Costly Mercy or Cheap Mercy

Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday 2023.

As a doctor, and especially as a Catholic doctor, my dad often joked that, because of the kinds of things his patients shared with him, he had heard many “confessions” during his years of practicing medicine. He had heard many “confessions,” he just couldn’t offer absolution. I imagine the same could be said by many social workers, therapists, and bartenders. There’s a deep human need to confess our sins, to share our faults and failures with another person. There’s an even deeper need to receive absolution, to be forgiven and to know that we are forgiven. Until we confess our sins and receive absolution, there can be a sense of anxiety and restlessness that won’t seem to go away. Over time we can become accustomed to this feeling. Only after making a good confession do we often realize just how heavy a burden we’ve been carrying for many months or years.

In the relatively short time I’ve been a priest, it’s been my experience that some people who come to confession could also benefit from the help of a therapist. It’s likely true, then, that some people who go to a therapist could also benefit from the help of confession. This is because, at the end of the day, it’s not enough simply to confess our faults and failures to another human being. We have a deep human need to be forgiven, and to know that we are forgiven. Sharing our brokenness with another person that we can trust—whether that’s a doctor, a therapist, or even a bartender—can bring a certain measure of comfort and relief. But it can never bring the kind of peace that only Jesus can give.

At the Last Supper, while with His disciples in the Upper Room, Jesus spoke of this peace that only He can give. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus said, “my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (Jn. 14:27). In our gospel today, Jesus once again meets His disciples in the Upper Room. And once again He offers them His gift of peace: “Peace be with you.” Jesus then breaths on His disciples and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Jesus was sent by the Father to bring the peace that comes from being reconciled to Him. And as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends His disciples. He sends them to bring the same kind of peace, the peace of being reconciled to the Father. He therefore gives them the means of bringing this peace, which is the sacred power to forgive sins.

This is the peace that all of us long for, and it is the kind of peace that is the necessary foundation for world peace. Unless each of us is reconciled with the Father, there is no hope that we can be reconciled with each other. A lasting peace can only be built on this foundation. This is the message that Jesus shared with a polish nun by the name of Maria Faustina as the world stood on the brink of World War II. Jesus told her that He wanted a feast dedicated to His mercy to be celebrated annually on this Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, which we now know as Divine Mercy Sunday. These are Jesus’ words to St. Faustina from paragraph 699 of her diary:

My daughter, tell the whole world about My inconceivable mercy. I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day the very depths of My tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the Fount of My Mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day all the divine floodgates through which graces flow are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet…The Feast of Mercy emerged from My very depths of tenderness. It is My desire that it be solemnly celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter. Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy.

Jesus came to bring us peace. If we want peace within ourselves, we must turn to Him. And if we want peace in the world, we must bring other people to Jesus. The gift of peace is intimately connected with Jesus’ mercy; apart from His mercy, there can be no peace. This is why Jesus gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Confession and absolution is the surest and straightest path to peace that Jesus has given us. This is not an easy path to peace. It requires honesty, humility, and courage. But it’s totally worth it.

The alternative to this is what we might call “cheap mercy.” Receiving Jesus’ mercy means acknowledging that we have something to be forgiven of. Acknowledging this costs something; it requires something of us. “Cheap mercy,” on the other hand, deals with the problem of sin often by simply denying its existence. “You have nothing to be forgiven of because there is nothing to forgive.” This anti-gospel of “cheap mercy” also talks a lot about forgiving yourself. “You probably haven’t sinned—because there is no such thing—but even if you have, you should just forgive yourself. There is no need to turn to Jesus or His representatives for forgiveness.” But this does not bring peace. And it ultimately costs much more than simply going to confession. Trying to forgive yourself is far more exhausting than allowing Jesus to forgive you. That’s because self-forgiveness doesn’t ultimately work. It’s like trying to pay a debt that you owe to yourself even though you don’t have the money to pay it. Only Jesus can pay that debt, and He has paid that debt. Let Him pay it for you; let Him forgive you. Stop trying to forgive yourself. It’s a paradox, but nonetheless true, that the mercy that Jesus offers, though costly, is ultimately free, and the mercy that the world offers, though cheap, is infinitely expensive.

And, so, brothers and sisters, my challenge to all of us is this: If you didn’t have the chance to go to confession during Lent, take advantage of it during the Easter Season. The good news is that the Easter Season is ten days longer than Lent, so you have even more opportunities to go. Don’t settle for cheap mercy; don’t settle for the peace that the world can give. It’s a peace that doesn’t satisfy and that doesn’t ultimately last. Confession is an opportunity to encounter Jesus as the disciples encountered Him in our gospel today. It’s an opportunity to hear Him say to us, as He said to them, “Peace be with you.” Amen.