Accepting God’s Mercy

Accepting God’s Mercy

One Saturday evening in California many years ago, much of the small community of Grass Valley lost power due to a fierce storm marked by heavy rains and strong winds. The pastor of the Catholic parish, Fr. O’Malley, was working on his Sunday homily by candle-light when the telephone rang. It was a nurse from the nearest hospital, thirty miles away, saying that a dying man was requesting the Last Rites. Fr. O’Malley left for the hospital immediately, but it was a long and difficult trip; for over two hours he drove slowly and cautiously, peering ahead through the rainy darkness and fighting against the wind to stay on the road, and he didn’t encounter a single car the whole time. When he arrived at the hospital well after midnight, the nurse showed him to the room of a man named Tom, who said, “Thanks for coming, Father. I asked for someone to give me the Last Rites because I know I’m dying.” “Would you like to make your confession?” Father asked. “No, no,” said Tom; “I can’t do that; I just want to talk.”

The two men talked for a long time, and several times the priest again asked Tom if he wanted to confess anything. Each time Tom said “no,” but finally he admitted, “Father, when I was a young man, I did something so bad I’ve never told anyone about it—but not a day goes by without me thinking about it and reliving the horror.” Fr. O’Malley said, “Tom, you know you don’t have much time left. Don’t you think you should tell me about it?” Tom sighed unhappily, then said, “Okay. It’s too late for anyone to do anything about it, so I guess I might as well tell you. I worked as a switchman on the railroad all my life, until I retired a few years ago. Thirty-two years, two months, and eleven days ago, I was working in Bakersfield on a night like this. It was two nights before Christmas, and to push away the gloom, our yard crew drank all through the swing shift. Even though I was more drunk than the rest, I volunteered to go out in the wind and rain and push the switch for the northbound 8:30 freight train.” Tom’s voice dropped to a whisper as he said, “I guess I was more drunk than I thought, because I pushed the switch in the wrong direction—and so a freight train going 45 miles an hour slammed into a passenger car at the next crossing and killed a young man, his wife, and their two daughters. I’ve had to live with the guilt over their deaths ever since then, and I’m not sure if even God can forgive me.” Fr. O’Malley was listening with intense concentration, and tried to keep his emotions from showing. Finally, after an inner struggle, he put his hand on Tom’s shoulder and said very quietly, “If I can forgive you, Tom, God can certainly forgive you, because in that car were my mother, my father, and my two older sisters” (Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul, p. 6). This true story is a powerful reminder that sometimes God uses us as instruments of His grace. Jesus tells us that forgiving others is absolutely essential, and one of the reasons for this is simple: sometimes it’s our willingness to forgive that makes it possible for others to believe in God’s mercy.

It’s a very natural human tendency to respond or react to other people in the way they act toward us; generally speaking, we like the people who like us, and dislike or at least try to avoid those who dislike us. Jesus tells us today that, in a certain sense, this principle also applies to God’s judgment of us. If we show mercy toward others, we will receive it back from God—but if we are harsh and unforgiving, we in turn can expect a severe judgment. The unforgiving servant in Our Lord’s parable (Matthew 18:21-35) thought he could use a double standard to his own benefit, but he learned otherwise. God wants to forgive sinners, but our hearts have to be able to accept His mercy—and as the Book of Sirach (27:30-28:7) warns us, this is impossible if we’re too busy clinging to wrath and anger and a desire for vengeance. As St. Paul (Romans 14:7-9) tells us, Christ died and came to life so that He might be Lord of everyone—but sin can prevent this. Jesus calls us to acknowledge and repent of our sins, so that His grace can be present in us; Healso calls us to forgive all those who’ve sinned against us, so that they can begin to trust in and experience His mercy, too.

If you or I had been in Fr. O’Malley’s place, what would we have done? I suspect we would have been sorely tempted to lash out at this person who had robbed us of our loved ones, using the memory of our grief and pain as a justification for saying something cruel like, “You’re right, Tom, God can never forgive the wicked thing you did,” thus causing the man to die in despair. Surely Fr. O’Malley must have been tempted this way—but he said nothing of that sort. Instead, he forgave Tom, which gave him the courage to confess all his sins and receive absolution, and allowed him to die in peace. We will probably never encounter a situation quite so dramatic or a challenge quite that difficult, but the need to forgive others is a struggle for almost every Christian at one point or another. We will not be able to meet this challenge if we rely only on our own spiritual resources and strength; we need to beg for God’s help. I imagine this is what Fr. O’Malley had to do; he must have prayed something like, “Lord, after all these years I finally meet the man who robbed me of my family! I know You want me to forgive him; I know I should, and I want to—but I don’t think I can—please help me!” This is a prayer Jesus is always quick to answer, for He wants us to be agents of His mercy, and will give us whatever help is needed to achieve this. To forgive others doesn’t mean denying our pain, or pretending what they did really didn’tmatter, or setting ourselves up to be hurt by them again; no, it simply means asking God to bless them, praying for them, or even asking Jesus to forgive them on our behalf if we find that too hard to do—thus giving them the same consideration we hope to receive from God one day in regard to our own sins.

We’ve all been hurt or betrayed or taken advantage of or cheated or seriously mistreated by others, and it’s possible that some of these persons will one day undergo a spiritual crisis in which we’ll be given the chance to intervene. It’s even more likely that we’ll be hurt or offended or disappointed by persons who are a regular part of our lives—especially family members, co-workers, and friends. In both these cases, our willingness to forgive can make a difference; by practicing this most difficult of Christ’s teachings, we provide living proof that the Gospel is a realistic answer to life’s problems and that all the Church proclaims on sin and forgiveness can be trusted and believed. Many people today are guilty, miserable, or in despair, but they don’t take the Gospel seriously because it seems too good to be true. As ambassadors of Christ, it’s our duty to show that the Gospel is both good and true—and the most powerful way of doing this is by extending to them in God’s Name the mercy we ourselves have received.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper