A woman—we’ll call her Jackie—had been sexually abused by her own father when she was a little girl. It took her a long time to recover from the emotional damage, and the sense of anger and betrayal, but eventually she did, and she married a man who treated her with love and respect. They had several children, and were very happy together. Much later, after her children were fully grown, and after years of no contact with her father, Jackie received a letter from him telling her he had become a Christian, joined a local church, and had asked for and received God’s forgiveness. He said he also realized how terribly he had sinned against her, and so he was asking her forgiveness. This letter stirred up powerful feelings in Jackie; her first reaction was “It isn’t fair! He needs to pay for what he did to me!” Jackie felt bitter, thinking, “He’s getting off too easily—plus his new church is probably killing the fattened calf for him, and he’ll invite me to the party, and expect to become part of my family’s life! No, it isn’t fair!”
That night Jackie had a dream in which she was wearing a white robe of righteousness, with her father standing nearby in a prison outfit, representing his terrible crimes against her. Then she saw God handing her father a white robe just like hers, and she woke up crying out, “No! It isn’t fair—what about me?” Then she suddenly realized she was behaving just like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. Jackie wept as she pondered this, and was able to admit to herself that she hadn’t actually earned her white robe—it was a gift won for her by Christ’s death on the Cross. She also admitted that if God wanted to offer this same gift to her father, she had no right to object. It took a while, but Jackie was finally able to pray for her father, forgive him, and experience God’s peace (Craig Larson, Choice Contemporary Stories & Illustrations, p. 93). There are probably times when all of us have felt like the older brother in Our Lord’s parable, resenting someone who seems to get away with things even as we’ve carefully followed the rules and stayed out of trouble. However, in this Year of Mercy now being observed by the Church, Jesus wants us to understand that every good thing we have is His gift, including our own personal righteousness and our ability to live out our faith. If we insist on keeping score, God will be forced to treat us according to strict justice; only if we’re merciful toward those who’ve hurt us are our hearts able to receive the forgiveness and peace we ourselves need, while experiencing the fullness of God’s blessings.
When the Israelites worshipped a golden calf in the desert, God had every right to destroy them for their sin, but He allowed Moses to intercede on their behalf—for, as someone once said, if Justice is God’s middle name, Mercy is His first name. St. Paul had a profound personal experience of this mercy. He tells us, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” and he lists himself as a foremost beneficiary of divine mercy. Paul was transformed from the Church’s fiercest persecutor into its greatest missionary. Divine grace can work miracles of forgiveness—but our hearts must be open. In Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, it took poverty, humiliation, and starvation to bring the younger son to this point. Even as he opened his heart to his father’s amazing love, the older brother demonstrated a closed heart. He risked losing the spiritual benefits and value of his years of obedient service. Our Lord does not want this to happen to any of us; we will never be able to grow in holiness if we hold onto anger and unforgiveness.
Fifteen years ago today almost 3000 of our fellow citizens were murdered in a cold- blooded terror attack; we remember them today, and also honor all the first responders of every sort who help keep us safe. I believe the 19 terrorists who died on 9-11, along with their mastermind Osama bin Laden and other terrorists later killed by U.S. soldiers, are in hell, and deserve to be there—but I can’t help asking myself, “What if some of them repented in the final instant before they died? What if, when I get to Heaven some day, I find some of them there, too? How would I react?” I hope that I would be able to rejoice that they, and other terrible sinners throughout history, were able to accept God’s mercy; I hope I would remember that God wants all sinners to repent and be saved, rather than be damned for all eternity, and that—remembering this truth—I’d be able to accept them in a loving way. Actually, I’m sure I could do that in Heaven, for by the time I arrive there I’d have been perfectly cleansed of all my sins and be filled with absolute love for everyone. The hard part is trying to have this love for sinners while here on earth; sometimes it’s just too tempting or natural to act like the self-righteous older son.
You probably know exactly what I’m talking about; it’s so easy to see the faults of other people, comparing ourselves favorably to them and even taking a certain satisfaction in the thought that “God’s going to make them pay for what they did.” That may very well be true—but even if it is, it’s really none of our business. The Lord can take care of exercising justice all by Himself; where He needs and wants us to help Him is in exercising mercy. Instead of judging people, we’re supposed to pray for them; instead of considering ourselves better than others, we’re supposed to remember our own faults and strive for humility; instead of holding onto grudges—no matter how justified— we’re supposed to forgive them, seeking the Lord’s help if it seems too hard, and even asking Him to forgive them for us if this seems to be beyond our strength.
As Christians, we’re sometimes called to try our best to forgive the unforgiveable— whether sexual abuse, an experience of betrayal, or act of violence—including even the contemptible terror attacks of fifteen years ago. God doesn’t want anyone to be damned to hell, and neither should we. If sinners reject His grace, that’s their eternal tragedy— but we must not allow it to become our problem as well by acting self-righteously. Instead, we must bear witness to Divine Mercy by praying for the conversion of sinners and by forgiving and welcoming back those who repent of their sins against us. None of us is perfect or sinless; we are all in need of God’s mercy—and as Jackie realized, the only way we’ll ever be clothed in a white robe of righteousness is by humbly relying upon God’s unmerited grace, and freely sharing it with others.