What bells ring in our heads when we hear the word ‘mercy’? Does it suggest that we are to let people walk over us? Does the word confuse us and leave us uncertain? If we decide to have mercy on someone, is it that we just appear weak in a world that admires only the strong? asks ALAN MOWBRAY SJ
Our culture seems to be gradually forgetting how to show mercy,’ writes Pope Francis in his Jubilee Letter. Secondly, a God full of loving kindness is disappearing behind a cloud of disbelief. What is happening? Could it be due to the violence we hear about on the radio, see on television and read about in the newspapers that slowly makes us insensitive to its real impact? We don’t look easily to mercy when we are looking for redress. We look to the courts or someone to sue. We might aspire to this Christian call of mercy but we must be practical after all!
Gentle but Strong
The famous leader Moses was described as merciful, even gentle. However, he had to be as tough as nails to lead his people from their prison status in Egypt across a desert and into freedom. This story in the Bible shows that a merciful person also has a strong character and a clear goal.
Our culture prizes the winner and has little sympathy for the loser. Our culture admires the hero in sports, in film and in marathons. The typical business person comes across as successful but is hardly perceived as merciful - the list is endless! So, naturally, we grow up to imitate the hero. It follows that we are conditioned to aim for power and profit and success in our own lives too.
Meaning of Mercy?
One way to answer that question is to return to the original meaning of the word ‘merciful.’ Well, it means an attitude of loving kindness. The Hebrew word is hesed meaning being patient, merciful, generous, unfailing in love and compassion, which is the best description of who God is. God is summed up in the phrase 'loving kindness'. This is what God is all about. He does not give up on us ever!
Another way to grasp loving kindness is to watch Jesus at work with people. A second insight comes in the parables he told. Both are keys to the Lord’s thoughts. Think of the story that shows the father on tip toes waiting to welcome back his errant son. The father’s unfailing love is clear. Another story tells of the traveller who binds the wounds of an assaulted person and carries him to a safe inn. The Lord loved loving kindness and constantly spoke about it and showed it in action by healing the blind, the deaf and the mute so that they would tell of this loving kindness everywhere they went.
He liked to contrast it with the opposite attitude that he noticed in the behaviour of the Pharisees - he authorities of his day. These were the very people who tried to undermine his own teaching. He called them 'whited sepulchres' – people who said one thing but did the opposite. He reserved such comments for the Temple authorities who ignored the sick and the poor, even to the extent of keeping them away from the Temple, saying they were 'unclean' and should not enter their Temple.
We can remember the parable of a man who was left lying for dead on the road. Who passes by unheeding? Yes, you have guessed it. It is the Pharisee. But who is full of loving kindness? The Good Samaritan who binds up his wounds. The contrast is vivid!
Face of the Church
The Church is truly authentic when speaking about this loving kindness,’ says Francis our Pope in his Jubilee Letter. ‘The Church is authentic when being a servant to the world with this love and kindness. So many men, women and youngsters are trapped in unjust situations without hope. The Church needs to stand for a hope that offers people a God of loving-kindness, who welcomes, heals and loves. The people of God are called to go beyond the comfort of justice since justice only mirrors their present world’s values. The Church is not here to echo contemporary values of power, profit and privilege. 'The walls that had made the Church a kind of fortress have been torn down and the time to proclaim the Good News in a new way has come’.
It is highly likely that we have met someone who struck us as being full of this loving kindness - a nan, a grandpa or a friend. We resonated with them. They are Christians for today, witnesses, and signs of loving-kindness. Look around! There are among our contemporaries, generous people, caring people - people who take up the challenge of going on pilgrimage to accompany the sick, clearly giving of their time, their finances, and their effort to build a supportive community for the vulnerable.
‘God, who Reveal your Power above all in Your Merciful Gesture of Forgiveness’
Normally, we associate power with politics, armies and having great influence. Putting ourselves in the shoes of the vulnerable and grasping the world from their viewpoint is a first step towards loving-kindness. Feet on the ground are better than eyes in a book. We prize young adults going abroad to build shattered communities with Concern or Trocaire. We admire Students in our schools who give time to serve others. We mostly are unaware of nurses and carers who look after elderly people. We can list many others.
A strange thing happens! The volunteers are naturally filled with generosity and see themselves making a difference to our world but once they are working with vulnerable people they find that actually the experience changes them. They come to value those who have little value in the eyes of the world and they uncover their true value. Now a strange thing happens: the volunteers see how much they themselves are respected and loved and valued by those they help. It is not one-way, but two-way traffic.
Loving- kindness works both ways!
In his Letter Francis says that this loving- kindness is not only the best way of seeing who God truly is but is also a touchstone for who God’s children truly are.