The Quality of Mercy

SJF • Proper 5a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
Mercy is one of those words which we hear very frequently, but which I fear we do not always quite understand in all of its fulness. At its simplest, I’m sure most of us think of mercy, or being merciful, in terms of letting someone off the hook, not punishing someone for something they’ve done — what the courts call leniency. But mercy of this sort, the lenient sort, usually tells us more about the one who is let off the hook than about the person who is lenient. The reasons for mercy have their origin not in the quality of the one who is merciful, but with the nature of the crime, or the mitigating circumstances surrounding it. The poor woman who stole the loaf of bread because her children were starving is given a job instead of a prison sentence; or the criminal who has to care for his elderly mother is given a reduced punishment. These examples do show us that the judge is not callous or unfeeling, but the focus is on the needs of the one to whom mercy is shown.

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What about the one who shows mercy? What is mercy like in and of itself? One clue is in our reading from Hosea, which Jesus quotes at the end of our Gospel today. You’ll note that the translators of the New Revised Standard Version from which we take our readings chose the phrase “steadfast love” for the Hosea text, and “mercy” for the Gospel text, to translate the very same concept. And this is an important clue for a fuller understanding of the nature of mercy — especially as the Jewish people understood it. We Christians need constant reminders that Jesus was a Jew, born and raised in a Jewish household, as a child and man growing up in a Jewish culture.

The Jewishness of Jesus is important because our present day concept of mercy comes more from the Romans than from the Jewish or even the Christian tradition — from Roman culture and Roman law, and the Roman language, Latin. in which the word for mercy is misericordia. Some of us here remember when Our Lady of Mercy Hospital up to the north of us went by that name! It tells us how the Romans felt about this concept. For the Romans’ word for mercy means, literally, heart-pain. It is not far off from the similar Roman concept of compassion — suffering-with. So for the Romans mercy is basically about feeling bad for someone, having a heart-ache for somebody, knowing how they feel, and taking the matter to heart. This is the mercy and compassion, the misericorida and compassio of “misery loves company.” And surely this kind of soft-heartedness has its place; surely we are called to feel sorrow for those who suffer pain — even when the pain is self-inflicted. None of us likes to hear, “What a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into!” And if we are to do as we would be done by, we will allow our hearts to be touched by suffering, even when we might be tempted to be judgmental instead: for we shall all be judged with the judgment we give, and be forgiven even as we forgive.

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But there is even more to the idea of mercy than this Latin view suggests. The older Jewish concept is steadfast love, which gets translated as “mercy” once the Romans get hold of it. This is about — not less — but more than feelings, more than soft-heartedness or compassion or sympathy. Steadfast love sets that false cliché from the book and movie Love Story, on its head: real love means not less, but far far more than having to say you’re sorry, or feeling sorry for someone else. That kind of mercy is good as far as it goes, but it often doesn’t often go far enough! The true steadfast love that God shows always goes the limit — that’s the steadfast part; and it is always loving — which as we know from the teaching of Jesus is intimately bound up with the very nature of God. As the Psalm says, “the steadfast love of God never ceases.” Steadfast love is as much beyond mere soft-heartedness as the power and love of God is beyond mere human capacity.

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We have just such a comparison in the passage from Hosea this morning. The people who erred and strayed from God’s ways acknowledge their guilt, and promise to return to the Lord. After all, they say, God’s mercy never ceases; God is as reliable as the spring rains! And God picks up this weather-reporter’s metaphor and responds that the Israelite’s love is like a morning cloud, like dew that evaporates even as the sun comes up, unreliable and transitory. God, Hosea assures us, does not want such transitory fly-by-night and gone-by-day love. God is not interested in a one-night stand! God wants his people to show him the same steadfast love that he shows them. When God pours out his showers of love, what does he ask in return? A morning mist, an evaporating cloud? No: as another prophet, Amos, said, God wants justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. Hosea and Amos both maintain that God is not interested in sacrifices — no amount of burnt offerings can weigh in the scale as much as steadfast love, enduring love, a merciful heart that not only feels the pangs of another’s suffering, but moves out to help and lift up those who suffer. The mercy of God, the steadfast love of God, or — as Coverdale translated this same word for his English Bible, in the form still preserved in the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer, the “loving-
kindness” of God — does not simply weigh the victim and find him pitiful, does not simply feel sorry in a pang of the heart, but stoops down to lift up the fallen, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and visit the sick and the prisoner. The steadfast love, the mercy of God, binds up all wounds and brings healing and restoration.

And it does so out of a deep sense of relationship and covenant: the love of God for humanity is portrayed throughout the scripture in the image of a spouse caring for his beloved. God’s love for us is steadfast not simply because we may be miserable and God is merciful, but because God is faithful and true and enduring — and because, as I reminded us on Trinity Sunday, we are made in God’s image, and so capable of loving God in return. Mercy, steadfast love, is thus a double blessing.

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The greatest English poet wrote of mercy using just such language. It is not hard to imagine that Shakespeare had in mind this passage from Hosea, and indeed the incident from the Gospel, when he wrote the Merchant of Venice. You may recall that the main character, the Jewish merchant Shylock,isout for vengeance. He is a wounded man, a wronged man, but he is incapable of getting past his own hurts to understand the hurt of others. He hardens his heart, much as the Pharisees portrayed in our Gospel, apparently unable to understand generosity in others, or show mercy himself. As the court gathers to render judgment, Portia, disguised as a young attorney, appeals for mercy in these famous words:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
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:
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The thronèd 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 pow’r doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
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
deeds of mercy.

This was Portia’s appeal to Shylock, and it is the appeal that Jesus made to the Pharisees, when they saw him break the rules and eat with sinners. He was showing them the power of God to forgive, and inviting them to do the same. Those who think themselves righteous, those unaware they too are “standing the need of prayer” — in short, those who have forgotten or ignored the mercy and steadfast love shown to them, and hence are unable to show mercy or forgiveness or steadfast love to others — will not enter the banquet, not because they have been excluded or kept out, but because they will not come in; they will not sit with those they condemn even though God himself is there with them.

For God came to show his mercy, to show his steadfast love. He came to lift the fallen, to bring the healing of forgiveness to those who, sick with sin, had come to think of themselves as beyond cure, beyond hope, beyond redemption. This, my friends, is the mercy and the steadfast love of God, from which we have all benefitted, and which we are all, each of us, invited to share. May we, this day and always, rejoice that God has saved us through his steadfast love, and showing thanks and love in return, spread the Gospel of his mercy to the ends of the earth.+