In one of Shakespeare’s most widely read works, The Merchant of Venice, Portia pleads for mercy from the money lender. The heroine prays for the mercy “that droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven.” Matthew 25:34-40 speaks of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and showing hospitality to strangers. Charles Sprague stated that “Hate shuts her soul when dove-eyed mercy pleads.” Even the dictionary defines mercifulness as “a disposition to be kind and compassionate.” Mercy is portrayed as one of the highest of ideals, a shining beacon of love and hope for those afflicted, the sole bastion to which the desperate may cling to. It is a gentle thing, a quiet, dove-eyed apparition, rather like some beloved sister in a convent, that sweetly sprinkles reprieve on those who need it.
Mercy is beautiful, we are taught. Mercy is good. Mercy is desirable. Rarely do we stop to ponder what mercy supersedes. Mercy supersedes justice. It takes “an eye for an eye,” discards it, and adds “turn the other cheek.” It takes “a tooth for a tooth,” discards it, and adds “to him who takes your outer garment, give him your tunic also” (Matthew 5). Not only does mercy pardon the unpardonable, acquit the murderer, and release the wretch, it goes the extra mile. But how can this be? How can we react when mercy is ugly?
The upcoming release of James Huesman, a man convicted of murder and sexual assault and sentenced to forty years in prison is certainly an unpopular snapshot of mercy. He has served less than half of his sentence. The family of the man he murdered has cried out at the injustice. Justice demands that crimes not be overlooked, that they be punished to the full degree. Justice demands that offenses not be swept under the rug. Yet, it seems that here mercy served as the broom. Mercy is always ugly to someone. Even Shakespeare, after portraying mercy in such pastel light in The Merchant of Venice, stated “Mercy but murders, pardoning those who kill.”
When demanding justice is partial to our situation, mercy’s ugliness becomes clear. We insist that justice be done when it is we who have been wronged. Transgressions must be paid for in full, sentences served, and penalties accepted. To overlook misdeeds that have harmed us would be ridiculous. Justice must prevail. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Strangely, it seems that whenever we are the transgressors, justice is not viewed so favorably. Mercy is begged for, and even expected. We bring justice to the table and somehow presume to think that we will taste mercy. We flog others with the whip of justice, yet delude ourselves into thinking we will only feel mercy’s kiss. Alexander Pope wrote, “That mercy I to others show, that mercy show to me.” Galatians 6:9 intones, “A man reaps what he sows.”
How can we, the undeserving recipients of mercy, withhold it from others? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). While we were still sinners, Christ stepped in and paid the just price, so that we might be touched by mercy. The requirements of both justice and love were met in his sacrifice (more to come on this later). While we were yet murderers (“Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer…” 1 John 3:15), adulterers (“…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.” Matthew 5:28), blasphemers (“Do not swear at all, either by heaven…or by earth.” Matthew 5:34), and hosting a world of other sins, the Father showed mercy to us through Christ. May we never be as that wicked servant, who, being pardoned a great debt by his master, failed to pardon a small debt from his peer (Matthew 18:23-25). May we realize the depths of sin that we ourselves are capable of, and have compassion on others. May we, having been rooted and grounded in love, eradicate sin from our lives so that where sin increases in others, grace and mercy may increase all the more, that by this we may save some.
Mercy is ugly, but only as ugly as the nail-scarred hands of Christ.