Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
For the past five months I’ve been writing about the Beatitudes in order to understand them better. We can hear something hundreds of times without its meaning ever sinking in or becoming knowledge. For a long time the Beatitudes seemed like white noise to me. But the Church and the saints tell us that the Beatitudes are central to our faith. They are central to understanding who Jesus Christ is and what He does.
So what is mercy?
Mercy is an unmerited act of kindness to someone in need.
First it is an act of kindness. It is doing something good for another. It can be as simple as giving a cup of cold water to someone thirsty or as lavish as Andrew Carnegie giving away his entire fortune to benefit humanity.
Next, it is unmerited because if the act were merited it would be an act of justice. The giver would have an obligation. It is not merciful for an employer to hand over the salary he has promised to the laborer who has earned it.
Finally, the person receiving it must be in need. It is kind of grandma to offer me a second piece of pie after a full Thanksgiving dinner but I won’t starve to death if she does not. That example is different from the prophet Elijah asking the widow for a cake of bread when he was on the brink of starvation; her response required providing for another’s need.
Some examples of mercy
A judge can be merciful to a criminal by granting a lighter sentence. In the early Church visiting the sick was an act of mercy because generally sick people were abandoned, as was visiting the imprisoned, because those arrested were supplied nothing by their jailers. Giving alms to a poor person is another example of this virtue. Because we are rational animals, mercy can extend to both our souls and our bodies, hence the traditional spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
The spiritual works of mercy:
- To instruct the ignorant.
- To counsel the doubtful.
- To admonish sinners.
- To bear wrongs patiently.
- To forgive offences willingly.
- To comfort the afflicted.
- To pray for the living and the dead.
The corporal works of mercy:
- To feed the hungry.
- To give drink to the thirsty.
- To clothe the naked.
- To harbor the harborless.
- To visit the sick.
- To ransom the captive.
- To bury the dead.
Do you need mercy?
Christ promised that those who show mercy to people will receive it from God. Why do we need it? We may not be hungry or need to be admonished. But we still have plenty of needs, some of them completely radical. We need mercy because we are sinners and lacking in virtues. We are dependent, not self-sufficient, vulnerable, and one day we will die. We will lose everything unless God raises us from the dead and fills us with His own divine life.
Each follower of Christ personally needs Christ’s mercy. We need forgiveness for our sins and for the omission of the good we ought to have done. I’m 63 now. When I think about how I have messed things up, how I’ve harmed people, I have to cry out to God for His mercy. But to get it I have to be merciful to others.
The message of the parable of the unjust steward is that God will judge harshly those who have refused mercy. The steward was forgiven his large debt but then refused to forgive a small one. This teaching is also echoed in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgiveness is also an example of this Beatitude.
Who is the exemplar of mercy?
Christ personifies this Beatitude, and all the rest. He came, lived, and died to bring us salvation and sanctification. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
Christ put this into practice with the woman caught in adultery. The Mosaic Law said she should be stoned. When Christ turned the hearts of her accusers to their own sins, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (Jn 8:9-11)
Two of Christ’s greatest parables are parables of mercy: the mercy of the Father toward the wayward son and the mercy of the Samaritan merchant to the waylaid Jew.
Jesus was even merciful to His executioners when He said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
How do we extend mercy to others in practice?
One way is by the spiritual and corporal works enumerated in the above lists. The Church and her members have been unsurpassed in showing compassion to people in need. We can support these works and even create new ones, as Pope Francis has suggested. Don’t forget that it is virtuous simply to live the Gospel and then share it with people around us at the appropriate time. What could be more merciful than helping a friend go to confession when she really needs to receive forgiveness?
What is the greatest act of mercy?
Is it the Redemption? Maybe not.
St. Thomas considers the mercy of God in the Summa, Part I, Question 21.
God’s mercy is not like ours. Our human nature is working correctly if we feel the passion of sorrow when we witness another’s misery. That spurs us to acts of mercy. But God does not have passions or emotions. Nevertheless, God is merciful because He dispels misery, Thomas teaches.
Once God creates something, He gives the creature the things due to it. For example, in creating man, He gives him hands so that man can exercise his intellect. This giving to creatures what they need Thomas identifies as divine justice.
But Thomas says that God’s work of divine justice is founded on His mercy. Thomas says it is because of God’s mercy that anything exists at all.
Think about this. God had no need nor any obligation to create. But what greater need could a creature have than actually to exist? Creation is an act of mercy performed so that those beings could be. You and I are two of them. Creation is the ultimate unmerited act of kindness to someone in need. We might paraphrase St. John the Evangelist in this way: “God so loved the world that He gave it being.”
My God, thank you that I exist. Thank you for your creation. Give me eyes to see how I can make an unmerited act of kindness to someone in need today. I need to show mercy so you can show mercy to me. But most of all I need to show mercy because it is so good. Amen.