Acting on Mercy

My dear friends,

The Bible reveals that God is a God of mercy, that mercy is part of God’s very nature. This being true, it is not surprising that the Lord calls us to be merciful, we who are made in God’s own image. During this special Jubilee year, we will be talking a lot about mercy, so perhaps the best way to begin is by understanding what mercy is from a biblical perspective.

To understand the biblical roots of a word, I have often turned to William Barclay, a 20th century protestant biblical scholar. The following is what he says about mercy:

 The Hebrew word for mercy is “chesedh”, which means the ability to get right inside another person’s skin until we can see things with their eyes, understand their thoughts, and feel as they feel. It denotes a sympathy which is not given from outside, but which comes from a deliberate identification with the other person. Sympathy is derived from two Greek words, “syn” which means together with, and “paschein” which means to experience or to suffer. Sympathy means experiencing things together with the other person, literally going through what they are going through.

There is always a reason why a person thinks and acts as they do, and if we knew that reason, it would be so much easier to understand, to sympathize, and to forgive.

Barclay’s explanation reminds me of the expression, “You can’t judge a man unless you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” The whole mystery of God becoming a human being, becoming like us, is a mystery of mercy, of profound compassion. In Jesus, God literally gets into our skin, he walks in our shoes. This is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews is trying to express to the first Christian communities:

“We see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels . . . that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one . . . He was made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. Because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. (So), we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 2:17-18; 4:15)

Jesus’ heart overflows with great mercy and compassion. Always seeking out the lost, the poor, the sick, the suffering and oppressed–he even forgives and prays for those mocking him and putting him to death. Jesus is drawn to the suffering of sinners like a magnet, eagerly longing to pour the healing balm of forgiveness and the gift of new life into their aching hearts.

Mercy can come quite naturally to spouses or to parents regarding their children, because of the deep physical and affective bond that connects them. During the passion of Jesus, though his mother Mary followed at a distance, she felt every blow and every insult against her son as though inflicted upon herself.

We are not always able to walk the same path of the people we encounter or with whom we live and work, but through mercy we can open our hearts to them, taking them and their need and suffering into ourselves–freely choosing to share their burden and do what we can to relieve and assist them.

I will never forget two 7th grade girls from St. Michael’s parish in Pine Island, Minnesota. There is a nursing home about six blocks from the school, and once or twice a week these two girls went over to the nursing home after school to visit the elderly residents who were lonely. What a beautiful expression of mercy! They identified with the resident’s loneliness, feeling it as if it was their own, and poured all their love into these lonely hearts.

In my next bulletin article, I will talk more specifically about how Faith brings a greater breadth and depth to mercy, adding something more to merely human expressions of mercy or sympathy.

Wishing you all a week filled with mercy,

Fr. Steven



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