November marks the end of the liturgical year, a time when the Church turns more of its attention to the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment.
The Scriptures we read and the prayers we offer in the liturgy during this time are laden with apocalyptic and end-time considerations. We are exhorted to watch and wait for the Lord’s return (Matthew 24:42; 25:13; Mark 13:33-37; Luke 21:36). “That day,” which is hidden from our knowledge, will come suddenly, and we are to be prepared for it (Matthew 124:36; Luke 21:34).
For many of us, the question of the final judgment is not the most comforting topic of meditation. Even while making allowances for a certain amount of imagery in Scripture, the language of the end of time can cause uncertainty and even fear in us. Almost instinctively, we have a hidden sense that we are sinners in need of redemption; surely the revelation of Christ will uncover things in our lives that we may want to keep hidden. Despite our preferences, we find it difficult to avoid thinking about judgment at this time of the year. It’s like standing on a street corner and trying not to think of a white polar bear; the very act of trying not to think of something evokes thoughts of it.
The judgment of God reveals his merciful love as well. To our limited human way of thinking, judgment and mercy seem contradictory. Perfect judgment would seem to require that creatures offending their creator be punished. Perfect mercy would seem to entail the forgiveness of all sin both repented and unrepented. But to a perfect God, all of whose attributes are perfect, there is no problem with the simultaneous possession of perfect judgment and perfect mercy. In fact, in Jesus Christ, we can see that these attributes are complementary reflections of God’s powerful yet tender love for all his people.
The Triumph of the Cross
In the cross, Jesus revealed love stronger than sin. In his letter to the Philippian church, St. Paul quoted a hymn that sang of the judgment and mercy of God as revealed in the cross of Christ. As Jesus hung there, bearing the weight of all our transgressions, he was upholding the absolute justice of God which could not tolerate sin. At the same time, Jesus revealed God’s undying mercy for all his creation. So much did God love us—so much did he want to remove the barrier of sin that kept us from his embrace—that he sent his only Son to bring us back to him.
Jesus’ acceptance of the Father’s will in becoming man and submitting to a shameful death on the cross is the greatest act of mercy possible; he willingly poured out his life’s blood to win our redemption. Divine justice required that only God could atone for sin committed against God. Divine mercy required that even the most grievous sin be forgiven. Jesus met both requirements, and in him mercy triumphed over judgment.
Even human justice (let alone divine justice) cringes at the sight of a blameless person suffering for others’ transgressions. Surely, one would understand if Jesus showed even the slightest sense of disappointment or even bitterness against his executioners. Yet what was his response? “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Mercy triumphed over judgment.
As Jesus hung on the cross, one of the criminals crucified next to him kept deriding him. The other criminal rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41). This “good thief” understood judgment and knew when it was rightly or wrongly applied. Now, crucified next to Jesus, he saw mercy of a kind he had never seen before. And seeing such mercy led him to ask: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’’ (Luke 23:42). Oh, the wonder and awe of hearing Jesus reply: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Mercy triumphed over judgment.
Much Love Generates Much Mercy
It wasn’t only at the cross that Jesus revealed the Father’s mercy. This theme runs throughout his preaching, his miracles, and his teaching. One parable in particular stands out—the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee, standing by himself, thanked God that he was not like other people, and gloried in his fasting and tithing. What was his problem? “Pride,” is the answer that comes to mind most quickly. Yet who among us is free of pride? Per- haps the deeper issue is that this Pharisee did not know God’s mercy; perhaps he had never experienced the Father’s love and so was unprepared to face God’s awesome judgment. Instead of relying on God’s mercy, he sought to justify himself by what he did or avoided doing. He had to find something other than God’s love to give him security and hope—and he did so at the expense of others.
By contrast, we have the tax collector who prayed: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). This man, who knew God’s mercy, went away justified (18:14). He knew he was a sinner, and he entrusted himself to a God who wasn’t looking for righteous deeds as much as he was looking for a humble heart—a heart willing to receive mercy from a loving God.
When we come into the presence of God, we are faced with two striking realities. We see ourselves and our sin in a clear light, and we begin to understand that this sin deserves punishment. Yet, at the same time we see the immense love of God for us. We begin to understand that in his mercy we are forgiven through his Son’s death and resurrection. Because the tax collector recognized his state and understood it in terms of God’s judgment, he was bold enough—and humble enough—to ask for God’s mercy. Because the Pharisee tried to prove that he was better than others, he became a candidate for God’s justice.
As Jesus preached and ministered, many people recognized God’s mercy manifested in him. One example was the woman “who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37). When she heard that Jesus was dining at the home of Simon the Pharisee, she acted resolutely. Uninvited—and undoubtedly unwanted by the host—she crashed the party. Positioning herself at Jesus’ feet, she bathed his feet in her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with oil. When Simon grumbled to himself about the woman’s state and Jesus’ seeming tolerance of her, Jesus admonished him by explaining what was in her heart: “Her sins, which are many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love” (7:47).
In the next breath, Jesus showed Simon the condition of his own heart: “But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). Then Jesus told the woman: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50). Her faith in what? Her faith in God’s mercy. Her faith that despite the judgment she deserved, God’s mercy—manifested in Jesus—would triumph over judgment. Simon had yet to learn the freedom and joy that come from acknowledging sin and allowing God to fill him with mercy and love.
Being Merciful as the Father Is Merciful
More than just showing mercy, more than just performing merciful deeds, Jesus told his disciples that they must be merciful: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Mercy is not just an add-on, a nice attribute that we have along with other virtues like generosity and helpfulness. Mercy is to be at the heart of our being. We are to be merciful as the Father is merciful, and because the Father is merciful. Because he was so imbued with the Father’s mercy—his kindness and compassion for the people—Jesus was able to give it away so freely. Jesus commanded that we should receive God’s mercy as well—that we should be so filled with the knowledge of God’s love and grace that we too would give it away.
Jesus’ whole earthly life was an example of God’s mercy. He was known as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34; 5:30; 15:1; 19:7) because he was not ashamed to associate with them. In the very same way, he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11). Jesus knew that God’s mercy is deeper than our sin. When he was criticized for eating with sinners, he said: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
Jesus came to call us all, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It has never been a case of one group being righteous and not needing salvation, and another group “out there” made up of sinners. All have sinned, and all need God’s mercy. And in Jesus Christ, God’s mercy has been poured out as abundantly as the sunlight on a clear spring day. His mercy is one thing we can always count on. It is new every morning, it is new every day.