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Posted July 2, 2003

Great Sermon Material; A Great Principle of Life

Cutting to the Core Meaning of Mercy

by Julia Upton, R.S.M. in the New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality


Mercy is the compassionate care for others whereby one takes on the burden of another as one's own. It is an active quality of the virtue of charity, motivated by love. While mercy is often treated as a rather benign term, its power is conveyed more accurately by looking at it in a scriptural context.

"Mercy" is used as the translation of three Hebrew words, the mlost common one being hesed, which has a broad range of meaning. It is the convenanted love between Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 20:13), David and Jonathan (Sam 20:8), and Yahweh and the people (Exod 20:6). It is mutual and enduring, implying action on both parts.

Rahamim, the plural form of "womb," is also translated as "mercy." God's mercy is a nurturing womb, implying a physical response and demonstrating that mercy is felt in the center of one's body. This dimension of mercy also requires action.

Also translated "mercy' is the Hebrew hen/hanan, meaning "grace" or "favor." Unlike the other terms, this is a free gift, with no mutuality either implied or expected. Not necessarily enduring, this quality is dependent solely on hte giver and usually occurs between unequals.

Taken together, these three roots give us an understanding of God's mercy in the Old Testament. It is best demonstrated by Hosea and Jeremiah, who use the analogy of marriage between Yahweh and Israel, showing us that mercy is the fruit of the covenant, forgiving as well as caring and nurturing.

Jesus is the most eloquent witness to mercy in the New Testament. He is never vague in his proclamation of God's mercy, and rather than using parables or discourses, he reveals God's mercy in his everyday relations with people from all strata of society. Jesus is an active agent of God's mercy confronting the crowd about to stone the woman taken in adultery, meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, weeping with the other mourners at the death of Lazarus, and ultimately taking jup the cross laden with the sins of the world and being led to his death.

According to Mt 25:31-46, mercy will be the quality on which the Christian will ultimately be judged. This understanding of the necessity of mercy was also developed in the early Church, particularly in the Didache, which went so far as to state that those who have no mercy will be condemned.

Traditionally these dictates of the Gospel have been handed down to us as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which should characterize the lives Christians lead. The corporal works of mercy require the follower of Jesus to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit those imprisoned, and bury the dead. The spiritual works of mercy include admonishing sinners, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, and praying for the living and the dead. These build on the biblical foundation that one must "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Mic 6:8).