It is still the Year of Mercy and with only a few more months to go, it would be good for each of us to consider where we are at in our spiritual commitment to being "merciful as God is merciful". Here at St. George Catholic Church, we have been talking in our weeknight study time about the precepts of the Church. No, there is not a precept to "be merciful", but I want us to ask ourselves the pertinent question about how mercy relates to the precepts. After all, the precepts are pretty clear requirements, and most people do not think of it as a merciful thing when you are told what to do.
So then, I will ask the question: are the precepts (in themselves) merciful? The answer to that will depend largely on how you view mercy. Does mercy mean always giving in to someone else's desires and letting them have what they want? Does mercy mean ignoring someone's sin and never confronting them about their bad behavior? Or rather, does mercy mean helping someone to move away from his sin, and guiding them to find the mercy of God in eternity? How can we call it "mercy" if the final result of our actions is a person's suffering and misery? We have to think beyond the present moment and consider the eternal in everything we do (this is especially important for parents to think about in how they discipline their children!). Ignoring sin, is never merciful.
Take note, you cannot dismiss the precepts (or any requirements that the Church puts upon us) merely by contrasting "mercy" with "canon law" (as though canon law is always and automatically a heartless venture). This type of reasoning (though common today) is actually the habit of those who do not understand mercy (or canon law). Martin Luther tried to make a contrast between law and grace (as though the two could never meet), and we all know where that led him; heresy, divisiveness and excommunication.
Imagine with me, for a moment, that you are eating a meal with someone and you happen to notice that there is ground glass in his food. Now you have a choice: tell him, or not. If you tell him, he may take it wrong--he could think it is a joke; he could assume that you are trying to steal his food; he may even think that you put it there. On the other hand, you could avoid telling him--after all, it is his favorite food, and it would be so sad for him to have to give it up. Which would be the merciful thing to do? The common trend of choosing the path of least resistance will likely lead to his death--how could we call that merciful?
The precepts are given for the sake of telling us about those things that will harm us (like in the illustration above). They are given so that we can know what is good for our souls, and what the "bare minimum" is in our spirituality. That is not a cruel or demanding thing in any way at all. It is, rather, a merciful and loving act of the Church to tell us what is necessary for our spiritual good. Therefore, it is necessary for us to see the precepts as the merciful guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church for the good of the members of the Church. Any other perspective is selfish and, we would have to say, spiritually deadly.
Let us, then, give thanks to God for the Holy Spirit's guidance of the Church to give us such wonderful directives as the five precepts. Let us appreciate that we can know just what things are for our spiritual good, and also where the "minimum" is in our participation of these things. Then, once we can see the precepts as the blessings that they are, let us, together, seek to move beyond the minimum, and become, instead, "two mile" Catholics, instead of those who are only willing to go "one mile".