A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death.
“But I don’t ask for justice,” the mother explained. “I plead for mercy.”
“But your son does not deserve mercy,” Napoleon replied
“Sir,” the woman cried, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.”
“Well, then,” the emperor said, “I will have mercy.” And he spared the woman’s son.
This story, from Luis Palau’s book Experiencing God’s Forgiveness, may be apocryphal, but it does illustrate what it means to be merciful.
In our Bible reading today from Psalms 56 and 57, both of these Psalms begin with David’s plea, “”Be merciful to me, O God.”
Mercy is a frequent theme of the Psalmist. The English words mercy or merciful are found 118 times in the collection of Psalms.
Mercy involves compassion. Favor. Loving Kindness. Graciousness. And forgiveness. Mercy identifies with the victim, empathizes with their plight and acts to do something about it. It is more than just pity. It’s more than a feeling. “Mercy,” wrote John Stott “is compassion for people in need.”
It has been often observed by various authors that justice is getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. But mercy is not getting what you deserve.
Richard Lenski makes this distinction between grace and mercy. “The noun (mercy) always deals with what we see of pain, misery and distress, that results of sin and (grace) always deals with the sin and guilt itself. The one extends relief, the other pardon; the one cures, heals, helps, and the other cleanses and reinstates.”
Mercy is a defining characteristic of God’s moral character. The apostle Paul wrote that God is “the Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort” (2Cor. 1:3). To make known His mercy toward mankind God sent His son into the world to show us what mercy is. Jesus is called “the merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb. 2:17). We see His mercy in restoring sight to the blind. Casting out demons. Curing lepers. And forgiving sins. He’s our perfect example of mercy.
Each of us are in need of mercy. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). And “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). This is true, not just in a generic sense, but in a personal way. I have sinned. And so have you. Justice says, I deserve punishment. Death. And eternal separation from the holiness of God.
Like David I must call on the Lord and plead, “Lord, be merciful to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.” (Ps. 41:4).
God’s mercy should motivate us to be merciful. Mercy reaches out to those who sin and need our encouragement. Paul exhorted the Corinthians, “When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won’t give up in despair.” 2 Cor. 2:7 (CEV). Jesus said, “blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” When you’re hurt you can either chose to retaliate or seek resolution. Mercy allows us to forgive. To let go of the past. To show compassion. And seek to restore trust and fellowship.
In the church family, it is important to show and share mercy. While I don’t agree with all of his theology, Rick Warren was right when he wrote, “In real fellowship people experience mercy. Fellowship is a place of grace, where mistakes aren’t rubbed in but rubbed out. Fellowship happens when mercy wins over justice. You can’t have fellowship without forgiveness because bitterness and resentment always destroy fellowship.”
As we seek to emulate our Lord by extending mercy to our fellow man, we must continually echo the prayer of the publican, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman