There's a wideness in God's mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there's a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty….
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man's mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.1
So go the words of the 19th c. hymn by Frederick Faber – God’s mercy is wider than the sea. Can I hear an “amen?” For the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind. Can I hear an “amen?” And the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind. Can I hear an “amen.” Amen! Yes, indeed, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about God’s mercy! That, my friends, is not poetic hyperbole. It is Gospel truth!
When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, the tax collector in the tree, he didn’t say, “Zacchaeus, Come down from that tree and pay back everyone you’ve cheated four times as much what you took from them and repent of what you have done and then maybe I might come to your house.” No, what Jesus said was “Zacchaeus, Come down from that tree because today I will dine with you in your house.” No ifs, ands or buts on Jesus’ mercy.
When after Jesus said to the crowd, “Let those of you without sin cast the first stone” and the crowd had finally walked away from the adulterous woman in shame, Jesus didn’t say to her, “I will forgive you only after you show me that you have changed, that you have learned your lesson.” No. What he said to her is “Woman, is there no one left to condemn you?” and she replied, “No one Lord,” He says, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” No, ifs, ands, or buts, on Jesus’ mercy.
In the parables of mercy, there are no ifs, and, or buts. The shepherd does not seek out the lost sheep with any demands on it. He simply looks for it because it is lost. The woman does not tear her house apart looking for the lost coin because she intends to spend it. She just values it. The Father does not welcome the Prodigal Son back with any conditions. He is simply overjoyed and merciful to his lost Son who was dead and has now returned home.
Jesus dispensed mercy, and forgiveness, and healing on those who asked without any strings attached – no ifs, ands, or buts. None of it was merited: the ten lepers, the woman with the hemorrhage, the widow’s son, the demoniacs, the blind. No demands from Jesus, no ifs, ands, or buts. But he cured them. He showed them mercy without any conditions.
Yet … Jesus did seek something more – not as a condition, but as a response, a hope, a hope that those who have received mercy and healing and forgiveness would respond in conversion and in faith.
Zacchaeus, the tax collector, does respond to Jesus’ unconditional offer of mercy with a personal conversion away from sin, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Many times when Jesus heals, he says to those receiving his mercy, “Your faith has saved you” and they follow him on the way. And even though we know that the Prodigal Son fully intends to confess his sins to his Father and to be treated like a hired hand, his Father won’t hear it. But you can see that there was conversion and change in the son nevertheless. But none of this was a condition of the Father’s granting of mercy.
Every time I hear the story of the Prodigal Son I am stunned at the generosity of the Father’s love and mercy. I can’t believe that anyone could be so forgiving, especially after the way the son treated him. I stand like the elder son. This makes no sense. This isn’t fair. Where is the justice? But that is just the point of the story. God’s mercy is like that. “There is a wideness in God’s mercy” that is incomprehensible to us because we so often want to place conditions on mercy and forgiveness when it comes to others: “I will forgive you, if you do this. – I will be merciful to you, but only after you show me you are truly sorry.” We all do it. That’s why it is so hard for us to fathom the depth of God’s mercy. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. If we seek it, it is there. If we desire it, we will know it.
Now I know there are some out there who are probably saying, “Wait a minute, bishop. What about the need for repentance and contrition? Doesn’t the person first have to do something to show that they are sorry? Don’t they first have to come to admit that they are in need of God’s mercy in order to experience that mercy? Isn’t that even part of the ongoing practice of the Church in the Sacrament of Confession and Reconciliation? Yes, all of that is part of our seeking God’s mercy. We first come to acknowledge our need for God’s mercy like the prodigal son, like the lost sheep, like Zacchaeus in the tree. That is what I meant when I said, “If we seek it, it is there. If we desire it, we will know it.” The point for us to ponder is that grace and mercy will be then bestowed on us unconditionally.
You and I have just processed through the “holy door,” the door of mercy. I was honored to lead the way, to be the first through the door. But I was also humbled in doing so because I lead the way. I was humbled because I know that I, a sinner, am in need of God’s mercy. I, a weak human being, am in need of God’s forgiveness. But I, a Christian, have been graced to know and experience Christ’s love. I walked through that door in a solidarity of human brokenness that has encountered the immeasurable and unconditional love of God poured out in the death of His Son on the Cross for the salvation of the world. I know that I do not deserve that love but it is given anyway and in accepting that mercy, that gift which I now possess, God hopes for only one thing in return:
Then Peter approaching [Jesus] asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.
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.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”
The response to mercy is mercy, to quote Luke 6:33, “To be merciful just as your heavenly Father is merciful,” to forgive as we have been forgiven without any conditions. Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn't mercy. If it comes with a cost, then it isn’t forgiveness.
Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but to call sinners to mercy, forgiveness, and conversion. The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, made up of saints and sinners, continues that mission in extending Christ’s unconditional mercy with no ifs, ands, or buts in the hope that the person who experiences that mercy and love will respond in conversion and become a witness and bearer of God’s mercy to others. I, like you, am a work in progress on the path of conversion and holiness of life. Having walked through this door of mercy today, we have stepped into this Jubilee Year of Mercy seeking to fulfill Christ’s hope for us that we will respond to his unconditional offer of mercy – no ifs, ands, or buts, - with a conversion of soul and witness of life to the fullness of salvation offered through His one holy Catholic Church and a commitment to spread the Good News wherever we go to his praise and glory forever and ever.
Bishop Christopher J. Coyne
December 13, 2015 - Saint Joseph Co-Cathedral, Burlington, VT
1“There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy” by Frederick William Faber, 1862