Mercy, But About What?

Published February 7, 2021

The Catholic Thing

The proclamation of the Gospel is accomplished by the testimony of witnesses. We who have met the Risen Lord, who have experienced God’s mercy, and who have discovered the freedom that comes from living in the truth, proclaim to the world this same Good News by our words and by our deeds.

Except for when we don’t.

When we sin, we proclaim something different. We do not proclaim the Good News when we proclaim by our words and deeds that which is not true. We proclaim an anti-Gospel, a false gospel of indifference and comfort, mastery and license, selfishness and pleasure, pride and judgment. We proclaim a false gospel of self-sufficiency and power. Thank heavens, God never tires of forgiving. The door of mercy is always open to us.

If you are like me, it is easy to look around this nation, this world, this Church and see examples of all these false gospels. It is easy to think of fellow Catholics – some in the very highest positions of secular or religious influence – who proclaim these lies, and of fellow Catholics who aid and abet the proclamation of these falsehoods, as if mercy requires us to deny what is true.

If you are like me, it is harder – and far more disturbing – to see these sins in your own life. Sin blinds us to sin. Sin, as a good friend constantly reminds me, “makes us stupid.”

And so we can easily become like the Pharisees in the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John, who brought before Jesus a woman caught in adultery. We are eager to bring forward the sins of others for condemnation but fail to see our own sins, our own need for mercy.

Pope Francis, in a homily some years ago, reflected on this passage:

I think we too are the people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think – and I say it with humility – that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.

Mercy is at the very heart of the Gospel. It is, in a sense, the Good News which we have received and which we are to proclaim. But a question arises: Mercy from what? From suffering and death? From feelings of guilt and shame? From a troubled conscience? The answer is “yes” to all of these, but precisely insofar as God’s mercy is mercy from sin and error.

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, not because they (correctly) identified the woman’s sin of adultery, but because they could not conceive that the true remedy for her sin was not judgment under the law but God’s own mercy. Jesus’ command to the woman caught in adultery is: “Go and sin no more.” Her sin is neither ignored nor indulged, as many of us today tend to do; it is seen, and it is forgiven.

The Pharisees, however, receive harsher treatment, not because Jesus is stingy in His mercy, but precisely because they cannot see the truth of their own sin. Nor does our Lord indulge their blindness. He lifts up their sin before them, much as the Prophet Nathan did to David, so they might see the painful truth and repent. Unlike David, who does repent, the Pharisees are unmoved.

You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.

But because I speak the truth, you do not believe me. (Jn. 8:44)

Jesus’ hard words to the Pharisees and crowd are thus words of mercy. They’re an offer of true freedom: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And then, “Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.”

What is mercy if it indulges blindness to our own sin? What is mercy if it leaves us slaves to sin? What is mercy if it is not true?

Sadly, we’re almost daily seeing the answers to these questions.

One could say that Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees were a form of true accompaniment. They are a model for “dialogue” with a certain kind of interlocutor: for how a Good Shepherd accompanies the powerful, the obstinate, and the self-righteous. What was the result of this model of accompaniment and dialogue? “They picked up stones to throw at him.”

The Pharisees eventually succeeded in having Jesus killed, pressing the false charges that He was disrupting civil order. In the crowd’s words to Pilate: “If you release him, you are not a Friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”

But there was another consequence of speaking to the Pharisees as Jesus did, though he knew what it would cost.

When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me. The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him.

Because he spoke this way, many came to believe in him. (Jn. 8:28-30)

Jesus spoke to the Pharisees not only for their sakes, but for all who were watching and listening: then and now. He came to “testify to the truth,” knowing it would cost His own life, so that others might believe.

The proclamation of the Gospel is accomplished by the testimony of witnesses. Let those with ears, hear.

© 2021 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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