Sin and the Arithmetic of Mercy

User's Guide to Divine Mercy Sunday 2016

(photo: Wikipedia)

April 3, 2016, is Divine Mercy Sunday (Year C). Mass Readings: Acts 5:12-16; Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24;  Revelation 1:9-13, 17-19; John 20:19-31.

On this Divine Mercy Sunday in many parts of the world, people will flock to confession and stream through holy doors, in search of mercy. But many think they don’t need mercy.

“Innocent One” Syndrome

Very few people think they are literally sinless, having done nothing wrong. More likely, we can, at times, think our wrongdoing is part of our psychology or physiology that we simply have to accept it. There may be parts of our lives that are uglier than others — we are sometimes too angry, or too curious online, or too generous in helping ourselves to what is not strictly ours — but this is simply who we are. It happens. Oh well.

Or maybe we “innocent ones” don’t really think our sins are truly ours. Yes, I did some things I regret. But that’s not the real me. The real me is the good me, the me who does those things I’m proud of. We are experts of rationalizing our behavior. We take “breaks” from diets by eating a chocolate or drinking a coke, but still think we are dieting, and we take “breaks” from our general moral behavior by doing that occasional bad thing but still think we are morally upright. This is called “presumption.”

“Hopeless Sinner” Syndrome

There are two ways to suffer from this one: Either we think God doesn’t care about us because we are worthless or we think God cares a lot and is perpetually mad at us. The first is despair, and the second is scrupulosity. The answer to both is more faith in God’s action, as described in John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

The two syndromes actually share a root cause: They give sin a power in our lives that it doesn’t have. Christians get in trouble when we think this equation describes us: “My Virtues - My Sin = The Real Me.” If that equation is true, we have to either admit failure or lie to ourselves about one of the parts of the equation to keep “The Real Me” respectable.

Today’s readings teach a very different equation: “The Real Me = Sinner + Christ x Grace.”

You see this in the first reading, in which the apostles who shamed themselves with disgraceful behavior during Holy Week are suddenly accomplishing “signs and wonders” for all the world to see.

Peter, who slept when he should have stayed awake with Jesus and then denied the Lord three times, is now a figure of awe, as people line the streets hoping that even his shadow might fall on them.

Clearly, the apostles’ new identity is Sinner + Christ x Grace.

This is the message St. John gets in the second reading when, seeing Jesus, he falls down in fright, feeling unworthy to look on him. “Do not be afraid,” said Jesus. “Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.”

In the Gospel, the Risen Jesus comes to the apostles and gives them the power to work in each of our lives what he has done in their lives. He says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” then adds, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

He gives the apostles the ability to forgive sins so that we can experience the same math they did, the arithmetic of mercy: “The Real Me = Sinner + Christ x Grace.”

Jesus takes away my sins, multiplies my fruitfulness with his grace, and the result is a new me.


Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.