Is There a Limit to Mercy?

Posted by James Nagle of Team MISSIO on May 1, 2018, 3:36:57 PM

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Is forgiveness a spiritual obligation?

Is there a limit to mercy?

Forgiving can be one of the hardest things to do. So much so, we have come up with rationalizations to avoid its spiritual demand – euphemisms like, “I forgive you, but I haven’t forgotten.” It is not unreasonable that our first reaction to being wronged is retaliation, not reconciliation. But what happens in the meantime is resentment.

Really forgiving can feel like being short-changed because anger feels like power. But fantasies of “getting even” come with a price.  As resentment builds, we want others to hurt like we do – not just the person who betrayed us. Unfortunately, resentment is indiscriminate. We tend to transmit our pain when we don’t transform it…because misery loves company.

You’ve probably heard some version of this anonymous quote: “Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

The words are often attributed to Nelson Mandela. Some suggest it was the Gautama Buddha. Others point to the book The Sermon on the Mount by Emmet Fox. Considering the uncertain authorship, let’s just give it the status of that general human wisdom that we all struggle to follow, so we need lots of teachers. Jesus of Nazareth and Catholic tradition have something special to contribute to this wisdom tradition.

Scripture suggests overcoming the negative emotions involved with resentment by forgiving whatever grievances we may have for a similar reason. Jesus’ parable of the “unforgiving servant” (Mt 18:21-35) goes as far to suggest that if we don’t, not only will we be poisoned, we will not be forgiven ourselves! (Mt 18:35; Col. 3:13). Moreover, when Jesus teaches His followers how to pray, the same obligation is implied, “Forgive us our trespasses, AS WE HAVE FORGIVEN others” (Mt 6:12). Uh, oh…

If you are like me and have a few resentments stacked in the back room (Mt 6:6), you might wonder what does this obligation really mean? And what about justice?!

Tradition offers another layer to help us integrate this difficult lesson. If justice is giving to someone what they deserve, mercy is giving to someone more than they might deserve. God’s actions in and through Christ transcend the laws of justice with mercy. This, we believe, reveals the fullness of justice. We aspire to this model in our mission as a Church and in our daily lives through the spiritual works of mercy. These works are rooted in the example of God’s mercy and serve as the antidote to the keeping of resentments. One theologian explains, “Mercy is an act which testifies to our solidarity in sin and our common need for redemption and healing.” 

These spiritual works of mercy, forgiveness being chief among them, have to do with our relationships with one another not only individually but also collectively in terms of social justice and peace. Christian teachings on forgiveness, and the wisdom housed in the expression “not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” represent the practical and inspired wisdom that stacking up grudges is about as beneficial as the proverbial “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus answers Peter who believes forgiveness must have a limit. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” You can imagine the look and shrug accenting this question. “Seven times seems a good place to stop, and then make them pay, right?” Peter wants to know when forgiveness should be exhausted. But Jesus teaches there is a consequential estrangement from God when we end the effort. That is the most significant poison.

You are likely already familiar with Jesus’ response: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Considering the symbolism of the number 7 in Scripture, this is a command to forgive without limit.

Jesus’ suggestion is a radical departure from social and religious expectations of his time (and our time!). There is a freedom in forgiveness, he suggests, because it transforms our pain. That said, forgiveness can include choosing to remove ourselves from painful situations and setting boundaries in relationships. Forgiveness does not mean volunteering to be a serial victim.

When offenses come, and they always will, we have an important choice. We can either forgive, or we end up drinking a poison that hurts us. And we tend to take others down with us. Forgiveness means to give life back – to the other and to ourselves in our shared lives together.  When we do so, rather than drinking poison, “your light will break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed (Is 58:6-8). This mercy shown to ourselves and others might just save the world. 

MISSIO offers themed-quizzes in MissioBot to examine your religious knowledge - and this blog by James Nagle, PhD to reflect on questions of faith.  

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