What Is the True Meaning of Mercy?
The world seems to be witnessing increasing levels of violence, fear and hatred that challenge us each day. There are ongoing debates about how or whether to welcome immigrants and refugees to the United States; news headlines remind us about the plight of Syria and about the horrors of the Islamic State.
In such times, talk about mercy may seem more like wishful thinking. But mercy matters – now more than ever.
The extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis ended in November 2016. Pope Francis has encouraged President Donald Trump to draw upon “the rich spiritual and ethical values that have shaped the history of the American people.”
I recently wrote about mercy in a book, “Mercy Matters: Opening Yourself to the Life Changing Gift.” Mercy has touched my life in many ways – such as in my recovery from alcoholism and through my experiences as an adopted child. So, to me, mercy is a “love that responds to human need in an unexpected or unmerited way.”
At its core, mercy is forgiveness. The Bible speaks of God’s love for sinners – that is, for all of us. But the Bible also relates mercy to other qualities beyond love and forgiveness.
So, how can we begin to understand the true meaning of mercy?
Mercy in the Hebrew Bible
Christians usually understand the “Hebrew Bible” as the “Old Testament,” which is replaced by the “New Testament” of Jesus Christ as found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
How Christianity has interpreted the Hebrew Bible, often not fully appreciating its Jewish context, continues to be a matter of scholarly debate. But many Christians see connections between themes expressed in the “Old Testament” and Christ’s later teachings about the importance of mercy.
In the Hebrew Bible, there is a cluster of related words that are often translated as “mercy,” depending upon where they appear in the text. There is “ahavah,” which refers to God’s enduring love for Israel, much like the love between husband and wife. Then there is “Rachamim,” which comes from the root word “rechem,” or womb, and therefore might be more literally understood as suggesting a “maternal connection” between God and human beings.
“Chesed,” the word translated as “mercy” in this verse, additionally suggests God’s quality of “steadfast loyalty.” The psalm thus relates steadfastness and mercy with “truth” – in Hebrew “emet”– which means behaving ethically and being faithful to God’s will.
Mercy in the Christian gospels
A point of connection between the Jewish and Christian traditions is what is called the “Great Hallel.” Hallel means “praise” and refers to a group of psalms regularly recited at the time of the new moon as well as during important Jewish feasts like Tabernacles or Sukkot, which commemorates the period the Jewish people spent in the desert on their journey to the Promised Land.
The great Hallel is the refrain of Psalm 136 that celebrates how God’s “mercy endures forever.” Some scholars believe Jesus sang the Great Hallel with his disciples when they went out to the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper, the final meal that he shared with his Apostles before his crucifixion.
Mercy sets the context for many of Jesus’ teachings. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the story of the “unmerciful servant” who has his own debt wiped away but refuses to forgive another servant who only owed him a few cents.
The story teaches us that we need to forgive others, because we have been forgiven ourselves.
Jesus as the face of mercy
Also in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to understand the meaning of the phrase:
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Perhaps most significantly for Christians, Jesus shows us what it means to be merciful: He healed the sick, welcomed the stranger and pardoned those who persecuted and killed him.
As Pope Francis tells us in Misericordiae Vultus, his letter introducing the Holy Year of Mercy, Jesus’ mercy is not abstract but “visceral” – it’s something that quite literally changes us from the inside out.
And Christians believe that this visceral aspect of mercy comes in the personal relationship Jesus promises to all of us: a relationship based on forgiveness and love, reconciliation and truth. As Pope Francis writes in the very first sentence of Misericordiae Vultus,
“Jesus Christ is the face of God’s mercy.”
According to the Bible, mercy does matter: It matters because we all need forgiveness. But mercy also matters because it is what can join us all together in spite of our differences.
But what does it mean – in concrete terms – to be merciful to the refugee, the immigrant, not to mention to those nations, institutions and communities that face the challenge of welcoming them? What does mercy mean in Syria? What is a merciful response to the atrocities of the Islamic State, or ISIL/ISIS – a group that has been merciless in persecuting Christians, Yazidi and the Shia? How might mercy shape the Trump administration’s response to Iran following its missile tests, or to the Chinese expansion in the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea?
I certainly can’t say how mercy can be specifically applied to these challenges: The possibilities, and pitfalls, are as numerous as the various meanings associated with mercy in the Bible itself.
But I would like to suggest a starting point for thinking about how mercy matters. In a recent discussion about my book “Mercy Matters,” a participant related how she’s been watching both Fox News and MSNBC in a effort to expose herself to different views about crucial issues facing the United States. I never learned whether she was a Democrat or a Republican; a liberal, conservative or libertarian.
But what I did learn is that mercy begins by opening oneself to those with whom one might strongly disagree. Mercy doesn’t end there, of course, but it begins with such small acts of understanding, which can lead to life-changing experiences of love.