Our parish priest, Father Tony Brady, tells a story about his true greatness.
A mother approached Napoleon begging for mercy, a reprieve for her son facing execution. Napoleon looked into the matter. He came back saying her son was justly condemned and did not deserve mercy. The woman responded, “If he deserved it, it would not be mercy.” Napoleon spared her son.
I don’t know if this story is true. If so, it is the greatest thing I know about Napoleon.
For us humans, justice is one thing and mercy is something else.
In God’s take on reality, I suspect that justice and mercy are one and the same. I suspect a profound encounter with mercy brings true justice to bear in one’s heart. The experience can be excruciating for anyone confronting his or her own wretchedness in the presence of a loved one’s mercy and forgiveness.
Perhaps divine justice is exacted through the anguish experienced in the initial, devastating confrontation with Mercy – before the recipient of pardon is engulfed in gratitude and joy.
For us creatures, who distinguish between justice and mercy in daily life, the relationship between the two is complex. Both are forms of love, justice being the lowest level. Anything less than justice is not love. If I pay less than a just wage I fail to love.
Mercy goes in the opposite direction. The more you give to another, beyond what they deserve, the more you love freely, soaring above the restraints of strict justice.
Some thoughts come to mind in this Year of Mercy.
I think of times past (if only!) when tribes destroyed enemies mercilessly as vengeance for injury to one of their own. I then consider the ancient Jewish advance in morality when they accepted “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as just payback. This was revolutionary progress for humankind, retribution restricted to exacting only equivalent damage and suffering.
Then I ponder the hyper-revolutionary teaching and example of the God-man, Jesus, who declared “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye…’, but I say to you: turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; forgive seventy-times-seven times; welcome home the prodigal degenerate; Father, forgive them…; Be merciful….” He commanded us to love as he did, not just be just.
Mercy doesn’t make sense to the legalistic and self-righteous. It is wisdom and joy for those who know themselves to be weak and fallible, imperfect and in great need – and who know that everyone else is just the same. Perfect people in a perfect society would not need mercy. Real people in this world do.
I find it encouraging that Luke records Jesus telling us to “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” rather than Matthew’s more static “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. I feel more attracted by mercy than by perfection, both as qualities of God and qualities to seek in myself and others.
Mercy is essential in relationships, more realistic than perfection, and more likely to achieve perfection. Forgiveness proceeds from mercy and is love in action. “I am sorry” and “I forgive you” are three-word variants of “I love you”.
Mercy begets gratitude and, in turn, pays mercy forward.
Regard the mercy paid forward in Les Misérables. Jean Valjean was radically changed by experiencing the mercy of Bishop Myriel whose hospitality he had violated by stealing his candlesticks. Instead of being destroyed by Javert’s (and life’s) remorseless condemnation, Valjean was graced with conversion and redemption. His life found its fulfilment as he re-gifted mercy and love to Fantine and Cosette.
The mother who rejoiced at Napoleon’s mercy would have been devoted for the rest of her life to the ultimately humbled Emperor. She would earnestly have desired for him, not the just exile and inglorious death exacted by the victors, but that which he had gifted her boy – the fullness of mercy. “Merci, mon Seigneur! Thank you, my Lord!”