Justice is something we get the hang of quite early in life. Children at play seem to have an innate sense of it as evidenced by their oft repeated cry, “That’s not fair!” But catching onto mercy is neither easy nor fashionable. We tend to think of the world in terms of them and us, dominance and vengeance, rather than mercy.
Mercy is resented by those who confuse it with pity. To become an object of pity is to be stripped of dignity and worth. But the mercy of God does not degrade, it transforms.
Mercy is not just a New Testament concept that entered the scene with Jesus. Actually, the word does not appear very often in the New Testament. It is found mostly in the Hebrew Scriptures. You’ll find the word mercy in the Psalms more than anywhere else. It means loving-kindness, God’s goodness and favor toward all people.
The Church has been entrusted with a great treasury of prayers. In that treasury is what is sometimes referred to as “The Jesus Prayer” – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The form we are most familiar with is the Kyrie Eleison, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” The prayer for mercy is always a cry to the heart of God.
But, as I said, people were crying out to the heart of God long before the coming of Jesus Christ, who is God’s incarnate response to the prayer for mercy. They seemed to understand God’s mercy as all-inclusive and universal. For example, consider the words of the Psalmist, “May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations” (Psalm 67:1,2).
So, when you and I pray for God’s mercy, we are joining our voices with God’s people of all ages and stations in a prayer that has universal dimensions.
To pray for mercy is to pray for love, to ask God to provide for us what God knows we need. That is especially true in those times when we don’t know what we need.
In Matthew’s story of Jesus’ enounter with the Cannanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), it is clear that the woman was asking for Jesus to love her daughter back to health. She had no idea what to do and nowhere else to turn.
Pope John Paul II beautifully expressed this understanding of mercy in his 1981 encyclicle, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), where he said, “True mercy is love’s second name.”
God's nature is Love. So, mercy is an expression of the nature of God. It is not dependent upon human initiative or activities but solely upon the divine desire to express Love for God’s human childen. It is the universal Love from which no force in creation can possibly separate us – not even our hatred and judgment of one another, or our own unworthiness.
Since mercy is an expression of God, the mercy shown by us to others would be an expression of the Spirit of God within us. It is still the showing of kindness or favor without regard to the merit of those to whom it is given. If mercy were deserved, it wouldn’t be mercy. If we withhold mercy from another because the other doesn’t deserve it, we have just destroyed mercy, judged the other, and, in effect, claimed that we have earned the mercies we have received. Such conceit and spiritual pride nailed Jesus to the cross.
One of the classic soliloquies of literature is that of Portia in Shakespere’s Merchant of Venice. Shylock claims that the pound of flesh he wants from Antonio is merely the letter of his bond, simple justice. Secretly, his motive is vengeance. In her speech, Portia adds the deeper dimension, that mercy is the seasoning of justice. “The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…Though justice be thy plea, consider this, that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy. And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy” (Act IV, The Merchant of Venice).
So, let us all strive to be merciful, to let the God who has been merciful to us express the very same mercy to others through us. It is the best way to show our gratitude and it is the surest way to open ourselves up to receive even more of God’s mercy. For rendering mercy requires humility and obedience on our part.
Where has God's mercy touched your life and the lives of those dear to you? Where are the boundaries of mercy beyond which you need to move in order to become a greater instrument of God's mercy to others?
What does the Lord require of us? “To love kindness, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).