Mercy is a word I first heard from my grandmother whenever something surprised her. I’d be playing and all of a sudden I’d hear, “Mercy!” and I’d jump up and go see what had happened. As it turns out, that was her worse curse word, but it always made me think it was something really special. I was right, it is something special. Thousands of years ago, when a man stole a single cow from another, the offended party would kill the thief, burn all his buildings, leave his widow and orphans to starve, and take all of his livestock for himself. This kind of over-reaction led to the concept of “an eye for an eye” which was really an effort to rein in the beginning of blood feuds and multiple murders. Here, today, in Tanzania, if someone steals a phone or a purse and the crowd catches him, they will beat him to death. A recent survey found that over 80% of the populace believes that’s okay. Mercy is something needed here.
When Jesus was teaching the Beatitudes which were really radical for his day, one of them was “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) Mercy to Jesus meant that we should have compassion for those worse off than we are and not be so quick to demand justice which often really meant vengeance or revenge. Things haven’t changed much, have they? We still more often want revenge or vengeance than justice or mercy. Happily for the other thief on the cross, Jesus was into mercy, as we should be. Hundreds of years before Jesus, the prophet Micah said, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
One of the best examples of what true mercy means was written in a chapter of “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo. In that chapter (there’s a link to it below), a parolee is found outside the bishop’s dwelling, cold and miserable. The bishop invites him in and feeds him, warms him up, and gives him a place to stay for the night. During the night, Jean Valjean (the parolee), grabs all of the bishop’s silver that he can see and runs away. He is caught the next day by the police and dragged back to the bishop. The police tell the bishop that the thief had the audacity to say that the bishop gave him the silver. The bishop surprises everyone when he says, “Yes, I did.” He tells the police to release the man and then goes on to say, again to everyone’s surprise (none more so than Jean Valjean himself) that the man left the best silver behind. The bishop then takes two large silver candlesticks and gives them to Jean Valjean. Out of the hearing of the police, the bishop tells Jean Valjean to use the silver to begin a better life and to become a better man. The bishop says that this silver has bought Valjean back from the Devil and evil and turned him to God. Valjean goes away confused but changed and truly becomes a better man.
Oh, if I could be certain that I am as merciful as the bishop in that book, but I’m afraid it is still something I hope to become. Someone, I can’t remember who and refuse to Google it, once said that mercy means you don’t give until it hurts—you give until it’s gone. When a woman who helps the bishop asks what in the world he was thinking, the bishop replies, “Was that silver really mine? Or did it belong to the poor?” Wise man, that bishop. Things we think of as ours may not really be ours but gifts from God we are to use wisely and for God’s purposes and shouldn’t be so quick to cling to them when maybe they were intended to help others. May we all, me included, learn to be as merciful as the bishop in Victor Hugo’s novel.
Below are two links; one to the chapter in “Les Miserables” that contains this story, so you can read it for yourself (Hugo was a great writer), and the second link will take you to a clip from a movie version (not the musical) starring Liam Neeson as Valjean that gives you a real feel for what happened. I recommend both to you. I must add that the musical version twists the theology a bit away from what I believe Hugo intended, so I didn’t add a link to that, but you are free to go to YouTube and find it if you want.
The book: http://www.online-literature.com/victor_hugo/les_miserables/26/
The movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wF3FX43F-7Y