How Do Mercy and Judgment Fit Together?

The following homily was delivered by the Most Reverend William E. Lori, STD, Bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., on Nov. 14, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, D.C. Bishop Lori served as Episcopal Advisor for the North American Congress on Mercy.

Introduction: 2012?
You may have seen advertisements for a movie released only yesterday entitled 2012. That is the year the Mayan calendar is said to end, and also the year when scientists and other experts conclude that the world itself will end. A series of natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and typhoons unfold before our eyes as the world collapses on all sides and as we follow the epic adventures of a few people seeking to escape the encircling doom.

Ah, but happily, no one but the heavenly Father knows the day and the hour when human history will end and the Son of Man will come in glory. And isn’t it the case that the inspired words of today’s Scripture readings vastly outpace the special effects of the movie 2012 in describing “earth’s closing thunders”? After all, these readings are not fictional but the revealed Word of God. And they tell us not merely about impending natural disasters but rather alert us to the eternal significance of the end of time.

More than a description of natural disasters will have an end, the revealed Word of God speaks of the Day of Judgment in which our eternal destiny will be sealed. The Book of the Prophet Daniel says: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake: some shall live forever … others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace. …” In tonight’s Gospel passage from St. Mark, Jesus Himself speaks about what will come to pass at the end of time: “… the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky. …” And amid that cosmic upheaval, Jesus, the Son of Man, will come in power and glory to gather the elect, those who shall be saved, from the four winds.

All the Ways of the Lord Are Mercy and Truth (Ps. 24:10)
Those of you gathered for this National Congress on Divine Mercy may now want to ask those of us who planned this event a question: “Didn’t anyone check the readings for this Sunday before scheduling an event dedicated to the mercy of God?” “Could there be a set of Scripture readings more likely to prompt us to fear the judgment of God rather than to trust in His mercy than the ones that were just proclaimed?” “Wouldn’t it make more sense to reflect on a Gospel passage like the Prodigal Son or the shepherd who goes after the lone lost sheep?”

And the answer to those questions is, “Yes, of course, it would be easier to base a homily about mercy on such passages rather than readings on Christ’s second coming ‘to judge the living and the dead.’ But these readings have been given us not to make it easy on the homilist but rather to help understand more fully the gift and mystery of God’s mercy … to see how mercy and judgment fit together.

Now, in Psalm 24, verse 10, we read: “All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth.” How prone we are to set mercy and truth in opposition to one another, to see forgiveness and judgment as diametrical opposites. To do so, however, is to introduce the divisions of our hearts into the indivisible and merciful Heart of the Triune God, and at the same time, to short-circuit the Church’s teaching on Divine Mercy.

Indeed, the mercy, the loving kindness of God, is so great it can never be measured. The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus, Mercy Incarnate, poured out His life for us for the forgiveness of our sins. Every time we worthily participate in Mass, every time we go to Confession we encounter the power, the beauty, and tenderness of the Father’s mercy revealed and poured forth by Christ and communicated through the Holy Spirit. God, indeed, is “rich in mercy” as Pope John Paul the Great taught us so well.

Yet mercy would not be mercy if it merely absolved us of responsibility for our sins while allowing us to continue wallowing in them, without any changes in how we think, speak, or act; without a change in the depth of our heart! The mercy of God does not absolve us of responsibility for our actions because to do so is to rob us of our human dignity. Mercy is not the misguided love of careless or overly indulgent parents who allow their children to run wild under the rubric of kindness.

No, the Lord’s mercy is imbued with wisdom and truth. As Pope John Paul II taught in his encyclical on the Mercy of God: “… The willingness to forgive, which is inextricably bound up with merciful love, ‘does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice … In no passage of the Gospel does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence toward evil, toward scandal, toward injury or insult” (14).

Mercy Transforms and Gives Hope
Yes, the mercy of God seeks to forgive, to calm, to soothe, to heal — but it also seeks to rescue us from the misery of a sinful way of life and to transform us, body, mind, and spirit, into the likeness of Jesus, the Son of Man, who will come to judge the living and the dead. If the mercy of God did anything less, it would not be truly merciful because it would not correspond to our innate longing for His love and still less would it correspond to the call to holiness and the vocation to love given us in Baptism.

To be sure, the Lord does not merely set high ethical standards, turn us loose, and then judge us harshly when we fail. On the contrary, the Lord constantly knocks at the door of our heart, constantly seeks to walk with us on our journey through life, speaking to us words of spirit and life, filling us with His sacramental presence, and helping us through the Holy Spirit to choose what is good and true, to keep great the commandment of love (so as to become poor in spirit, lowly, humble, single-hearted, prayerful, and merciful). Indeed, the Lord seeks to give us His mercy, forgiveness, and strength more earnestly than we ask for it!

All of which leads us back to the prospect of the Last Judgment. In his encyclical, Spe Salvi(Saved by Hope), Pope Benedict XVI teaches us that the Final Judgment is “a setting for learning and practicing hope.” He says that “… the image of the Last Judgment is not primarily an image of terror but rather an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope.” “Is it not also a frightening image?” he asks. And he answers: “I would say it is an image that evokes responsibility … (44).” We who are gathered in this great basilica share the mercy of God, a mercy which fills our hearts with hope, a hope which causes us to live differently, to choose what is right, what is good, what is true — even as we seek God’s help in time of weakness.

Thus, we approach the particular judgment with hope and await the Second Coming of Christ in joyful hope — as we say at every Mass! — confident that the penetrating gaze of the Just Judge will cleanse our hearts from any remaining impurity so that we might be capable of being filled with the love of God in the communion of saints.

As we hasten on our way, let us ask Mary, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God, the Mother of Mercy, our sweetness and our hope, to pray with us and to pray for us.