“Mercy may be essential to Christian life,” writes Jim Forest, author of The Ladder of the Beatitudes, “yet is far from a popular virtue. It seems more and more eroded, even in countries where Christianity is deeply rooted” (81). Of these countries, he names only the United States.
Why? Why would he make such a claim?
After all, we hear it a lot in within a juridical context when one begs for the mercy of the court.
Perhaps the reason is that like meekness, mercy might be considered a soft feminine quality (Forest 49).
So what is mercy then?
In English, “mercy” is the word employed for the Greek eleos, which, including “mercy,” meant compassion, pity, charity,”–“emotions,” in other words, “that arises when one sees another person’s affliction” (Verbrugge 179). Moreover, the sense attributed to eleos was that it was an active compassion, in the midst of acting mercifully, compassionately.
When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, eleos was most often used for the Hebrew khesed, which meant: “deeds of devotion, devotion , devout, faithfulness, favor, good, kindly, kindness, kindnesses, loveliness, lovingkindness, lovingkindnesses, loyal deeds, loyalty, mercies, merciful, mercy, righteousness, unchanging love” (www.biblehub.com) as well as “proper covenant behavior, the solidarity that the covenant partners owe one another” (Verbrugge 179).
Mercy as understood here is the giving to another in need: it requires giving of oneself. Merciful activity, according to Jesus, includes “feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, providing hospitality to the homeless, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner” (Forest 86-7).
The association between mercy and covenant suggests the interpersonal quality of mercy–and in the case of this beatitude, this beatitude is, in a sense, unique in that the subject of the first half is paralleled by the promise Jesus gives: for they shall obtain mercy.
Suggesting the participation in divine life, blessed in this beatitude necessitates the active giving of oneself to those who are less fortunate, who are suffering. This may put those who are in the position of giving in an uncomfortable position–a position that may force them to examine their own situation, come face to face with poverty, destitution, and death. Mercy requires, it seems to me, a certain humility and to engage acts of mercy can challenge one’s own sense of entitlement, arrogance, autonomy, and pride.
Perhaps this is why mercy is, as Jim Forest suggests, an unpopular virtue today.
A question to end: Can you identify an experience where you witnessed a merciful act of one person toward another?