are free take care of their land and they have received notice that they are about to be fined  or worse if they do not take care of it). Thus, w tend to be merciless on others while we find every excuse to justify ourselves.

Sadly, this way of abusing religion is the way so many of us deal with religion in general. We engage religion for selfish reasons, trying to find ways to use it for our own advantage while having ourselves as little inconvenienced by it as possible. That is, our relationship with our faith tradition is one-sided; we seek all we can get from it without having to do little if anything in return. We want forgiveness and so believe we get it. We want eternal life and so we believe we shall have it. We want rewards for whatever good we have done, and believe we deserve them and will get them when the time is right. We want all the good our faith promises us without considering what it expects from us in return. This is all we get from our religious faith, the affirmation that we shall get all that we want, and with it,  a reification of who and what we believe ourselves to be without any need of change on our part. That is all we get from our religious faith. But we are supposed to get so much more from it. We are supposed to come to know ourselves, to see how far we are off from what we can and should be, and use the forgiveness we receive as an opportunity to transform ourselves so as to be better. We are to take the teachings to heart, not in a legalistic sense, but in a way in which we get to the core of the teachings and put them into practice, realizing how they apply will differ from situation to situation.

Christians are told they need to forgive others if they want their own sins to be forgiven. The prayer Jesus gave to us, the Our Father, indicates that our forgiveness is dependent upon the way we treat others. Those of us who truly want to be transformed and learn from our faith will at least try to be merciful to others. Even if we are not perfect at it, the more we engage such mercy, the more merciful we will become, until at last, we will have established it as a habit which becomes natural for us. Then we will have truly taken on a characteristic of God upon ourselves, and we will be able to use it to present God and God’s merciful love to the world. We will live out the teachings of the Gospel and show what they mean in fact.

Sadly, the reality of the world shows us how so many Christians ignore this aspect of the Gospel. They show mercy to others if only they like the person in question. Mercy is not given freely, but has many demands and expectations given along with it. If we pay attention, Jesus often spoke against this attitude; he made it clear again and again that if we are not merciful to others, we will end up losing the mercy which we want for ourselves:

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.  When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents;  and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.  So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, `Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’  And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, `Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt.  When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me;  and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.  So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart (Matt. 18: 23- 35 RSV).

So long as we place undue demands upon others, so long as we try to use the law to control them and transform them into the people we want them to be instead of transforming ourselves to be better than we were, we will  find ourselves judged and condemned by the law.  If we embrace the law, not in a legalistic manner, but in accordance to its spirit, we will not use it to break others down. We will understand it was made for us, to build us up, and so we will use it to build others up as well. We will work to make ourselves better, and in the process, encourage others to be better. Grace and love will be manifest in those who follow the spirit of the law. Thus, those who truly embrace the faith will find it transforming them so they become more and more like God, merciful and giving of themselves to others, showing great charity in all that they do. Those who would judge and condemn others, those who would use the letter of the law for the sake of domination, find themselves spiritually dead, creating the conditions for their own condemnation. They become so sure of what others have done, they fail to follow the faith when it tells them to come to know themselves and their own failings, as St. St. Isidore of Seville understood: “Many people are sure of the sins of others but they do not notice their own sins, and although they are held guilty themselves for great sins, they do not forgive the little sins of their brothers and sisters.”[1] And so those who use the letter of the law to the detriment of others, to deny mercy to others, will create the conditions by which they will be denied mercy themselves.

The law is meant to teach us, to help make us better, to be more charitable and loving to others. It is not meant to be a tool we use to abuse others. The law should be used by us to examine ourselves and see how we can be better; it is not meant for us to use to condemn others, especially because we do not know the context and situation others find themselves in. Just as the sabbath was made for us, so the law was made for us, not us for the law. We abuse the law when we make it a tool to impose ourselves on others, becoming tyrants who do not know mercy. We properly embrace it when we use it as a tool to transform ourselves, so that we become merciful and loving servants of God, seeking to offer God’s grace to all.

Our forgiveness, our mercy, our grace, is connected to the way we treat others. If we try to close off channels of mercy to others, grace will be closed off to us. That is what we have been warned many times. We have heard this many times So why, then, do we so often fail to live this out, and find ourselves returning back to our old ways? Why do we look at others and find excuses to judge them instead of judging ourselves?

[1] St. Isidore of Seville, Sententiae. Trans. Thomas L. Knoebel (New York: Newman Press, 2018), 198.


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