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Mercy before Judgment

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Grace: Week 1

Mercy before Judgment
Sunday, January 24, 2016

When Pope Francis threw open the Door of Mercy in Rome signifying the start of the “Year of Mercy” on December 8, 2015, he said, “How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy. We have to put mercy before judgment, and in any event, God’s judgment will always be in the light of his mercy”—which is infinite! [1]

We don’t know what to do with “infinity,” because it does something with us. Our human minds can’t conceptualize, comprehend, or control the “infinite.” This explains why our counting and calculating minds fall back on a manageable notion like judgment. In fact, we seem to prefer it. In most sermons I’ve heard, when speaking about mercy the preacher quickly adds: “But of course God’s mercy must always be tempered by his judgment!” Judgment is too often the final word, and so it remains in our memories, which naturally turn toward fear. Unfortunately, the most common view of God’s judgment is retributive justice, which appeals to the ego, rather than restorative justice, which brings true transformation. We’ll explore these kinds of justice in greater detail later this week.

God’s freely given grace is a humiliation to the ego because free gifts say nothing about me. Only the soul can understand grace. The ego does not know how to receive things freely or without logic. It likes to be worthy and needs to understand in order to accept things as true. The ego prefers a worldview of scarcity or quid pro quo, where only the clever can win. That problem, and its overcoming, is at the very center of the Gospel plot line. It has always been overcome from God’s side. The only problem is getting us in on the process! That very inclusion of us is God’s humility, graciousness, and love. Only inside an economy of grace can we see that God wants free and willing partners. An economy of merit cannot process free love or free anything. “Not servants, but friends” (John 15:15) is God’s plan. Yet to this day, most Christians seem to prefer being servants. Divine friendship is just too much to imagine.

If we’re honest, culture forms us much more than the Gospel. It seems we have kept the basic storyline of human history in place rather than allow the Gospel to reframe and redirect the story. Except for those who have experienced grace at their core, Christianity has not created “a new mind” (Romans 12:2) or a “new self” (Ephesians 4:23-24) that is significantly different than the cultures it inhabited. The old, tired win/lose scenario seems to be in our cultural hard drive, whereas the experience of grace at the core of reality, which is much more imaginative and installs new win/win programs in our psyche, has been neglected and unrecognized by most of Christianity.

I remember speaking at a prayer breakfast in my early years in Cincinnati and saying, “What if the Gospel is really a win/win scenario?” At the break, a successful Catholic businessman came up to me and said in a most patronizing way, “Father, Father, win/win? That wouldn’t even be interesting!” And it really wouldn’t be interesting to most people who live their entire lives inside systems of weighing, measuring, earning, counting, and performing—which is pretty much the only game in town.

Up to now, Christianity has largely mirrored culture instead of transforming it. Reward/punishment, good guys versus bad guys, has been the plot line of most novels, plays, operas, movies, and wars. This is the only way that a dualistic mind, unrenewed by prayer and grace, can perceive reality. It is almost impossible to switch this mind during a short sermon or service on a Sunday morning. As long as we remain inside of a dualistic, win-lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and vindictive moralisms and myths (Star Wars being a most recent example) and never rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus offered us. The spiritual path and life itself will be mere duty instead of delight, “jars of purification” instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party (John 2:6-10). We will focus on maintaining order by sanctified violence instead of moving toward a higher order of love and healing—the heart of the Gospel.

Gateway to Silence:
Open me to grace upon grace upon grace.

[1] Pope Francis, as quoted by Gerard O’Connell, “Pope Francis Opens Holy Door says: ‘We Have to Put Mercy before Judgment,’” December 8, 2015,

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Today Is a Time for Mercy,” December 10, 2015,; and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2007), 156-157, 159, 177.

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