Mercy is a Gift
My mother tells the story about getting to know my Dad when they first married. She said that when my father would “occasionally” go out to the local pub that very often he would return home with a stray, usually a cat or dog, but occasionally with another person. My Da had a very tender heart and was a genial and sociable man. The truth is that he could not pass a stray without feeling some tender obligation to pick it up and bring it home. All his life he never changed. My Da was naturally compassionate and sympathetic.
The word compassion comes from a Latin word, and it actually means to “suffer with.” So, a compassionate person would: “feel your pain” and respond tenderly and helpfully. We call this compassion. A similar concept is expressed in the word sympathy. Sympathy comes from two Greek words “sym” meaning “together,” and pathos “referring to emotion.” So, sympathy is a shared feeling for or with someone. “They are grieving and I feel grief also, with them.” Empathy on the other hand is not feeling the same thing but understanding the feelings of another. With empathy, you can imagine or understand how someone might feel, without necessarily having those feelings yourself.
Most of the time when we think of “mercy” we actually mean one of the above, compassion, sympathy, or empathy. But mercy is more than these things, it is bigger, greater, and more generous. Mercy does all of the things above, but it is more, it is a free, undeserved, gift from one to another. It is not deserved, it is not earned, it is not a reward, it is not negotiable – it is freely given.
“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” At the depth of this prayer is the realization that God’s love is not deserved, or earned, or demanded. This publican knows that he stands before God and by all rights he should not be there, he should not address God, he should not stand before God, and yet, here he is. And then, he speaks from his heart to God. He speaks to God, who is also his Father. He asks for mercy. Mercy is a gift from God given simply out of graciousness, generosity, and love. It cannot be demanded, earned, or expected, it is not given because it is deserved, it is given simply because God is loving, generous, and gracious.
Saint Paul says: “It was while we were still sinners that God sent His Son to die for us.” Another translation of this verse is that while we were “God’s enemies” He sent His Son to die for us. Now this is the ultimate measure of mercy. It is only because of God’s mercy that we, who are sinners, were saved. There is a sense here that the quality of mercy is something that is Godlike, and we are called to live this way. St. Luke (6:36) says “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” And St. Matthew says: “Blessed are the merciful.”
To go back to my mother and father, and probably most mothers and fathers, they know what it means to be merciful, and they teach us how to live merciful lives. How often do they forgive, how often do they take us back, how often do they overcome the hurt, pain, and anguish their children cause them and still embrace us because, they are our father and mother, and we are their son or daughter. For most of us we see, and we experience, the living expression of mercy in our own lives in the love of our parents. Here mercy is not earned it is freely given, a gift. To live a life that expresses the quality of mercy is truly a beautiful thing, and let’s face it, we could all do with receiving and giving a little mercy.