It’s said that just before Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio went into the conclave from which he would emerge as Pope Francis, Cardinal Walter Kasper gave him a copy of his new book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, and that it had a great influence on him. Mercy has certainly become the great theme of many of his homilies and writings. I got the book recently and made a start on reading it, but I think I’d need to be locked up for a few days to finish it. One thing it argues from the beginning is that mercy is not the opposite of justice, but an essential part of justice.
The readings this Sunday agree. The Book of Wisdom says it is God’s power and strength that makes God lenient and mild in judgement, and that God’s mercy teaches us that we must be kindly to each other. In the psalm we rejoice because God is good and forgiving, slow to anger, abounding in love and truth. St Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks of the Spirit coming to help us in our weakness and of God knowing everything in our hearts. The parable of the weeds sown amongst the wheat tells us that God is patient and will not rush to judgment.
The mayhem in Gaza is a graphic example of what happens when mercy is absent, when both sides keep saying ‘You’ve hurt us, so we must hurt you’. No conflict can ever be resolved if those involved in it simply insist on their own rights and ignore the needs of others. Portia’s speech in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice that many of us learned by heart at school puts this beautifully:
“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes the thronèd monarch better than his crown…. It is an attribute to God himself. And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.”
Sometimes it’s hard to work out what mercy demands in a particular situation.
More often we know what mercy asks, but we are too hard-hearted to grant it.
These readings invite us to let God teach us how to be merciful.