In All Things, First Mercy

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

— Luke 6:32-38


Last night, I taught a class that dealt, in part, with serious sins that have become rooted in modern culture. I reminded my listeners that there is no sin so grave that it cannot be forgiven save one: to refuse to be forgiven. This caused one of my students to ask if, in fact, suicide isn’t a sin that cannot be forgiven because it is a sin from which it is impossible to repent.

I assured her that this is not necessarily the case, and Holy Church does not teach that it is. I pointed out that to be mortal, the sin has to involve grave matter, free will, and full knowledge. I explained that in the case of suicide, certainly there is grave matter involved. However, it is not at all clear that a person who commits or attempts suicide is acting with free will, since they are acting under extreme emotional duress. Furthermore – as was pointed out by another of my listeners, who is a therapist and as such is in a position to be up-to-date on recent clinical studies – study after study shows that the overwhelming majority of people who attempt suicide and fail were, in the process of dying, regretting their action and clinging to life.

I further reminded that judgment is reserved to God’s perfect justice and His perfect mercy, and that we as human beings are not qualified to condemn another human soul. Judgment is proper to God alone; however, for human beings what is proper in all things is first mercy. This, of course, led me to the point that we can judge a given action as wrong; we can look at the act of suicide and know that it is wrong because among other things, it offends against human dignity and violates the sanctity of life. We can know that we should not do certain things; however, the judgment of those people who do them is proper to God.

This led one person to wonder how a person who is a notorious public sinner can properly be given a Christian funeral, since such a funeral would celebrate that life of sin. She put forward as an example to funeral to which she had recently been for a young woman who had been a prostitute. My response was that a person is not defined by their sin; that it would be clearly improper at such a funeral to say that the person was a great prostitute, but rather one “could say, for example, that she was full of love.”

The words were no sooner out of my mouth than I realized that what I had just said and what I had meant were just about completely different and the room exploded in laughter. I suppose, perhaps, the mood needed a little lightening and I think it was clear from my obvious embarrassment that I had not meant to make little of the topic we were discussing.

It bears repeating, though, that a human being, made to the image and likeness of God, endowed with an inalienable human dignity, cannot be defined by their sin alone. After all, we are all sinners. If a prostitute deserves condemnation for her sin, do I not also deserve condemnation for mine? She, almost certainly, is driven by desperation or addiction into a life of prostitution; I cannot claim such an excuse for my sins, so am I not more guilty in the sins I commit?

As the Master teaches, one cannot remove the speck from a neighbor’s eye when one’s own vision is clouded by the plank in one’s own eye. In all things, first mercy; this is central to what it means to be human. Our lives must be driven by charity if we aspire to live truly Christian lives. We may live surrounded by sin; we may see sins become so commonplace in our own culture that we are tempted to despair; we may ourselves be enslaved to sin. But, we are not defined solely by sin, and we do not have to define the world according solely to its sin.

As Christians and as Catholics, we can always aspire to something higher. We can aspire to the heights to which Christ calls us, and in that we can come to live truly free. Through our constant movements to the heights to which we must attain if we are to be true to our call, we can become fully human; we can know that sin is a dire blight bringing ugliness and falsehood, but the God offers us truth and beauty. We can choose the good, the true and the beautiful and abandon sin and death.

Charity and mercy are central to answering our call. Charity must be and the center of our being if we are to have God at the center of our being; mercy must be our response in our dealings with our fellow beings, for as the Master promises, the measure that we give will be the measure that we get back.

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