Mercy for the Undeserving

August 2, 2016

I’m a youth minister, and this past week I had the chance to be with a group of my teens at a summer camp. This camp is put on by a few parishes throughout the summer, and this particular week involved four parishes, forty-four high school counselors, six youth ministers, a bunch of young adult and adult volunteers, of course many junior high school students. Being that this is the Year of Mercy, our theme was mercy, or, more specifically, the Age of Mercy.

As the teens dove into mercy together with their peers, high school counselors, and adult leaders, one phrase continued to strike me; or, well, I guess it was two phrases. I heard people say that “God’s mercy is shown continually to us although we don’t deserve it” and that “we are all worthy of God’s love and mercy.” Of course there are in the midst of these two statements some theological, philosophical, and even grammatical questions. “What do we mean when we say deserve?” is perhaps the biggest one.

It is true that we were separated from God until Jesus came and died on the Cross for us in order to re-unite us with the Father. In fact, it seems pretty obvious from this that the correct statement is that we do not deserve God’s mercy in the traditional sense that somehow we have done something that made it so that God wanted/needed to show some sort of mercy towards us. No, He did not have to do that; His gift was of a different kind, it was totally gratuitous and utterly undeserved.

And yet, the statement that said that we are, in fact, worthy of God’s love and mercy was repeated by teens over and over again this week as if it had been taught to them, and it shouldn’t be shrugged off as nonsense. What is at the heart of this is the idea that God takes someone who is undeserving, unworthy, and even in many senses seemingly unlovable and makes us lovable again. God has looked down on you and on me and seen that we are sinners who repeatedly offend Him and turn our backs on Him, and yet He has chosen to find us worthy of sending His only Son to redeem and to save us.

In the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel, we hear the story of Jesus meeting the woman caught in the act of adultery, a story we know well. Jesus, after writing in the sand, asks those in the crowd without sin to cast the first stone; when he looks up from writing in the sand again, the crowd is gone and the woman unharmed. He tells her to go, and to sin more, letting her know that He does not condemn her, either.

What is so incredibly beautiful about this story, to me, is what it means for me if I imagine myself to be this woman. If I imagine that my sin, my shame, my guilt was all put on the line in front of the world, and then I was brought to Jesus, I’d be mortified. Instead of reminding me of my guilt, though, I know that Jesus would look at me, like He looked at that woman, and forgive me if I asked Him to, and would send me on my way to follow Him and to sin no more.

This year of mercy is really about exactly that: no one deserves the mercy that God offers, and yet He keeps offering. How grateful we ought to be that God chooses to have mercy on those who don’t deserve it.

Jason Theobald

Jason is a youth minister in the Diocese of Rockford at St. Mary’s Parish in Huntley, Illinois. He graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2012 and married his beautiful wife Sarah in 2014. more...