Grace can appear as an unearned gift out of the mouth of a small child. It can be in words or simply a smile. Such unexpected blessings come without charge and like rain they fall upon the just and the unjust alike. Mercy on the other hand must come from someone with power. If I am to show you mercy, then I clearly have something to offer you that I can chose to give or withhold.
Of course love is a form of power, maybe the greatest of them all, but it is not the kind of power we usually think of when we think of power. Nor is love the kind of power we think to draw from to create change in the world. When most people think of changing the world they think it requires money and guns and positions of political authority. These are the “conventional weapons” that are utilized to make change happen.
Love, on the other hand, is a form of power that cannot be manipulated like most other forms of power. As soon as someone tries to use love to manipulate someone, it ceases to be love. So, while love may be the most powerful force at our disposal, it does not have the kind of versatility of other kinds of power; it cannot be used towards selfish or corrupt ends.
The word mercy in Hebrew is hesed which is also translated as loving-kindness. Mercy has to do with offering compassion and love to someone whether they deserve it or not. In this sense it runs counter to justice. If justice requires making things fair and giving people their due, mercy involves offering love and blessings and forgiveness even when a person or people may deserve, in all fairness, to be punished or shunned. The impoverished worker who steals from his boss to feed his hungry children could rightly be put in jail. However, being merciful might include dropping the charges and giving the worker a raise in his hourly wage.
In places like Israel, if justice must prevail, in order for people to live in peace and harmony, there may never be peace. At some point someone has to say, “Too much has happened and now true justice is out of reach. The best we can hope for now is to seek and offer mercy.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was a living example of the power of mercy.
The 18th Century Irish author Laurence Sterne wrote: “We may imitate the Deity in all his moral attributes, but mercy is the only one in which we can pretend to equal God. We cannot indeed, give like God, but surely we may forgive like God.”
Therefore, may goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life.
Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar is the Senior Minister at All Souls Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Join us at All Souls on every Sunday in May to explore the theme of Mercy with our members, ministers, and friends.
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