Mercy is the Problem

During my undergraduate days at The Catholic University of America, I was very fortunate to take an upper level christology course, “Jesus as the Christ,” from William Loewe, ordinary  professor of historical and systematic theology. The course has stayed with me all these years since, even into my own doctoral studies.

In one of the most salient components of this course Loewe summarized the gospel of Jesus into five characteristics or behaviors. By these five behaviors Jesus teaches what all who claim the name, “Christian,” ought to emulate. They are at the heart of all the gospel teachings. The characteristics are: to love, to forgive, to be merciful, to give, and not to judge. These five core behaviors form the expectations that follow from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6. The hastening of the Reign of God depends on a sincere and authentic embrace of living these behaviors.

All believers are familiar with these behaviors. They form the foundation that builds and enacts Christian life. Arranging them for this post in a purposeful order places the behavior of mercy in relationship with the behaviors on either side. And yet, while all these characteristics possess particular challenges and difficulties in efficaciously living them out,  it is the behavior of being merciful, which presents the most difficulty.

Why? Well, I think it may be because we have yet to understood fully what makes Jesus’ use of mercy both radical and transformative. Even the ancients knew of the practice of mercy. The word is used today in so many ways and in so many contexts, even in the practice of our life of faith, but is it consistent with its use by Jesus?

“Mercy,” in common exchange, has two analogues. One, it references compassion shown to another. Two, it refers to the avoidance of punishment. In the former it is an act of kindness, a connection of support or assistance to another. In the latter, it is to act in a manner that withholds something cruel or malevolent. Mercy experienced in this way is relief, and usually comes as a result of strident appealing, petitioning, or beseeching another. In a worse manner, a possible consequence of the latter reference to mercy can place the petitioner in a subservient relationship to one the who has shown them mercy. They are now indebted to the agent of mercy, and not in a healthy way. They are the recipients of abject pity , which relationships might become dysfunctional quickly.

Much of our liturgical language on mercy, though, evolved to express more the second concept of mercy. The translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal gave wide latitude to expressions in this manner. We implore God’s mercy through our prayer texts and within our sacramental celebrations. We fall upon God’s mercy to avoid punishment for our sins, only to return committing them again and again. Have our lives been transformed by what we experience or are we merely postponing eternal castigation? Is this the type of mercy about which Jesus speaks in the gospel? In the Sermon on the Plain is Jesus telling us to be merciful so as to avoid retribution or to hold something over each other’s heads? Or is it just “the random act of human kindness” that Jesus encourages among his disciples?

Jesus’ mission was not to condemn, to castigate, to denounce those who struggled in and with life. Nor was it just the promotion of good deed doing. The mercy Jesus calls his disciples (and us) to embrace is neither one of avoiding worse threats of punishment nor of treating one another with fleeting kindness when it seems appropriate. Remember, as Jesus said, “Sinners do the same.” No, the engagement with mercy was more profound and exceptional.

Mercy as the gospel understands it is the knowledge and understanding of one another that each human being is tasked with discovering. It is the knowledge of who and what we are; why we act and respond as we do; what makes us “tick.” It is the product of investing time and earnest effort into the webs of relationships, however great or small, we form as we journey though life.

It is expressed in the way the woman caught in adultery is given another way to see herself; the Samaritan woman is given new hope; Zacchaeus is brought back to his community; the Prodigal is found; and Peter is reconciled after his betrayal. Just a few examples of “gospel mercy” at work.

In literature a powerful expression of gospel mercy is found in Lorraine Hansberry’s, A Raisin in the Sun. In Act III, Walter looses money, which could have been used for a better life for his family, and earns his sister Beneatha’s anger and disgust. Mama tries to heal the discord by reminding Beneatha to love her brother, to which Beneatha responds, “There is nothing left to love.” Mama then explains the true meaning of “mercy.”

“There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and the family ’cause we lost the money. I mean for him; what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most; when they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning — because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so. When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

Mercy is the act of measuring out love, which action knows no terminus. Mercy is constant. Mercy measures in the hope of transformation, because the act of mercy reminds us “there is always something left to love.” Our liturgy is chock full of mercy because it is the experience, not of us imploring God to be merciful, but rather of us recognizing that God is merciful because God knows the creation God has brought forth — reminding us always that there is something about us to love.

Without gospel mercy, all we have is a God of exacting demands, who rules by legalism and a distorted moralism; one with whom there is no hope. It is a God who more resembles us in our limited, ego-driven approaches to life, than the God who constantly turns our expectations and analyses upon their heads.

This is why mercy is the problem. To “be merciful” as Jesus implores us, to engage in gospel mercy —  divine mercy in fact! — means we must take the time, the energy, the inconvenience of trying to understand and feel for each other’s hills and valleys. ALL of each other’s hills and valleys! The great act of empathy, which Jesus exhibited again and again in transforming the lives of others. The prospect is exhausting to say the least. And with our very busy lives and responsibilities, who really has the time? And so we react, rather than learn. Allowing a mediocre assessment of the present determine our past and our future.

Yes, mercy is the problem, but what a problem it can be for those who believe. A problem that challenges a world where snap judgments, condemnation, and vengeance appear all too prevalent. Where a personal desire to be always right and to protect a reality that may not be real at all tramples a commitment to genuinely understand and receive one another.

Liturgy challenges us with mercy. Without mercy, without the desire to know and to empathize with one another, it is impossible to love or to forgive, to give of ourselves or to remember that judgment is God’s domain alone. The challenge is always to know ourselves, to know one another, and to know God. Each pursuit involves a receding horizon, a taxing pursuit, filled with complexities and complications. But if we fail to take up Christ’s dare to wrestle with the problem of gospel mercy, we may forfeit any chance of embracing fully what it means to be human.

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