Our culture doesn’t believe in forgiveness. Not really. Oh, sure, we say we do. But the reality is, we believe in mistakes and excuses. We will go to enormous lengths to explain away sin as a mistake or a psychological aberration or an error. But should our patience finally wear out, should we really come face-to-face with the hard black wall of willed human evil, we don’t believe, any more than the Pharisees in the gospel, that people who do such things deserve mercy. For such people, we want judgement. We want to make bloody good and sure that such weasels don’t get away with it. Mercy, at such moments, is for us indistinguishable from “getting off scot free”.
All we need do to test this assertion is focus on those people we regard as inexcusable: the pedophile, the death camp commandant, Timothy McVeigh. Those sorts of people. The repugnant. Those who are beyond the beyond. For those people, the people whom we cannot, even in our therapeutic culture, excuse, there is simply no mercy extended. There is only judgment.
This must be clearly understood if we are to avoid the mistake Christians commonly make concerning those cartoonish figures of yore, the Pharisees. The poor Pharisees are, we fancy, nothing like us. They are the one-dimensional Captain Frank Burnses from the MASH units of antiquity: censorious little men who cared only about digging up nasties on the neighbors. Little unforgiving snitches whose comic potential is only exceeded by their incredibly myopic and harsh bigotries about every picayune human failing. We are, we fancy, tremendously forgiving, caring, tender-hearted people open to the ambiguities of life and able to deal with human failings–until we encounter that failing which we cannot excuse in some way. Then, we are every inch as merciless–and suspicious of mercy–as the Pharisees were toward the scum they despised and the Nazarene who showed that scum mercy.
How do people get to be this way? Usually by being great. The spiritual ancestors of the Pharisees were the heroes of 1 and 2 Maccabees, who had fought off a truly ugly and dangerous act of ethnic aggression by Antiochus Epiphanes when he tried to stamp out Jewish culture and religion once and for all. They were freedom fighters who had overcome enormous odds in what was truly a magnificent and victorious battle for the soul of Israel against one of the most serious threats from paganism the nation ever faced. Israel celebrates Hanukkah to this day to commemorate the cleansing of the Temple after Antiochus had wantonly slaughtered a pig on the altar in defiance of the God of Israel. The Pharisees were those who had fought hardest and suffered most to keep Israel from being absorbed by the often brutish culture of surrounding pagan nations. They were good, even great men.
And they knew it.
That was what left them unprepared for something more than human: divine mercy. More to the point, it’s what leaves us unprepared too. Jesus was merciful to sinners. Real ones. People who had done awful and repulsive things which no decent person could excuse. But that mercy was not a diversion from God’s plan. It was the fulfillment of God’s plan. For the Pharisee’s own ancestors had done awful things with a Golden Calf and had no excuse whatever either. Yet Moses interceded for them just as Jesus did–and does. We are called to make similar intercession, especially for those “most in need of thy mercy”.