What is Mercy?

Cue the dark, anxious music. Focus in on a frightened person, pleading for their life from another who holds all the power. The vulnerable person pleads and begs for mercy.

How many moves have you watched with a scene like this? Inevitably for me, these scenes evoke a deep emotion as I watch them.

What comes to mind when you hear the word Mercy?

When I was a kid, “mercy” was a word like “uncle” or “I give” when I was wrestling with one of my brothers. They were clearly physically in control of me in that moment, and it was in their power to decide if they were going to let go of me or not. Most dictionaries define mercy along the lines of, “compassion or forgiveness as shown toward someone who it is within one’s power or harm.”

From a Biblical standpoint, mercy, specifically “Lord have mercy” or, in Greek, “Kyrie Eleison,” is found multiple times in the Psalms. My personal favorite example comes in the beginning of Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” And in the New Testament, in Luke 18:10-14: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the scary movie scenario and in my memories of my brother holding me down, mercy was a thing to be pleaded for, out of a fear for physical survival. Mercy from a Biblical perspective, in some regards, could appear to be the same. However, in both the Biblical examples listed above, mercy has more to do with our spiritual survival.

The Lenten journey is a great opportunity to reflect on where we are finding and needing mercy in our lives. Are there places and people that we should be expressing a sense of mercy to? Where do we need to be seeking the mercy of God?

What I know from personal experience is that God’s mercy is never-ending. The Lenten discipline for me is to seek God’s mercy more and extend God’s mercy more to others.

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in His justice, which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good.”

– Frederick W. Faber, Oratory Hymns, 1854

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