I have a question to ask this morning, as I did last Sunday, for which I do not have a definitive answer. This time it is: what is the difference between mercy and forgiveness? Both are referred to in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant--are they indistinguishable?
Mercy begets mercy—that’s what this Beatitude of Jesus today says. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” This is one of God’s promises, and the promises of God are good. The parable of the Unforgiving Servant this morning confirms it, although through a negative example and one in which mercy and forgiveness appear synonymous. Someone who owes money is “forgiven” their debt, wherein “forgiven” is only a manner of speaking about loans that are cancelled. But forgiveness is not actually applicable, because there is no wrong doing when you borrow money. This is not an act of forgiveness, but an act of mercy.
As the story goes, a man is mercifully relieved of a huge debt and then that man turns right around and denies the same mercy he received to another man who owes him very little money. The first debtor (the Greek is “slave,” but many translators put “servant” to indicate someone in the king’s retinue) owes 10,000 talents—what would amount to 15 times the annual tribute paid to Rome by Galilee; but he is owed a pittance by one of his fellow servants. Jesus means by this difference between the sizes of the loans to highlight how great is the mercy of God towards us compared to us human beings who can be so petty. The King’s reaction is exaggerated by Jesus, in his typical way to make his point, when he says he condemns the servant to be tortured, when of course Jews never countenanced or permitted torture. It was to signify how grievous was the servant’s failure to forgive. And that is the point of the parable, which Jesus tells by way of amplifying on his answer to Peter’s question about how many times we are expected to forgive, saying you must forgive 70 times 7 times, from your heart. So, this parable must be about forgiveness, right?
But let’s not lose complete sight of the language about mercy in the parable because it is the correct characterization of relieving a debt or canceling a loan. And also, because mercy correlates with the Beatitude about mercy. Forgiveness and mercy don’t seem to be interchangeable terms exactly, but why?
Mercy is a special kind of act. Like forgiveness, it can’t be earned. But unlike forgiveness, there need be no wrongdoing, so no confession or repentance or reform is involved. Mercy is pure grace, unexpected and unprompted. It made me think of the “Pay it forward” movement in the 1970s and ‘80s, remember?—when people who received a benefit from someone and couldn’t thank or reciprocate it to the benefactor so she chooses to pay it forward to another deserving person. Like having received the gift of college tuition from someone then paying someone else’s tuition in turn. But this breaks an act between two people into one between three. It also reminds me of the bumper sticker, “Commit random acts of kindness,” except that it sounds a little trivial.
It strikes me that mercy applies only in the cases where absolute power is exercised over another person or persons. For instance, in this parable the king has absolute power over the servant and may relieve the debt if he wants to. Or, as when a court commutes a death sentence, which it can do having absolute power over the defendant. Or again, in the case of Presidential pardons (but so abused by the most recent incumbent) who can vacate excessive punishments. Still again, student loans can be zeroed out by the bank in their absolute power over a debtor. In some cases, a cost has to be absorbed by the King or bank or society. In Shakespeare’s words, mercy “'is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the thronèd monarch better than his crown.” Then too, when someone has the power to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned or sick (Matthew 25:31-46), one has been merciful with the simplest of powers.
Mercy has mainly to do with instances of power over others. Then, what is the possible relevance of Jesus telling the disinherited and the powerless on that hillside that, if they are merciful, mercy will be shown to them? They have no kind of power over anyone. But, in fact, whoever you are, there is always someone else to lord it over. And so it is with all of us regular, powerless folk—people have power over animals; parents have power over their children; husbands and wives have power over their spouses; employers have power over employees; police over their communities; prison guards over their charges. But because many of these in many instances failed to bestow mercy where it was appropriate, laws had to change to limit power or oblige mercy (husbands have less now since draconian divorce laws giving only the husband absolute powers have been liberalized). Nevertheless, even law can’t reach into private lives where mercy is cruelly withheld. Mercy is pure grace, pure generosity, exacting less than the full measure. Not to be merciful is an abuse of power. The opposite of mercy is cruelty.
Here are three practical implicates of mercy--1) refrain from cruelty; 2) refrain from vengeance; and 3) refrain from taking all the compensation you are entitled to, say, the rents owed in a pandemic.
Your mercy will be rewarded, is God’s promise. And God’s promises are good. But even if you are not rewarded, mercy is fertile. As my Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I believe that justice produces justice, and injustice produces injustice”—a handy echo of today’s Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for you shall receive mercy.” Let’s see what we can do about that! Amen.