The New Testament fully reveals the beauty and richness of mercy in human relationships, that is, of mercy shown by one human being to another. Jesus Christ shows it in His lifestyle, miracles and teaching. In Him – Mercy Incarnate – Christian Mercy finds the most perfect model, in which all boundaries are crossed, and within which Jesus includes every man, even the enemy. This mercy is based on the truth revealed; it takes for granted the requirement whereby justice is not negated but fulfilled (even at the expense of suffering and death), and then exceeds it when giving man mercy. Christ in his teaching reveals that the source and motive for human mercy lies in the mercy of the Triune God. Mercy understood in this way constitutes the very essence of Christian life in human relationships. Mercy, which is a disinterested gift of love for other people, builds and develops Christian life, makes people like “the Father rich in mercy”, allows the mercy of God Himself to flow into the world and is the only one of man’s riches which has eternal value.
Why should we be merciful?
Let us start by presenting three biblical motives for practising acts of mercy. The first one comes down to the fact that by showing mercy to others man is enabled to grow in likeness to God, Who is merciful. The second motive is based on the belief that mercy shown by man gives him confidence that God will be merciful towards him. The third motive is related to God’s desire that man should be truly blessed and thus happy.
1. By showing mercy we grow in likeness to our merciful God
(…) By the words: “Be merciful, just as (also) your Father is merciful” (Lk 6: 36) Christ calls man directly to imitate God in His mercy. He also calls him indirectly through a parable. Christ draws attention to God as He revealed Himself in the history of Israel, and as indicated by the term ‘your Father’. The term oiktirmôn, which can mean ‘merciful’ but in the context also ‘compassionate’, updates the meaning of “go beyond the measure of justice, without the expected reward.” The verse preceding this call goes like this: “But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (Luke 6: 35). Therefore being “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” signifies imitating the heavenly Father. (…)
The author of the Letter to the Ephesians also calls us explicitly to follow God’s mercy, stating: “(And) be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” (Eph 4: 32). (…) The context indicates that in the place of sin and the natural reaction to evil experienced through other people, an attitude described by the word ‘mercy’ should be present. St. Paul writes in the preceding passage that:
“Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil. The thief must no longer steal, but rather labour, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may have something to share with one in need. No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by Whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice.” (Eph 4: 25-31).
This call to imitate God in His mercy is confirmed in the same letter, as a development peculiar to the unique description of God as – “rich in mercy” (plousios en eleei):
“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” (Eph 2: 4-10).
God’s love towards us, who are “dead in our transgressions” has a triple emphasis in this passage, i.e. it turns out to be mercy, it is great and it is directed entirely towards us. Can man, created by God Who is rich in mercy, created to live according to His plan, undertake acts inconsistent with mercy? This last text and the ones cited earlier show the prime motive for showing mercy toward others, that is the imitation of God.
2. In practising mercy, we expect God’s mercy
The second motive prompting man to show mercy, is conditional: ‘If you expect God’s mercy, be merciful toward others’. The clearest and equally the most positive justification of this formula can be found in one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5: 7). This is not the only justification for this formula, but in this beatitude there is no mention of a payback in the literal sense, the reason being that justice provides the basis for any kind of payback and mercy of its nature exceeds justice. Mercy is seen as a gift, not to be paid for or deserved. However, the whole revelation leads to a confident expectation, certainty even, that whoever takes pity on the misery of others, rushes to their aid, and shows a willingness to forgive, will receive mercy from God. Although the beatitude uses terms for Divine and human mercy that contain a common core (eleêmôn, eleeô), there is a fundamental difference between how God shows mercy to man, and the extent to which man is able to be merciful towards others. However, in practising mercy to the best of their ability, human beings grow in likeness to God, as St. Gregory of Nyssa indicates in his homilies on the Beatitudes, saying: “If a person being merciful becomes worthy of God’s happiness, it is only because he has a characteristic which is used to describe God Himself” – “Gracious is the Lord and just; yes, our God is merciful” (Ps 116: 5).
The Gospel of Matthew offers without doubt the best explanation for the formula of blessing. Two texts can be found there which by way of example illustrate two ways of “being merciful”, the first one mentions forgiveness (Mt 18: 21-35), and the second one mentions helping those in need (cf. Mt 25: 31-46). Let us begin with the first one.
To Peter’s question as to whether one should forgive as many as seven times, Jesus answers that one must forgive as many as seventy-seven times (Mt 18: 21-22), and then Jesus tells a parable commonly known as ‘the merciless debtor’ (Mt 18: 23-35). The disproportion between the debts of the ‘merciless debtor’ and of his ‘fellow servant’ is – to use a fashionable word today – ‘shocking’. While the former was guilty of a debt of 10,000 talents, or 100 million denars, the latter owed only 100 denars. The first number is certainly hyperbolical and is to emphasize that such a debt cannot be paid. The second number is real, but definitely in a proportion 1:1,000,000. The first debtor’s behaviour is crucial to the meaning of this parable, whom the gracious lord, deeply moved (splagchnizomai), forgave an unimaginable debt (Mt 18: 27), whereas the debtor not only did not intend to forgive even a small debt owed by someone belonging to the same social group (syndoulos) but did not even agree to postpone the payment date (Mt 18:29). Such an attitude of the servant radically changes his master’s so far gracious attitude towards him, and the master expressly states his reason for the change: “Should you not have had pity (eleeô) on your fellow servant, as I had pity (eleeô) on you?” (Mt 18: 33). The remission of debt is cancelled, and the servant is treated with full severity (Mt 18: 34). To avoid any doubts, Jesus gives the key to this parable, pointing straight to tertium comparationis: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” (Mt 18: 35). This sentence is also a summary of the entire speech concerning the life of the community of the Church. One could say: “Forgiveness and mercy unite the community, because they imitate the generosity of the merciful God, on Whom we all depend, and they are at the same time an expression of genuine love for Him” (J. Homerski).
