The ceremonies of Holy Week, in which we remember the sorrowful Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ and His glorious Resurrection, lead us to meditate on the seriousness of sin and on the infinite justice of God, as well as on His infinite mercy.
Reparation to God’s Offended Justice
Indeed, the sin of our first parents, through which “sin entered into this world” (Romans, 5:12)1 was a revolt against God, an extremely serious act of disobedience to the Creator and an immense act of ingratitude toward our Benefactor.
Since God is infinite, an offense against Him has something infinite about it; for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches, “a sin committed against God has a kind of infinity from the infinity of the Divine majesty, because the greater the person we offend, the more grievous the offense.”2
Therefore, Adam’s offense and our debt to God required reparation that satisfies infinite Divine justice. This satisfaction was made by the Incarnation, Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And in this, the infinite mercy of God was made manifest.
Infinite Love Repairs an Infinite Offense
God’s justice required infinite satisfaction, which was made by His only begotten Son; in His mercy He consented to that sacrifice to restore friendship with man and to open the gates of heaven to him. Although God could have satisfied His justice in another way, He picked the way that would make patent His infinite love for us.
Therefore, serious sin, and especially being in the state of sin (like living in adultery), is an offense at the same time against God’s justice and His mercy, a mercy demonstrated especially through the Incarnation, Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Mercy Tempers Justice without Destroying It
These considerations are needed nowadays, when there is a widespread sense of mercy without justice and a resurgence of the Lutheran error of faith without the need of good works.
The Sacred Scriptures and Church tradition abound in quotes about Divine mercy, but also about God’s justice and punishment for sin.
Thus, in Ecclesiasticus we find the warning: “And say not: The mercy of the Lord is great, he will have mercy on the multitude of my sins. For mercy and wrath quickly come from him, and his wrath looked upon sinners” (Ecclus. 5:6-7).
Mercy Is for the God-Fearing
To invoke Divine mercy as an excuse to continue sinning is to mock God. And Saint Paul warns us: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked” (Gal 6:7).
In her thanksgiving chant, the Blessed Mother proclaims that mercy is coupled with the fear of God: “And his mercy is from generation unto generation, to them that fear Him” (Luke 1:50).
In the Old Testament, the Lord affirmed His mercy toward those who fear Him, praise Him, and keep His commandments (Ps. 102:17; Exod. 20:6; Deut. 5:10).
The fear of God which “is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 110:10) is filial reverence for the infinite majesty of Divine justice, a desire not to offend Him, and not to break away from His friendship. In short, filial fear is a fruit of the true love of God, without which one cannot acquire wisdom.
Kindness and Severity in Pastoral Care
Today, many seek to create a new form of pastoral care where one does not talk about sin, Divine justice or punishment, and employs only kindness but no severity at all.
Our Lord sought to attract sinners. He forgave the repentant adulterous woman, converted the Samaritan one, and praised the love of the repentant sinner who anointed him with aromatic balm (John 8:1-11; 4:29; 7:47). The kindness of His words runs throughout the pages of the Gospel. But when necessary He did not shrink from using severe expressions such as those intended to make the hardened Pharisees see their own wickedness: “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “whitewashed tombs,” and “children of the devil” (Matt. 12:34; 23:27; John 8:44).
It was also with stern words that the Prophet Nathan converted King David when he fell into adultery and was responsible for the death of Bathsheba’s husband (2 Samuel 11-12). And the result were the beautiful Penitential Psalms that display the sorrow of a repentant soul.
Mercy and the Quest for Perfection
As Father Théodore Koehler explains, the practice of mercy cannot be separated from the pursuit of perfection:
“‘Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful’ (Luke 6:36). This invitation to imitate divine mercy corresponds to another call in Matthew (Matt. 5:48): ‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Thus, since the early days of Christianity, mercy appears as the attainment of spiritual growth in the perfection preached by Jesus.”3
A genuine pastoral policy, therefore, must employ adequate psychological means, kindness or rigor as needed, to convert people or make them more fervent in the faith. But always seeking to drive them away from sin by recalling the inevitability of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, Paradise. With this one avoids falling into sin, as Ecclesiasticus teaches: “In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin” (Ecclus. 7:40).