This quotation would, I suspect, resonate with Isaiah in today’s first reading. It is particularly significant during Lent. For some observers mercy might be read as cheap grace.
This is not so.
Cheap grace for Bonhoeffer was the denial of sin. All is forgiven, God loves you… Real grace is the recognition that God’s love and mercy are open to all sinners who seek it. It entails a bit of work on our part: first, the recognition that we have sinned; second, that though, by this sin we have separated ourselves from God, this is not irredeemable; third, we need to open ourselves to God’s merciful grace and receive forgiveness; fourth, that, out of gratitude, we do what we can to repair the damage we’ve done and do our best to change our lives.
Mercy is the process by which one enters the chaos of another’s life. God’s mercy is the act of God intervening in our lives, not to tell us that everything is OK, but that although things are definitely not OK, we are not abandoned. And just as God does that to us, so are we all called to do that to others.
It strikes me in this time of debate in the Catholic Church, that the question of mercy is critical to understanding the impasse and finding a way forward. The challenge is to steer a reasoned yet compassionate course between severity and cheap grace.
Mercy, and with it what Bonhoeffer calls costly grace, means an honest entry into the chaos, a recognition of the sin, some form of penance and then absolution. In the ancient Church this process reconnected the sinner to the grace of baptism, a baptism damaged or broken by sin and by extension to full communion with the Church.
We need to consider this if we are to take mercy seriously without falling into the traps of cheap grace or compassionless legalism. It is the challenge the whole of Christian moral practice faces. It’s the challenge we face too in our daily lives when dealing with our brokenness or that of others.