October 10 – The tension between forgiveness and mercy

October 10 “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he, himself, must pass.” (Lord Herbert)

In my years as a Catechist in the Catholic Church, I sometimes would teach Middle-school students to look more deeply into common prayers. We would break down what we had learned by rote memory to gain a deeper understanding of what the prayer was about, and what we were asking for or praising within the prayer. We would start at the beginning and go phrase by phrase through until we reached the end. At the end of our 90 minutes together we’d all have learned something more. One such prayer that we studied was The Lord’s Prayer.

I used to refer to The Lord’s Prayer as the “be careful what you ask for” prayer, because in the middle of the prayer we ask for something that might be very difficult for us to fathom and follow. I am talking about this line in the prayer:

“And forgive us our trespasses,

As we forgive those who trespass against us.”

That sentence in the prayer packs a very powerful supplication. What we as asking of God is that we be forgiven for our wrongdoings in the same way that we forgive each other. We are saying to God, “Treat me with the same level of mercy that I show others in my life.”

This same concept comes up when studying the Beatitudes. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5, we read what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Within those 9 beatitudes is this one:

“Blessed at the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

When studying The Beatitudes with those preparing for Confirmation, we would also break them down one by one. When we got to this one, I would ask them these few questions.

When someone does you wrong, what do you want for that person, justice or mercy?

Being high-minded, rule-following adolescents, they would, with nearly one voice, say that they wanted justice. They wanted the person who had committed the deed held accountable and punished. Then I would hit them with this question

When YOU do something wrong, what do you want for yourself, justice or mercy?

And here we would uncover the conundrum of The Lord’s Prayer. Of course, when we are the ones who have made a mistake, we want mercy. We want to be forgiven and handed a second (or third, or fourth or…), chance. We want the judge to let us off for our speeding ticket, but we want the book thrown at the person who sped down our street and endangered us.

I see this same concept played out daily. Recently there was a story here about a man whose truck hit a child who had jumped into the street. By all accounts this was an accident. The driver wasn’t impaired, wasn’t distracted and wasn’t speeding. The child had just jumped carelessly in front of him. When the driver, completely distraught, got out to render help to the child, an angry mob formed. Older teens from the neighborhood proceeded to beat the man into a coma. This mob of thugs had decided to carry out their own “street justice” against this innocent man.

The teens were caught and brought before a judge. Each of them pleaded their case for mercy from the courts. Each of them told of their circumstances, and what good people they were, and how this should not be the lone thing on which they were judged. Reading their stories in court sickened me. The very thing they denied an innocent man – mercy, they were begging for themselves even though they were anything but innocent.

The child who was hit had only minor injuries and was back out and about within a short time. The driver remained in a coma for a period, and eventually recovered and is with his family, but he has permanent issues. The defendants got a variety of sentences.

What this story illustrates for me is that what we want for ourselves is rarely what we want for others in these situations. We want mercy for us, justice (hard justice), for them.

In The Lord’s Prayer, we ask to be forgiven in the same measure we forgive others. The Beatitudes remind us to be merciful if we want mercy. This quote reinforces both as it reminds us that one day we must all travel the bridge of forgiveness, and how sturdy that bridge is will depend largely on how we use it for others.

Today my reflection is on whether I show enough forgiveness in my life.

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