Summary: Unstrained mercy needs to be constrained by the same constraints that God himself recognizes: by wisdom, by justice, by the long-term, eternal good of the person you are trying to help.
Every week it seems like there’s another new disaster. Wasn’t Hurricane Katrina enough, without adding Hurricane Rita to it? We were all so overwhelmed by the magnitude of those twin crises that many of us probably didn’t even pay much attention to the fires in California. After all, they weren’t really anything out of the ordinary, they happen practically on a yearly basis. We’ve pretty much all been collectively shaking ourselves off and getting down to the business of rebuilding, with the usual arguments of how much and who pays and whose fault was it all anyway. But almost before we’d started catching our breaths, there came the earthquake in Pakistan and Kashmir. The thousand dead and billions in damages in Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast pale in comparison. The death toll is 40,000 and rising, thousands are still without even a tent over their heads, and it is beginning to snow. The floods in New Jersey and New York and New England are hardly worth mentioning. What’s next? Plague? Pundits are telling us that Avian flu is on its way. No famine this year, I guess, at least no more than the usual malnutrition, and the wars are all pretty small. Even the one in Iraq.
Was there really a time when we all thought that a trouble-free life was a natural right? Was there really a time when we all thought that disaster was something that happened to other people? Was there really a time when we could comfortably coast from day to day and never face up to the fact that life is a precarious condition, one which we do not dare take for granted?
Back in the middle ages - and indeed, through many times in the history of Western civilization - people deliberately kept the reality of death and failure and loss squarely in front of them. They often did this with images like skeletons, or the grim reaper, or tombstones. They were called memento mori, or reminders of death. In ancient Rome, the phrase is said to have been used on the occasions when a Roman general was parading through the streets of Rome. Standing behind the victorious general was a servant, and he had the task of reminding the general that, though he was up on the peak today, tomorrow was another day. The servant did this by telling the general that he should remember that he was mortal, i.e. "Memento mori", or perhaps, "Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento!" (Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!) But the primary classical response to the imminence of death was carpe diem: “seize the day,” eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you will die. Most memento mori works are products of Christian art The prospect of death served to emphasize of the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and invited people to focus their thoughts on the prospect of the afterlife instead. It wasn’t considered morbid, or unhealthy, or defeatist.
Some people are sure that such disasters are God’s judgment on sinners. I’m sure you remember some of the things that were said after 9/11, about God’s judgment on America’s sins. I think Jesus pretty much puts that interpretation to rest in the story Luke tells: “There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish." [Lk 13:1-5] So when people ask, at times like this, “How can a God of mercy allow this sort of disaster to happen?” one of the answers needs to be, “so that we will remember that we are not gods.”
There are times when mercy - like forgiveness - is most loving when it is temporarily withheld. Like our comfortable lives in 20th century America, God’s grace is something we may have come to take rather too much for granted.
There’s a pretty strong correlation between forgiveness and mercy. Scripture talks about them in the same way: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” is phrased in exactly the same way as, "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you ... for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." [Luke 6:37-38] And it’s commanded for exactly the same reason: we are to be merciful and not to judge, to give and to forgive - because God will treat us as we treat others.