28 February, 2020

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer ~

Isaiah 58:1-9; Psalm 51; Matthew 9:14-15

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.




Open our hearts this Lent to the grace of your mercy.


Help us to experience your mercy and help us to show mercy towards our neighbours.




Catholic Parliamentary

Liaison Office

Jesuit Institute
South Africa

This reflection has been adapted from Have Mercy, O Lord! Daily Reflections for Lent by Grant Tungay SJ, Russell Pollitt SJ, Annemarie Paulin-Campbell, Puleng Matsaneng, Anthony Egan SJ and Frances Correia, & published by the Jesuit Institute South Africa in 2016.

Reflection prepared by

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ entered the Society of Jesus in 2005 and underwent the usual course of studies in his formation, which took him to such varied places as Canada, France, Ireland, Kenya, Spain, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Whilst working at the Institute, Matthew managed the background technical aspects of much of the Institute's work and was involved in the Spirituality work, completing the Advanced Spiritual Directors Training Course and the Spiritual Exercises Training run by the Institute. He is a member of Spiritual Directors International and was also a part-time lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is currently the Director of Communications for the Jesuits in Southern Africa, based in Lusaka, Zambia.

m.charlesworth@jesuitinstitute.org.za @mcharlesworth
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