Sheldon Vanauken, a master of the English language, wrote an autobiography called A Severe Mercy, about the premature death of his wife. The name comes from one of the many letters in the book from his friend C.S. Lewis. It is the only book that has ever made me weep, and I recommend you read it.
But Scripture is better. Last Sunday’s readings give us a deeper insight into the severity of God’s mercy, the Cross that is united to our healing.
The Old Testament reading was the repentance of David, after his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah.
The first thing to notice is that the Psalm that follows is not Psalm 51, which David seems to have composed to express this repentance. It doesn’t need to be Psalm 51, because the repentance that Psalm expresses is not rare. Repentance is everywhere in the Bible.
In the story itself, God threatens David: “Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have looked down on me.” It is this threat that evokes David’s repentance: “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’”
But you might have noticed that the reading skips some verses: “2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13.” In verses 11 and 12, the threats go deeper: God threatens to give David’s wives to adulterers, to treat him as he has treated others. And in the verses immediately after, despite David’s repentance and God’s forgiveness – “Nathan answered David, ‘The Lord on his part has forgiven his sins, you shall not die’” – nevertheless, God does punish David by the death of the son he has conceived with Bathsheba, and David is so upset that his servants fear “he might do himself harm.”
David repents, but sin has consequences.
We can think of the consequences as God’s choices: God does not want us to take sin lightly – and, more important, he does not want us to take his mercy lightly – so he shows us the depravity of sin.
But we can also think of them as natural (and so as a deeper form of God’s providence). Sin does have consequences. When we act against marriage and the family, it takes no special act of God to harm our families. It is David himself who has brought the punishment.
Sin is horrible. That’s why God wants to save us from it: because it is the reverse of the goodness he wants to show us. God didn’t hurt David’s child, David did. God made marriage and family, David unmade it.
That’s what it means when God so often punishes “even unto the third and fourth generation”: our sin itself has repercussions that hurt ourselves and our families, for a long time. That’s why God wants to save us from sin. That’s how good God is.
In the reading from Galatians, Paul tells us we are “not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” (I pray that, now that the Magisterium has restored readings in the vernacular, we will rediscover this message.)
Goodness is God’s creation. God alone made marriage and family, and God alone makes us able to live it. Alone, we only unmake things.
But St. Paul goes further. “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me. I live by faith in the Son of God, who has loved me and given himself up for me.”
Sin has negative consequences – and Christ has joined us in those negative consequences. He has taken on the “punishment” – the inherent pain – that comes from sin.
And so we are not alone. We can rise again because those punishments themselves can become the place where we rediscover the good we have lost. Christ does not unmake the punishment of sin, he redeems it. As we experience the horror of sin, he fills us with his love – because he is there, with us in the fiery furnace.
The Gospel is the sinful woman who anoints Christ’s feet with an alabaster flask of ointment.
The Pharisee thinks, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”
But Christ does know. He knows.
Jesus says that the sinner “whose larger debt was forgiven” will love him more. He knows that her debt becomes a path to union, when she does her best to repay it. The ointment is costly. Her sin costs her.
But deeper than repayment, “she wept.” Elsewhere we read that “Jesus wept.”
It is not in turning away from the pain that we find God, but in the hurt itself.
Where are you experiencing the punishment of sin? How could you make that hurt a path of love?