What is Good and Right: Loving Mercy
One of my favourite scripture passages comes from the Old Testament, from Micah 6:8. Micah answers the questions of the people, who want to know how to please God, with this: God has shown you, the people, what is good and right. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. It’s one of the few times where the righteous path is summed up in such a short, succinct – and yet powerful – way; the other perhaps being when Jesus lays out the two most important commandments, loving God and loving your neighbour. This will be a series of three posts that looks at the three things commanded of us in Micah 6:8, something that I’ve been wanting to think more closely on for a while.
Mercy has a power dynamic to it, as well as a particular positioning that needs attending to, a positioning and attending to that the church has been relatively silent on.
The danger of dividing this verse up into segments is that each of the three concepts gets taken up as an individual topic; but, in reality, these ideas don’t exist in silos. They overlap, bleed into, and merge onto each other. Mercy, without taking into consideration justice, can too easily be subverted into structures of injustice.
What do I mean? I think a parable that Jesus told on mercy perfectly illustrates the point that I want to make with this. The parable is found in Matthew 18 and goes like this (paraphrase):
One person owed a great debt to another person of power. There was no way (s)he could pay and when the debt came due, (s)he begged for mercy – and the person in power granted it, erasing the debt completely. The person who had been granted mercy left the room and came across another person who owed a small debt and demanded that they pay it immediately. The person could not pay the small debt and begged for mercy – which, this time, was not given. Instead, the person who owed the small debt was thrown in prison until he could pay the debt. When the person in power found out about this miscarriage of justice and the lack of mercy shown, he ordered the person who owed the great debt jailed and punished.
It may be just me, but many of the songs and sermons I hear in the church are about the greatness of God’s mercy bestowed on us (“Mercy is falling like a sweet spring rain…”) but little attention is paid to how we might grant mercy to others. Mercy necessitates that it be given from a position of power or leverage, it is those in power over others who are able to bestow mercy, like those in the parable. We might know about the great debt Christ (the person in power in the parable) has erased for us through his death, but what does it mean for us to be the one in (relative) power and able to give mercy to those who have less power than us, to enact justice and mercy for those who cannot repay debts to us?
As I’ve written before, those in the church rarely hear of or see themselves as the ones with privilege and power; we are too unwilling to confront ourselves as possible oppressors. But that’s how this parable positions those in the church, as those who have had their great debt erased but are unwilling to grant mercy to others. Perhaps one of the reason we hear so little about our own failures to grant mercy, and our willingness to accept God’s mercy, is that we refuse to see ourselves as in a position of power, choosing to instead see ourselves as solely in need of mercy. Instead, how do we love mercy in this sense that this parable demonstrates – as being willing to both accept and give mercy?
To love mercy means to love seeing debts owed to us erased. To love mercy means to use what power we might have to relieve the suffering of others. To love mercy means seeing both how we have been humbled, but also how we can turn around and walk humbly with others. To love mercy is to recognize our power; not to offer mercy out of that power – this is more of benevolence – but to give mercy through the recognition of our own need for mercy, though our humility. To give mercy without recognizing our own power and positioning is a sort of false humility and false justice.
Justice, mercy, and humility all intersect here. Mercy demands intersections and connections with justice and humility.
How do we enact mercy among those who ‘owe debts’ to society, as dictated by our court and prison systems? How do we demonstrate mercy to our children? How do we show mercy while bringing justice? How does mercy, when done through humility, act as part of a holistic justice mission?
I’ve often been uncomfortable with the concept of mercy and I think it is because it has too often been shaped as a sort of benevolence or false humility rather than connected to justice and humility, the other parts of this verse. I’m not sure if I’ve loved mercy, but to do so demands an embrace of its possibilities in our lives, both in being humbled but also in our own sacrifice for others through a shared inability to repay our debts and through our shared failures and quests for justice.
Part 1 is here.