The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. – William Shakespeare (1564-1616) from The Merchant of Venice (1605)
As a teenager I memorized the entire “quality of mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice. Portia’s plea to a bitter man for mercy is one of the most significant pieces of literature ever written, and I quote about half of it here because it explains the value of mercy better than I ever could. Please read this week’s header and footer together. Then let’s look at how showing mercy is urged upon us in the Gospel teachings of Jesus, and let’s also look at some of the ways in which mercy is central to making easier and more joyous the course of our lives on earth.
Jesus makes mercy one of the bases for His central teachings on love and forgiveness. Indeed, mercy is so much a primary grounding of our ability to grow spiritually that it is not an exaggeration to say that unless we learn to practice mercy, we will find it much harder to grow spiritually. Here are the primary areas of the Lord’s Gospel teachings on mercy:
Mercy is a gift to the receiver that redounds to the giver. Portia says, “It is twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (MT 5:7).
Mercy is an important grounding that enables us to live in harmony with others. Portia’s way of putting this is to say of mercy, “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” Jesus illustrates His wish that we be merciful with His parable of the Good Samaritan. He ends it by saying, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?”His listener says, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Jesus says, “Go and do the same” (LK 10:36-38). Jesus makes a lack of mercy shown by religious leaders reason enough for Him to condemn them. He says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (MT 23:23).
Mercy is a core characteristic of the Godhead. As Portia says, “It is an attribute to God himself; and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.” And Jesus tells a man from whom He has cast out demons, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you” (MK 5:19).
Mercy lies at the heart of justice. Portia says, “’T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.” And Jesus tells a parable about a slave whose master forgives his debt because the slave begs for mercy. The forgiven slave then demands that his fellow slave repay a debt to him. The outraged master says, ‘”You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave?” The master punishes the miscreant, and Jesus adds, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart” (MT 18:32-35).
So, what does the word “mercy” mean, anyway? The best definition for our purposes seems to be “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” Until recently, showing mercy to others seemed to me to be a nicety, a classier way to deal with people, an aid to greasing the wheels of life. I thought it had to be used selectively. If you keep letting people do bad things to you without any consequence to them, don’t you risk becoming a doormat? It astonishes me now to realize how long I held the view that our mercy must be limited! I never until recently thought about the fact that mercy is the first cousin to forgiveness. Indeed, it may be reasonable to say that unless you make a habit of being merciful, you cannot ever really learn to forgive.
But it also is essential to bear in mind the fact that even though they come from similar mindsets and are similar in effect, mercy and forgiveness are not the same! Jesus urges us to practice mercy in our daily lives, as is noted in the Gospel quotations above. He wants us to be merciful, but He commands that we forgive. He tells us that forgiveness is essential to our obeying God’s primary command, which is that we loveuniversally and withoutreservation.
We cannot state God’s Law of Love often enough! When someone asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment, He doesn’t name any of the Ten Commandments. Instead He says, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (MT 22:37-40). And the Lord makes it abundantly clear that in order to love our fellow man, we must forgive completely every time and no matter what is done to us. We must not even resist pure evil! Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also” (MT 5:38-40). And when Peter asks Him whether we really have to keep forgiving the same awful things done by the same awful people as many as seven times in a row, Jesus says, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (MT 18:21-23).
This is radical stuff! And Jesus insists on it. His teachings suggest that unless we learn to forgive to this extreme extent, we cannot learn to love in the transformative way that God’s Law insists we must love.
Forgiveness is a primary command from God, while mercy is meant to soften our hearts. Perhaps it is Spiritual Growth 101. Establishing a habit of mercy seems to prime our minds and make easier our development of such a radical forgiveness practice that learning prevenient forgiveness is easier. Even though it is not commanded of us, we find that mercy, like gratitude and empathy, can assist us in re-setting our minds for more rapid spiritual growth to come.
Mercy is easier to theorize about than it can be to put into use. Unlike practicing prevenient forgiveness, which soon becomes automatic, being merciful requires that before we act in any situation, we must first pause and think in a complex way about the people involved and the likeliest outcomes of whatever we might decide to do. Here are three quick examples:
Building mercy into our daily lives. I have a wealthy friend living in a rural area who was often making small emergency loans that some of the borrowers could not repay. This could lead to awkward estrangements from some who were embarrassed about their outstanding loans, so she has instituted a new policy. Now she refuses to lend, but if someone needs money she often makes an outright gift. She then adds, “If you find someone who needs your help, please offer your help.” Try to pay it forward. She keeps no records and she never asks, but now people often tell her about this or that gift of time or talent they have made with her in mind. Now she no longer risks losing friends over what to her are minor sums, and many more people are being helped!
Showing mercy in deeply negative situations. Two weeks ago, one of the most beloved bookstores in the United States burned down. Not far away, a landmark business that employed fifty people also burned. Target, CVS, Walgreen’s, and Wal-Mart stores burned, as did most local grocery stores. Reportedly, the proprietors of most of those businesses have no plans to rebuild. If the rioters had given some thought to the people who lived in the neighborhoods they were burning, surely they would have shown some mercy toward the businesses at the core of their community life!
Working for general public mercy. The United States holds less than 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. The incarceration rate for American blacks is seven times the rate for whites, even though most of those imprisoned are not a danger to society. One in 87 working-age white men is in prison, vs. one in twelve African-American men. Among 20- to 34-year-old black men who have not completed high school, more are in prison than are employed (37% in prison vs. 26% employed). More than 97% of these prisoners did not have a trial before they were sentenced to prison. Nearly all will lose their civil rights for life. As a result of this situation, many black children grow up fatherless; and thanks to what is called “the school-to-prison pipeline,” a lot of those children will follow their fathers into prison. This complex problem can be solved if enough of us will work together and have mercy on a long-suffering community whose members need our help if they are ever to prosper.
Exercising creative daily mercy in situations large and small is a simple way for us to begin to lighten ourselves spiritually. And for us to show mercy tends to make all of those around us more merciful, too. So not only does showing mercy become a habit that helps us work toward learning prevenient forgiveness, but also in countless ways it lightens the burden of negativity on us all.
Next week let’s look at how we might extend some creative community mercy and start to solve America’s most intractable problem….
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown. His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings. But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. – William Shakespeare (1564-1616) from The Merchant of Venice (1605)
Cut-leaf maple photo credit: Bruce Irschick <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/82869520@N00/5119129356″>Cut-leaf Maple (2010)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>
Red fall garden photo credit: Patrick Vierthaler <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/74399113@N07/45375561192″>Toji-in 等持院</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>
Red tree with water photo credit: Vicki’s Nature <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/7327719@N06/45747300472″>Monet’s bridge @ Gibbs Gardens – 2 days ago</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>
Red and green photo credit: docoverachiever <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/90692748@N04/31729991558″>Garden Reds</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>
Tranquility Scene photo credit: Jitabebe <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/43807964@N05/8137816148″>Tranquillity</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>
Stone angel photo credit: Stanley Zimny (Thank You for 49 Million views) <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/82256086@N00/44154298250″>Art in Fall</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>
You can find Roberta’s radio show and podcast posted freshly each Monday on Webtalkradio.net. If there is any guest you would like her to interview, or anything you hope she will talk about, please send your suggestions via the Contact block!