I discussed on the intercessions page for today my reasons for thinking about this set of readings, which are about anguish, as linked by a common plea – if unspoken – for the mercy of God. We have known since the beginning that God will have mercy:
Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.Genesis 9.16
But are we equally good at showing mercy to those who need it from us?
O Lord, our God, arise,
Scatter our enemies
And make them fall.
Confound their politics;
Frustrate their knavish tricks;
On thee our hopes we fix;
God save us all!
So goes the second verse of the UK national anthem, the one that is so politically incorrect that we are rarely allowed to sing it these days. But the sentiments are surely exactly those of our compatriots during two world wars in the last century, and it is human nature, when attacked, to concentrate on foiling one’s enemy’s (dastardly) aims rather than focusing on the need to show mercy.
‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay’, saith the Lord. Romans 12:19
Judge not, that you be not judged, for with what measure you mete it shall be measured unto you again – pressed down and running over. Matthew 7:1-2
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.Micah 6:8
Justice and mercy are often competing goals, and Shakespeare based ‘The Merchant of Venice‘ on this moral dilemma. Portia’s speech is probably the best-known utterance on mercy except for the Bible:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronéd monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: Exactly. Or, as St Matthew put our Lord’s words: Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Matthew 5:7
Alexander Pope was inspired by this to write his ‘Universal Prayer’:
To hide the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.
Sir Thomas Browne elaborates:
By compassion we make others’ misery our own, and so, by relieving them, we relieve ourselves also.
Jeremy Taylor used the metaphor of the rainbow:
Mercy is like the rainbow, which God hath set in the clouds; it never shines after it is night. If we refuse mercy here, we shall have justice in eternity.
Let’s give C S Lewis the last word on justice and mercy:
A busload of ghosts is making an excursion from hell up to heaven with a view to remaining there permanently. They meet the citizens of heaven and one very big ghost from hell is astonished to find there a man who, on earth, had been tried and executed for murder. ‘What I would like to know,’ he explodes, ‘is what are you doing here, you a murderer, while I, a pillar of society, a self-respecting decent citizen am forced to walk the streets down there in smoke and fumes and must live in a place like a pigsty.’ His friend from heaven tries to explain that he has been forgiven, that both he and the man he had murdered have been reunited before the judgment seat of Christ. But the big ghost from hell replies, ‘I just can’t accept that!. What about my rights!’ he keeps shouting, ‘I have got my rights, just like you!’ ‘Oh no!’ his friend from heaven keeps reassuring him, ‘It’s not as bad as all that! You don’t want your rights! Why, if I had got my rights, I would never be here. You won’t get your rights, you’ll get something far better. You will get the mercy of God.’‘The Great Divorce’
Such grace shall one just Man find in his sight,
That He relents, not to blot out mankind,
And makes a covenant never to destroy
The earth again by flood, nor rain to drown the world
With man therein or beast; but where He brings
Over the earth a cloud, with therein set
His triple-coloured bow, whereon to look
And call to mind His Covenant.
Isaiah reassures us that the Covenant is everlasting:
For the mountains shall depart, the hills be removed, But My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall my covenant of peace be removed’, says the Lord, who has mercy on you. Isaiah 54:10
O Lord our God, whose power is unimaginable and whose glory is inconceivable, whose mercy is immeasurable and whose love for mankind is beyond all words, in your compassion, Lord, look down on us… and grant us… the riches of your mercy and compassion. For to you are due all glory, honour and worship…now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen From the Greek liturgy
The illustration is by Firewings via Shutterstock