Law vs. Mercy, Or Not?

As we speak, some of our dear bishops are participating in Part 2 of the great “Synod on the Family” convoked by our Holy Father, Pope Francis. We pray that the Lord pour out wisdom, fidelity, and mildness to guide the Synod fathers.

One of the famous distinctions some people like to invoke is: Law, on one hand, and Mercy, on the other.

Pacino Shylock
Pacino Shylock
In certain dramatic instances, this distinction carries powerful meaning. Like in The Merchant of Venice, when the hero owes the villain a pound of flesh—but then the heroine convinces the court that, since the villain won’t be merciful and forgive the debt, then he must take only a pound of flesh, and no more. Not to mention that he has no right to any of the hero’s blood, since that wasn’t in the contract. Very dramatic moment.

Generally speaking, though, I think this constant distinguishing between law and mercy can get pretty obtuse.

After all, “law” does not, in and of itself, mean “rigidity.” I myself understand ‘law’ as the opposite, not of mercy, but of chaos. The idea that we human beings invented law, in some fit of self-destructive self-repression—this idea does not really conform to mankind’s unmediated experience of the cosmos, as communicated so eloquently at the beginning of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. The cosmos possesses beauty precisely because laws order the elements.

We human beings do have to make laws to govern our lives together, to be sure. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr., put is so well, quoting St. Augustine: Law is only truly law insofar as it is just. And the justice of human law comes from its conformity with God’s design. So law is not fundamentally something we human beings invent; it is something to which we submit, for our own good. Our problem as sinners is when we do not act in accord with God, Who guides all things for the good.

Did the idea of Law, in and of itself, make the Lord Jesus angry? Don’t think so. What made Him mad at the Pharisees was this:

The Pharisees made it their business to preserve ancient Jewish customs, all of which aimed at keeping the pure faith of Abraham alive. Abraham’s faith, in a nutshell, consisted in trusting that God would give the people a future.

But now the future had arrived. Now the Eternal Law had taken flesh and was living a pilgrim life. The day to which Abraham always looked forward: that day had come. The Christ stood before them, inviting them into the kingdom.

But the Pharisees were hypocrites. They preached without practicing. They laid heavy burdens on others which they themselves never carried. It’s not that their doctrine was false; their lives were false. So they could not see the Christ; they would not accept His invitation.

Mercy doesn’t mean “forget the law!” Mercy means what Christ showed us that it means. Let me help you find a happier way of life than the one you’re living in now. None of us can do right alone. We need Christ’s help. And we need to help each other.

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