Four traditional values are typically lifted up in Protestant churches during the advent season: Peace, Joy, Love, and Hope. But a fifth value, Mercy, is often overlooked.
In the Hebrew Bible, there is a group of related words that are often translated as “mercy.” “Ahavah” refers to God’s enduring love for Israel. “Rachamim” comes from the root word “rechem,” or womb, suggesting a maternal connection between God and human beings.“Chesed,” the word translated as “mercy” in Psalm 85, suggests God’s steadfast loyalty.
(Schmalz, Matthew, “What is the True Meaning of Mercy?” The Conversation. February 8, 2017 http://theconversation.com/what-is-the-true-meaning-of-mercy-72461 Retrieved Dec 10, 2018)
Mercy is foundational to our understanding of the person of God. In the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms refer repeatedly to God’s mercy. The Psalmist loves God because God has heard his cry for mercy (Ps 116). He pleads for mercy when forgiveness is desired, when enemies threaten him, or when judgment is feared (Ps 146).
Mercy is shown when sin is confessed (Prov. 28:13). God desires mercy, the acknowledgment that the Lord is God (Hosea 6:6). Mercy is acting justly and with humility as one walks with God (Micah 6:8). In many respects the request for mercy is at the core of the argument that God has no choice but to be merciful because God is and has promised to be loving, kind, and steadfastly loyal. The Psalmists and others gently tug on God’s coattails to remind him to behave himself. It is also a recognition that because God is merciful, so should his people be.
The difficulty with mercy, as we find it in the New Testament, is how subversive it is. In the beatitudes (Matt 5:1ff), "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom belongs not to the wise or powerful but to those who are "poor in spirit," that is, people who recognize their spiritual poverty and their need for divine salvation. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Those who suffer in this life will receive comfort in the next. (Saturday Night Theologian “Matthew 5:1-12” 30 January 2005 Retrieved December 10, 2018 http://progressivetheology.org/SNT/SNT-2005.01.30.html retrieved December 10, 2018)
Mercy becomes problematic in Matthew for two reasons. First, like forgiveness, it is reciprocal. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” “The measure you give is the measure you get.” Judge not lest you be judged.” And here, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” It doesn’t say specifically that the unmerciful won’t receive mercy, but that’s the implication. Mercy appears to9 be quid pro quo.
Second, God’s mercy seems reserved for those on the margins of society who have faith. Mary, who lives there, perceives it keenly.
She mentions it twice:
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful of the humble state
of his servant,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-53)
This God is the Mighty One who scatters the proud, brings down rulers, lifts up the humble, sends the rich away empty and fills the hungry with good things. Mercy is for the poor, the beleaguered, the outcasts, the bullied, and the ill-treated.
“Those who long for inner righteousness and outer justice (the Greek word can mean both) will see their desires fulfilled. There are few who are truly righteous, and many who think they are, are not. …
“If your heart doesn't ache at the injustice in the world--the poverty, the socio-economic inequality, the racism, the hate, the intolerance of one religion for another--you are falling short of the righteousness that Jesus taught and exemplified.”
(Saturday Night Theologian “Matthew 5:1-12” 30 January 2005 Retrieved December 10, 2018 http://progressivetheology.org/SNT/SNT-2005.01.30.html)
Sarah Dylan points out that mercy was much needed by followers of Jesus. They were often the “pushed out.” They ate with and entered into social relationships with the opposite sex and with “sinners.” They were encouraged to abandon their families and follow Jesus. They refused to enter Into contests of honor, forgiving enemies and seeking reconciliation instead of revenge.
“Such disobedience shamed the whole family, threatening everyone's welfare in the process; small wonder that those who engaged in it were so often pushed out.”
Dylan says that Jesus gathers in all of these people and he gives them honor. “Their human fathers may have disowned them, but they are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs.”
Jesus also gives them family. “They are children of one Father, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be bereft in a community that sees themselves as family, and that cares for one another in ways that show that they take that family relationship with utmost seriousness.”
(“Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A” January 25, 2005 Dylan’s Lectionary Blog. Retrieved December 10, 2018. https://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/01/fourth_sunday_a.html)
In the Gospels, then, mercy has the character of a rescue operation, throwing a protective cover over those who have been forced to the margins of society. They become an echo of Onesimus, once considered worthless but now useful, worthwhile to God. (Phil 1:11) Mercy is God’s response when people yell “Uncle,” when conditions are so bad that when Jesus meets them on the road they cry, “Have mercy! I give up - save me!” And he does.
Paul takes things a step further. He wasn’t out on the social margin, he was at its center. And mercy wasn’t granted because he followed Jesus. He hadn’t reached out to Jesus for healing or even for forgiveness. It wasn’t promised because he had declared his faith and now deserved to be saved. HIs only contribution was to fall on the ground and go blind for three days (Acts 9:3ff). Mercy was given to make an example of him - Paul was the worst of sinners: “But for that very reason I was shown mercy” (1 Tim 1:6).
God displayed his immense patience in Paul’s life as an example for those who would come to believe in Christ. Paul’s reasoning in retrospect was that as the worst of sinners, the persecutor of Jesus and Christians, all others’ sins would pale in comparison to his. And those others, in turn, could see that by example God’s patience, and likewise God’s forgiveness, was being extended to them. God isn’t impatient; God is merciful.
The prospect of this sort of mercy is a surprising offer to those of us who realize that we, like the rich ruler (Luke 18:18ff), have at some point been dipped in an anesthetic. We only vaguely recall that we may have stolen, but only a little, lied, but not grievously, lusted, but not openly, and retaliated, but not murderously.
We are the ones who still mimic the rich ruler’s shortcoming: we haven’t loved because we don’t know how. Instead we are business people who have treated competitors deceptively, not of honestly. We are politicians who have sought revenge instead of reconciliation. We have chosen power over others instead of community, and wealth over giving. We have been dismissive of strangers instead of welcoming, and we have objectified members of the opposite sex, seeing them only as opportunities for physical satisfaction, as having no personalities of their own that we recognized or that we cared about.
Paul, the undeserving recipient of mercy, opens the door to God’s mercy for us. As Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “This is why we pray, ‘Purify our hearts so that we may worship Thee in honesty.’
“It requires a great honesty to realize before whom we stand, for such realization is more than having a thought in one’s mind. It is a knowledge in which the whole person is involved, the mind, the heart, the body and soul. What is left for us to do except to pray …and even if such prayer is tainted with vanity, His mercy accepts and redeems our feeble efforts.”
(Essential writings, “Out of the Depth We Cry for Help.” Orbis books, Maryknoll, NY, 149-150)