Mercy is Severe: Living 2016 in Mercy

This week, Father Scalia unites our world’s calendar year with the Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy in a week-long series on Living Mercy in 2016. This is the fourth installment. Previous installments include What is MercyMercy is Graceful and Mercy is Honest.

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

If he didn’t coin the term “a severe mercy,” then the author Sheldon Vanauken at least made it better known. It is a powerful little phrase, one that we immediately know as true, even if it takes us a lifetime to understand it. In the midst of so many counterfeit mercies, it is good to call to mind the severity that is part and parcel of mercy. Mercy does bring great peace, but it can also treat us roughly before bestowing it. Mercy is severe because…

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Mercy disrupts.
Saul of Tarsus fell to the ground, blinded by the light. Then he heard that authoritative voice address him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Not many of us would characterize such an event as merciful. But Saint Paul saw it that way. He understood (as he would write to the Romans) that God’s wrath hands us over to our passions…and His mercy shocks us – sometimes painfully – back to Him. God’s tough dealing with Saul outside Damascus was a great mercy that delivered him from being a murderer and made him an apostle.

We would like mercy to come gently and courteously, asking permission, telling us nicely like a kind doctor, “This won’t hurt a bit.” But sometimes we need more than. Sometimes it takes a big disruption – the loss of a job or finances, a professional failure, the death of a loved one, a major illness, etc. – to get our attention and remind us of our need for Him. So He allows such things to happen – and while allowing them He also works through them. Many converts point to that pivotal moment when their lives were blessedly disrupted by God’s mercy.


Mercy demands.
To the sick man He says, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk” (Jn 5:8). To the man with the withered hand, “Stretch out your hand” (Mk 3:5). To the man born blind, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (Jn 9:7). The examples could be multiplied. Point is, when our Lord shows mercy, He requires the person’s cooperation. The initiative of mercy requires a response. He alone works the miracle. But for them to receive the mercy He gives, they must cooperate.

God’s mercy requires our participation. He forgives us in Confession…but we must cultivate contrition and do penance for that mercy to deepen within us. His mercy demonstrates a tremendous respect – reverence – for our dignity and freedom. He extends mercy to free children – not to slaves or animals. And if we would be His children, we must respond – as best we can – to His initiative of mercy.

Living in Mercy


Mercy transforms.
The parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:21-35) tells of a man who received mercy but did not show it. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe. The fate of the man – in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt – should haunt us. The problem was not merely that he failed to extend mercy after receiving it. Rather, it is that he wanted to receive mercy and not be transformed by it.

God’s mercy is directed to our transformation. He does not desire a merely external cancellation of debts. He desires that we begin to think, speak, and act according to the mercy we have received. He wants our lives fashioned according to the mercy He has bestowed. This is a severe requirement. The man unchanged by God’s mercy stands in danger of losing it.

What does all this mean for our mercy? Well, although we should not try to imitate God’s severity, one thing is clear: authentic mercy forbids mollycoddling. That is, that kind of “mercy” that pampers, smothers, and suffocates the other person and lessens his dignity. God’s mercy respects our dignity, even to the point of allowing us to feel the effects of our errors. So also at times mercy requires us to be severe and allow the same. Mercy that refuses to be severe will become enabling, keeping the other from recognizing his error and changing his ways.

This severe mercy is at the service of an intense, powerful love. Mere affection coddles and enables us. God’s severe mercy loves us enough to be tough at times, so that we can ultimately experience peaceful rest in the bosom of the Father.

Tomorrow: Mercy is awful.

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