Without Mercy, There Is No Justice

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday/Thomas Sunday)

Rembrandt, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” 1634
Rembrandt, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” 1634 (photo: Public Domain)

“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” 

Our Lord speaks to St. Thomas, but also to each of us who have not seen the risen Lord, but have received from the Lord, and from his Church, the gift of faith.

St. Thomas believed after seeing the Lord. Some might think that once he actually saw Jesus, it was no longer faith, but seeing. 

But no. Thomas’s confession reveals true faith. “My Lord and my God!” 


When Seeing Isn’t Believing

What did Thomas actually see? He saw Jesus alive after being crucified. He saw a man standing before his eyes who, naturally speaking, could not have been there.

Did he witness that man create the universe from nothing? Did he witness angels of heaven bowing down to worship that man? Did he witness Jesus in heaven sharing the eternal glory of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit?

No. Thomas saw none of those things. All he saw was a man standing before his eyes. Thomas’ faith went beyond what he saw. 

We hear all the time that the Jewish people were awaiting the coming of the chosen son of David, the messiah, who would usher in the kingdom of God. What we don’t hear so often is that the prophets had much more to say about Israel’s God coming to visit his people. 

The Jewish people were waiting for the messiah, but, even more, they were living in anticipation of God himself coming to them — not as a human being, but in some other way — to reign in the midst of his people, to live among them in his holy temple, and to reveal himself to all the pagan nations, who would abandon their false gods and come to Jerusalem to learn about the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Thomas, seeing Jesus raised from the dead, recognized by faith was that this is no mere man — not even a wonder-working prophet. In Jesus, God had come to Israel and to the whole world.


What Did Jesus Bring?

And, of course, this is our faith as well. The faith we solemnly reaffirmed last Sunday, on Easter, in the annual renewal of our baptismal promises. The faith we profess just a few minutes from now in the Creed. 

The faith that brings us together on this Second Sunday of Easter — Thomas Sunday, as it’s called — as on every Sunday of the year, is not just our belief in Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week, but our faith that the one who died on the cross and was raised for us is our Lord and our God.

“What did Jesus actually bring,” asked Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth, “if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?”

“The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God! He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets … the God who revealed his face only in Israel. … He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him.”

“He who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus told Philip. We of course have not seen Jesus ourselves. Yet, in the words of the first letter of St. Peter:

“Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.”

What is it that we have believed? Who exactly is this God that Jesus has brought to us and made known to the world? What is he like — what does he want or expect from us?

Did Jesus come to show us God’s almighty power? Certainly he performed great miracles, above all his own resurrection, which reveals God’s power over death. 

But it was not Jesus’ divine power that revealed God in a new way, but precisely his emptying himself, taking the form of a servant, becoming obedient even to death.


Everything Depends on Love and Mercy

How did this bring God to us? What did it reveal about him? The answer is as simple as it is all-encompassing: Jesus’ entire life, every action of his ministry, every word of his teaching, and, above all, his Passion and death, reveal one truth above all: that God is love. Love alone matters.

“You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, and strength.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” 

And love has another name that we celebrate in a special way on this day which also has another name: Divine Mercy Sunday.

The Apostle of Divine Mercy, St. Faustina Kowalska, called mercy God’s greatest attribute. St. John Paul II, in his great encyclical on mercy, Dives in Misericordia, explains that mercy is “love’s second name, and, at the same time, the specific manner in which love is revealed and effected” in relation to the fallenness of our world and the evils that affect us.

Pope Francis, declaring a Holy Year of Mercy a number of years ago, said simply:

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus … Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God.”

Pope Francis continues:

“We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.”

Without mercy, not only do we have no hope of salvation, we have no hope of happiness even in this life. Every relationship — every friendship, every marriage, every family, every community, every parish — depends utterly on mercy. In a fallen world, there is no love without mercy.

If we hope to live in God’s mercy, mercy must pervade our whole being and our entire lives. Nothing is more central to our Lord’s teaching than this. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2840) says that God’s “outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us … In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father's merciful love.”

To cling to a grudge, to nurture resentment, to keep a list of past wrongs, to dwell on the faults of others is quite simply the road to hell. The measure we give will be the measure we get.


Mercy Is Not Opposed to Justice

Too many people are suspicious of mercy because we don’t understand it. We pit mercy against justice. We think justice means holding people responsible, so mercy means not holding them responsible. No consequences.

This is a perverse distortion both of mercy and of justice. Mercy is not opposed to justice. Properly understood, mercy promotes justice. When you see people suffering injustice, and you want to help them, to set things right, that’s mercy.

Think of the corporal works of mercy: giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty; clothing and sheltering the naked and homeless; visiting the sick and imprisoned; burying the dead.

To give food to the hungry or clothing to the naked is justice. St. Basil the Great, preaching to the rich, declared:

“When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

This is mercy. It’s also justice.

The essence of mercy is this: to love people who are in any kind of distress or evil circumstances; to feel sorrow or grief at their condition; to will their good; and to be willing to do them good if we can.

Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the end Jesus asked: “Which of the three men proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” 

Do you remember the answer? “The one who showed mercy on him.”


Justice Requires Forgiveness

Mercy does entail forgiveness. Forgiving offenses is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, along with bearing wrongs patiently. If we haven’t learned to bear wrongs patiently, we’ll probably struggle to forgive them. And without a deep appreciation of how much we ourselves have been forgiven, like the ungrateful servant in Jesus’ parable, the more we’ll resent it when others wrong us.

Justice, in a fallen world, requires mercy. What would become even of a happy, loving family if spouses, parents, and children didn’t forgive each other’s faults? Pretty soon there’s no happy family and no love. Which isn’t justice.

What about unhappy families or unhealthy relationships with people whose behavior is harmful to others or to themselves? That can be trickier. 

Mercy doesn’t mean that there are no consequences. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that if someone wrongs or betrays us again and again, we go on trusting them. Sometimes mercy can mean not letting someone hurt you anymore. Sometimes in the long run the most merciful choice we can make is letting the consequences of people’s actions play out.

I can’t tell you in a homily what mercy requires in every situation. What I can tell you is that you can have complete confidence and absolute trust in the infinite mercy of Jesus … and that, the more you trust in him — even without seeing him — the more easily and naturally it will come to you to show God’s mercy to others.

Jesus, I trust in you.