Reflections on Mercy

I’ve been thinking about mercy. It’s a beautiful thing to consider, and God’s mercy is described throughout the Bible, sometimes translated as love, compassion, or pity. It is usually synonymous with forgiveness. Another beautiful word.

Grace and mercy are two sides of the same coin. Grace is when we receive something good that we don’t deserve. Mercy is when we are released from a bad consequence that we do deserve.

As I was thinking, I recalled that mercy is the theme of a famous Shakespeare speech, so I investigated. The play is “The Merchant of Venice”. The merchant’s name is Antonio and he guarantees a loan agreement that his friend makes with a Jewish moneylender called Shylock. A contract is drawn up stating that if the loan is not repaid on time Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. After some merchant ships are lost at sea the loan defaults, and Shylock takes Antonio to court to seek justice. Portia, a wealthy heiress who has promised to marry Antonio’s friend, disguises herself as a lawyer and makes this plea to Shylock:

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

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 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 enthroned 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. 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
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Some critics have suggested that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock is anti-semitic. There are arguments for and against this view, but I don’t want to get into that debate. Instead I think it’s interesting to compare the ‘Old Testament’ ideas of law and justice as demonstrated by Shylock, with the ‘New Testament’ focus on grace and mercy pleaded by Portia.

You can see several scriptural references in this speech:

“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Matthew 5:7 (NIV)

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

“It is an attribute to God himself.”

Daniel 9:9 (NIV)

The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.

“We do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.”

Matthew 6:12 (NIV)

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

King David referred often to God’s mercy in his psalms, for a typical example let’s look at Psalm 6.

Psalm 6 (NIV)

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

I have a problem with some psalms. I find that often they will be 90% spot on with insight into my own hopes, fears, feelings and prayers, and then David will throw in a couple of lines asking for, or promising, revenge and dire consequences for his enemies. I’m uncomfortable with those lines because they don’t seem to line up with Jesus’ instruction to love your enemies. I’m sure that all of us have harboured some small yearning for revenge – or justice – at times. I just don’t like to see it expressed so bluntly in the Bible – and by a man after God’s own heart.

But when I look at scripture in totality, it seems clear to me that God wants to see forgiveness in our hearts, not vengeance. Mercy is one of those gifts that is not only lavished on us from above, but is expected from us in our relationships.

Micah 6:6-8 (NIV)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

But should we expect mercy with ‘no strings attached?’ Is that what God promises us? No.

Proverbs 28:13 (NIV)

Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

The one who confesses and renounces their sins will find mercy. A principle also found in first John:

1 John 1:9 (NIV)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Yet we know, even on a human level, it is possible to forgive someone who hasn’t confessed or repented. We’ve all done it – even non-believers. So is that true forgiveness? Is that real mercy? Or are we deluding ourselves, clothing ourselves in self-righteousness?

Thinking again about The Merchant of Venice, even after Portia pleads for mercy Shylock insists on receiving his justice, and the law cannot deny him. However, Portia then insists that Shylock sticks rigidly to the letter of his contract. He must take flesh, and not blood – if a drop of Christian blood is spilled then all of his goods will be forfeit under the law of Venice. He cannot take any more or less than one pound, or the same penalty will be due. When Shylock finally gives up his claim he is charged with threatening to kill a citizen of Venice and his sentence is death. His life is spared by the Duke, in his mercy.

We can see the parallels in our own lives, as God’s law shows us the depth of our own sin, and justice would demand a death sentence. Yet our lives our spared by the Lord, in His mercy, through the atoning sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.

Titus 3:3-7 (NIV)

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

James 2:8-13 (NIV)

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

So why does He do it? Why does God show us such undeserved mercy? Because He said He would. Because He loves us. Because much of the time we know not what we do. And because He is giving us a reason to show the same mercy to others.

1 Timothy 1:12-16 (NIV)

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.

Amen.

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