Just to demonstrate for you just what a schlocky and sentimentalizing sort of fellow I am, let me tell you about one of my favorite movie moments: the depiction, by Franco Zeffirelli, of the telling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in the movie Jesus of Nazareth. If you have never seen that movie, I would recommend it to you, even though it is about as kitchy as they get. But I love it anyway, and this particular episode literally moves me to tears every time I watch it.
There are two things that I like about that particular episode. One is the Parable itself, which has got to be my all time favorite Dominical parable. The other is the setting and the denouement as presented by Zeffirelli. Peter has refused to go to dinner with Jesus at the house of Matthew the tax collector, because tax collectors are "sinners". It is not so much that Matthew does horrible, sinful things all the time, rather, the mere fact of being a tax collector incurred ritual impurity for the Jews and this particular sort of ritual impurity was viewed as voluntary and, hence, sinful. Now Our Lord, famously, taught that ritual impurity, when properly understood, was a sign of something else, namely an inner impurity. It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, he said, but what is in the heart. So Peter is standing outside of Matthew's house looking in and wondering why Jesus would sit down and party with sinners, and Jesus sees him out there looking in, and it is then that he tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As he gets to the part where the Prodigal realizes his sin and heads home, Jesus starts looking out at Peter. As Jesus utters the words of the Father, "My son was lost, but now he is found; he was dead, and now he is alive", his eyes are fixed on Peter's, and Peter is slowly getting the point. When the Parable is over, he literally stumbles into Matthews house, and walks up to Jesus and says, "Forgive me, Lord, I'm just a stupid man." Matthew, too, is moved: he watches Peter coming into his house and understands full well what it means to everyone there, and he is clearly grateful. Even now I'm getting a little verklempt just writing about it.
Now, in the Gospel of Luke, where this Parable is to be found, there are no such picturesque details available. All we are told is that "the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'" From this it is rather difficult to extrapolate anything about the relationship between Peter and Matthew, regardless of what claims I might want to make about the authority of my private judgment regarding the plain meaning of Scripture, but I'm going to pretend that Zeffirelli's version is at least not heretical, and is in some ways quite useful.
What's interesting about this episode as told by Zeffirelli from a theological point of view is the difference between Matthew and, say, some of the other sinners with whom Jesus had dealings. Of the others, there seem to be at least two kinds. One kind is the repentant sinner, whom Jesus always treats with mercy and kindness, telling them that their sins are forgiven or even, in one of the most dramatic moments in the Gospel, that they will be with him in paradise that very day. The other kind is the unrepentant sinner, the Scribes and Pharisees whom he calls "vipers" and "corrupt generations" and, famously, the moneychangers whom he drives from the Temple in a rather spectacular fashion.
And then there is Matthew--or, if you prefer, the unnamed sinners and tax collectors of Luke 15. He is a sinner in only a technical sense, the sense in which it is sinful to voluntarily choose to be a tax collector for the Romans. In Our Lord's more important sense, he seems not to be a sinner: he avers as to how he is honest in his dealings with men, and if someone points out a mistake he has made, he repays the wronged party with interest. To the extent that he defends himself in this way he appears to be an unrepentant sinner. Unrepentant in the sense that he defends his way of life, but a sinner in the technical sense that he has voluntarily chosen the outward manifestation of ritual impurity. Although he is unrepentant, however, Jesus treats him with mercy, telling him a story that is clearly intended to save him, but not told with whips or biting words. I believe that this is because Jesus sees that the ritual impurity in this particular case is not like the real impurity of the hard-hearted Scribes and Pharisees. If the Zeffirelli episode is too far away from the actual text for your comfort, just transpose things to the Gospel of John and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. She too seems unrepentant in a certain sense, though she does ask the Lord to give her "this water", which I believe we may interpret as a request for the Christ to satisfy her thirst for everlasting life, clearly a metaphor for the final end of man.
Suppose it is not unreasonable to view Zeffirelli's Matthew, or John's woman at the well, as people who are, in a sense, in a kind of transition. They aren't exactly on their knees beating their breasts, but they are clearly open to the Word. I'm interested in the possibility that Jesus can be seen as showing mercy even before full repentance, on the grounds that he knows that repentance is coming (note that to show mercy is not yet to say that sins are forgiven; indeed, the showing of mercy is usually itself portrayed as a vehicle for the act of forgiveness itself: when Jesus is "moved with pity" and then heals a sick person, the healing touch is a metaphor for the act of mercy, and the healing of the illness is a metaphor for the forgiveness of sin). Even in the Parable of the Prodigal, the Father is portrayed as seeing his son returning from afar off. That suggests that the Father was already looking for him to return, wanting him to turn back and waiting for him to do so. That kind of mercy is, perhaps, only the Father's to give, because only he can know such things with certainty.
We cannot know such things with anything like certainty, so I think it is up to us to be merciful by default, on the grounds that to be merciful to someone who does not deserve mercy is a charitable error, whereas to refuse mercy to someone who does deserve it is a sin against charity, and one of the worst at that. It is up to God to condemn, for justice is his. Ours is to have faith, to hope, and be charitable even when we are uncertain as to the final state of repentance in a particular person.
Now imagine a specific application involving beliefs and belief-ascriptions based on words uttered. Suppose someone says something that you believe to be wrong and hurtful to someone whom you like. On the one hand, you probably ought to have some righteous anger if there really was a hurtful statement that was not, in fact, true, but suppose the person who said the hurtful thing believed it to be true. Indeed, let us suppose that it is true, and you just don't know that it is true. You may still find that you are angry, I suppose, since you will feel defensive towards your friend, and you may not believe the statements to be true, or you may believe that whether or not the statement was true it ought to have been phrased more charitably. In a case such as this, it may not be a bad idea to proceed as Our Lord did in the case of Matthew and the woman at the well. Assume that the person meant well but just did not proceed as we ourselves would choose to proceed.
Now imagine a different sort of case, where someone is saying something really wrong and hurtful, though he does not believe it to be either wrong or hurtful. Suppose that this person says these wrong and hurtful things many times, always believing them to be neither wrong nor hurtful in spite of the fact that people are telling him that he is saying things that they find wrong and hurtful. His defense, let us say, is that it is not reasonable to feel wronged or hurt by statements that are not wrong or hurtful but rather, as he believes, simply true.
Do these two cases differ? Would "showing mercy" to these two people be the same in each case, or would it be reasonable to treat the one person one way, and the other person a different way?