This year the Catholic Church has declared a holy year: the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. In the document setting this out, Pope Francis describes how he understands mercy. It is not an abstract concept, in his view, but a face-to-face meeting with another human being. Before arriving in Australia, I taught in a Sisters of Mercy school in England, where our three chaplains were sisters who lived out mercy day-to-day.
Pope Francis closely links mercy with forgiveness. And who is it that needs mercy the most? The innocent and those who suffer injustices, such as being deprived of their homes, their dignity, even their lives, are the ones who need mercy the most.
Where do we find those people who need mercy the most? Are they the people persecuted because of their sexuality? Consider the clubbers killed last week in America at a gay nightclub – not to mention the fact that many were black or latino. Are they the people attacked by fear-mongering fascists for working hard for unity between countries? Consider Jo Cox, the politician killed in England this week because she supported remaining in the EU to break down barriers and borders between countries. We would not have to look too far to find examples closer to home. Or are the people who need mercy the most even closer to us? Perhaps it’s the bloke sitting next to you. Maybe someone is giving him a hard time in Maths, or on the soccer field, or at home. Who could you offer the hand of friendship or forgiveness to this week? Mercy is looking them in the eye, face-to-face, recognising them for who they are, and walking with them.
It is not just the persecuted that need mercy, though, but the persecutors. We must also recognise the humanity of the bullies, the tormentors, the trolls, even the killers. Those people are often the ones who feel insecure, unhappy with their lives, and rejected. Think of the difference that offering a hand of friendship could make to these people. How much suffering might you prevent because they feel valued by another human being? In the Gospels, forgiveness is a key teaching of Jesus: Peter asks Jesus “How many times should I forgive my brother, seven times?” Jesus replies “not seven times but seventy-seven times.” We acknowledge each other’s wrong-doing. We don’t accept it, but we can forgive it.
That is why mercy does not stand alone. It goes hand in hand with justice. If there is not a balance between mercy and justice, wrongdoing would either go unpunished, or would be punished excessively. The Gospel reading today tells us not to judge others, or else we will be judged. Think about someone you have judged harshly, perhaps for their appearance, their behaviour, their interests. Would you want to be measured by the same measuring stick? Is it fair if we judge someone more harshly than we would want to be judged? That would be hypocritical. How would you rather be treated instead? According to the thirteenth century Doctor of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas, mercy is the fullness of justice. Aquinas writes “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty.” If we did nothing but show mercy, our relationships would break down; we would be unable to sustain them. We cannot repeatedly give and forgive without others taking responsibility for their actions. On a global scale, with only mercy as a guide, countries and unions would dissolve. But if we did nothing but enact justice, we would cause physical or mental harm to others.
According to Greek philosopher Aristotle, justice has to work for the common good. But what does that mean? It means it has to be in the best interests of the community. In very few cases would harsh judgement be in the best interests of the community. Someone who does wrong has more chance of changing their behaviour if they are offered opportunity rather than punishment.
So how can we employ this in our everyday actions? First, we take responsibility for our own actions, and the impact they have on the community. We acknowledge when we don’t get it right, and accept the consequences. Second, we acknowledge the wrongdoings of our mates and peers. We hold them to account, and then we forgive them. We treat them with humanity, looking them in the eye and reminding them they are our brothers, when they make mistakes and when they make up for them. I would like to remind you of a line from the book of Micah: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”