Monday, December 10, 2018

God’s mercy and his justice are not mutually exclusive. His love justifies both.

To preach God’s mercy is always much easier than to preach of his justice.  Even on the part of the listener, to hear that God is merciful is something that sounds very much like good news, which it is.  There are so many passages from the Gospels, alone which attest to the fact that Jesus came to reveal this dimension of God.  That God is prodigious in the mercy that is shown to the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal Son appeals to us in our current time as much as it must have appealed to Jesus’ audience when it was first told.  The joy of the one straying sheep being brought back to the sheepfold at the risk of leaving the 99 who are safely grazing in the pasture is another dimension of this outgoing mercy of God.  So too is the joy of the woman who had found the one lost coin so palpable and relatable when we are told that she called all her neighbours to rejoice with her.

It is a given that we are sinners without exception and the fact that all of us stand in great need of God’s divine mercy at the end of our lives is fait accompli.   The preachers from the churches of our separated brethren reveal often that the mercy of God is the predominant theme of God’s providential love for his sons and daughters.  That he is a merciful God who has forgiven the sins of a sinful and sin-filled humanity often is their foundational preaching and narrative, and this is not at all wrong.  

But there is a downside when our preaching is limited to this alone, without being just as clear about the other aspect of God’s love, which is God’s justice.  God’s justice includes, amongst other things, that God doesn’t turn a blind eye to the consequences of our sinful actions and to the fact that our lives are often less than virtuous; that there is judgment that awaits us where we will be held accountable for all the ways in which we did not live in generous response to the high calling of our being given the dignity of being called God’s beloved children in Christ.  The Church’s teachings on indulgences (both partial and plenary) have been very misunderstood by both Catholics and the critics of Catholicism alike.  At the heart of these teachings is not so much that one gets ‘time off’ from the punishments (whether in this life or in purgatory) but that one truly begins to live a converted life and has weakened or completely removed one’s attachment to one’s ‘favourite’ sins.  It hardly will make a dent in one’s need for purgatorial purification if after having completed the requirements to obtain a plenary indulgence, one still harbours in one’s heart a great desire and attachment for one’s old and ingrained predilections and sinful inclinations.  

There exists a true story of how in the 1500s, when St Philip Neri preached to a jubilee indulgence crowd in a church, he had a revelation from the Lord saying that in the entire crowd, only two people actually received the plenary indulgence – an old charwoman (an antiquated term for a cleaning lady) and the saint himself. Perhaps this means that though there are many who have ‘performed’ the necessary acts to fulfill what it takes to gain a plenary indulgence, what was most necessary for it to be fulfilled or gained (which is a complete conversion of heart that loves God in as complete a way as possible) is still sadly lacking.  

This incident serves to show that what the Lord asks for most, and what pleases the Lord most is not so much the acts of penitence themselves, but along with it, a very contrite and humbled heart that is willing to truly put God in the centre of one’s life.  This is what must make for a heart that is truly ready to be received readily into heaven’s eternal embrace.

I am, together with many other spiritual writers, of the strong belief that purgatory is one of the greatest evidence of God’s mercy because it means that God is always going to want to give the sinner time for conversion, time for softening of one’s hardened heart, so that one can be truly mellow enough to appreciate God’s unbounded love which is heaven’s promise.  Our hearts are just so divided and our devotions so mixed while we live in this life, and our constant giving into sin is what makes purgatory so necessary and so wonderful at the same time.  

God’s mercy truly doesn’t cancel out God’s justice.  Rather, it necessitates and defends the need for it.

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