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The Quality of Mercy

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The church that's my current spiritual home is putting together a short devotional booklet for the upcoming season. And, yes, in case you're wondering, some philosophers do have spiritual lives and spiritual homes. If you have any doubts about this, let me recommend my old book, God and the Philosophers (Oxford Press). For this new little booklet, I was asked to write up a reflection on one brief verse in the Gospel of Luke.

"Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful."
Luke 6:36

I had to admit to myself right away that I don't normally give much thought to the concept of mercy. Who does? We live in a new age of lex talionis - "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and, always, one bitchy payback comment for another" - to paraphrase slightly the ancient formulation. Where is mercy in our world? What is it? And why should we care?

Shortly after receiving my writing assignment, my wife and I took our granddaughter to lunch at a little hot dog shack on the beach near our house. As we sat outside finishing our meal, a meter reader approached the table and sweetly asked, "Do you need to put money in your parking meter?" I was surprised. We were covered, but I appreciated her asking. She then tried a few other people before beginning to write in her ticket book. A well-dressed lady approached, and they seemed to have a friendly conversation that ended with the smiling motorist driving away. Having seen parking tickets written all over America, and receiving my share through the years, I realized that I had just witnessed a little act of mercy in the bright coastal sunshine that I had never before seen.

My assigned devotional verse comes from the middle of Jesus' lesser known Sermon on the Plain (He was not always on the mount; see Luke 6:17-49), in which he makes the radical recommendation that we love our enemies and refrain from judging others, right before reminding us that a good tree produces good fruit. The Greek word that Luke uses in verse 36 translated as "merciful" is a term connoting compassion and kindness.

Even in our rough and tumble world, we've all experienced some kindness and compassion along the way, and according to Jesus, we live under a cosmic regime in which mercy ultimately abounds, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding - a perspective forgotten by too many of his later followers. We should thoroughly soak up the refreshing nurture provided to our souls by this experience, whenever we have it, and then pass it on to others.

As Deputy Barney Fife once said, only slightly misquoting a powerful speech of Shakespeare's Portia in The Merchant of Venice, "The kindness of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven." Genuine mercy, according to Barney and Portia, is never an unnatural and forced response, but rather flows forth like a light, cleansing shower. It's always a freely given gift. We benefit from it immensely whenever it comes our way, and should extend that benefit to others as often as we can.

Sue Monk Kidd writes, in The Secret Life of Bees: "The world will give you that once in a while, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life." The cool water of forgiveness, a healing spritz of kindness: It's one of the greatest joys in life to be able to give that to others.

"But why?" it's easy to ask. When it comes to other people, we're typically much more concerned about justice than mercy. We tend to treat people the way we think they deserve to be treated. We police their behavior and react to it, often with a big stick of disapproval or harsh words of comeuppance. And this is a problem, not only for them, but also for us.

In another well-known play by the same author that Deputy Fife may also have read in school, Prince Hamlet and the politically powerful Polonius once discuss briefly how to treat a group of visitors to their realm. Polonius suggests, with apparent common sense, that they be treated exactly as they deserve. Hamlet replies, "Use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity."

Hamlet's point is that it's not always our fellow creatures who should call the shots for our conduct, but rather our own higher natures. We, like trees watered by the cool, nourishing mist of kindness in so many ways throughout our lives - from, perhaps, a parent, a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a spouse, or another family member - are to become people who, out of our own inner dignity and honor offer to others that same refreshing and needed surprise.

We become as we do, and by acting on higher motives, we strengthen ourselves in a way that also brings good fruit into the world - and that ultimately benefits us in more ways than one.

If we ever catch ourselves doing otherwise, we should perhaps remember another of Barney's famously wise sayings in the face of problematic behavior: "Nip it! Nip it! Nip it!"