In Matthew’s gospel, another extensive text revealing the importance of active mercy, is an eschatological-apocalyptic prophecy, traditionally entitled “The Last Judgement” (Mt 25: 31-46). The key wording, which refers to the importance of works of mercy is: “what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (Mt 25: 45); and it is said by the Son of Man, who identifies Himself with the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and prisoners (Mt 25: 40-45). In response, those who did not show mercy ask the question: “when did we … not minister to your needs?” (Mt 25: 44). The verb diakoneô (to serve, to do service, to take care of) refers to the activities that can collectively be described as “showing mercy” because they do not constitute a part of any formal commitment, especially in that they concern the people referred to as the “smallest” (elachistos), presented in a situation of helplessness and “condemned” to the mercy of those who can assist them. These actions correspond to the works of mercy highly regarded in the Old Testament books and in Judaism. This text ultimately indicates that being disciples of Jesus demands that we show concern for the needy, and this is an important element of faith necessary for salvation, salvation itself being understood as the God’s mercy towards man.
Also, without using the Greek term which could be conveyed by the word ‘mercy’, in the Gospel of Matthew further justification can be found for adopting an attitude of mercy to others on the grounds that we are led to expect God’s mercy. Since first, the Lord’s Prayer contains the petition: “and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). The conviction of the need to show mercy through forgiveness, also motivated by the expectation of God’s mercy, also appears in Jesus’ assurance, which is a clear repetition and deepening of the call within the Lord’s Prayer: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” (Mt 6: 14-15).
The Greek term afiêmi (to donate, to forgive) appears in all these texts (Mt 6: 12, 14-15). It refers both to God and to people, thus indicating confidence in the obtaining of God’s forgiveness following our forgiveness of one another. Also in other texts of the Gospel of Matthew the subject of forgiveness within the community of the Church can be seen as particularly valid in relation to and because of God’s mercy.
Finally, it is worth adding that as well as the beatitude given in the Gospel of Matthew there are other texts, which contain a warning against the lack of mercy towards others (cf. Ex 22: 26; James 2: 13).
3. By showing mercy we find happiness
The final justification for showing mercy is based on the fact that this kind of attitude makes one happy. In other words, to practice mercy is to find happiness. This is contained within the beatitude already mentioned: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5:7). Spoken blessing (blessing as a phrase) was already known in ancient Greece – as an expression of admiration or gladness for the happiness of another person, usually taking the form of “happy because” (makarios, hoti) or “happy who” (makarios, hos), and to emphasize the intensity “triple happy” (trismakarios). Those to whom the eight beatitudes of the Gospel of Matthew apply will be as it were “eight times happy”, in other words “completely happy”. And integral to this admirable and utter happiness is an attitude of mercy.
(…) New Testament beatitudes usually come in the form of statements that contradict the norm, in other words statements in which widely accepted values are devalued while despised values are given an extraordinary significance. That is the case from the very first of the Beatitudes, where not the wealthy, but the poor are referred to as happy: “Blessed are the poor in spirit …” (Mt 5: 3). Usually the blessings in the New Testament, including the synoptic gospels, are of an eschatological nature. Note also that, in the beatitude referred to here, the ‘blessedness’ to be bestowed on those who show mercy is expressed in the future tense: “for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5: 7). The passive form (eleêthêsontai), without the operator of action, indicates that it is God Who will show mercy following our adoption of the attitude of mercy. However, those who are “merciful” right now deserve to be admired and called ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ because thus the Greek term makarios is translated into English. The principle expressed by the beatitude is timeless, so anyone who at anytime shows mercy, either by forgiving or by helping the needy, deserves to be truly blessed.
(…) All these recommendations from both the Old and New Testaments to be merciful for the sake of one’s own happiness can be summarized by a saying assigned to Jesus, though not recorded in the Gospel: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20: 35). We can transform it into a simple incentive: “It is more blessed to give mercy than to receive”. Those who practice mercy will likely already know this.
Father Roman Pindel
Complete text with footnotes:
Father Roman Pindel, Dlaczego mamy być miłosierni (Why we should we be merciful), in: W szkole miłosierdzia św. Faustyny i Jana Pawła II. Referaty z III Międzynarodowego Kongresu Apostołów Bożego Miłosierdzia (In the School of Mercy of St. Faustina and Pope John Paul II. Papers from the Third International Congress of the Apostles of Divine Mercy, pp. 63-84), Kraków: Misericordia, 2008.
Translated by Orest Pawlak