“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…
“It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.” —William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1
Our English word “mercy” comes from the French word “merci,” commonly “thank you.” But a more idiomatic translation of merci would be something like “paid in full.” Thank you, nothing further is owed between us. The debt is paid. The agreement is signed and sealed.
Shakespeare’s beautiful description of mercy describes it as a generous gift poured out freely like the rain. Mercy is not conditional. Mercy is not given out parsimoniously, but abundantly, excessively, over and above what might be expected or hoped for.
And Shakespeare is correct to say that mercy is an attribute of God, one that we would do well to make use of ourselves, because God has had mercy on us through his Son Jesus.
When Jesus was criticized for his associations with sinners, he responded by quoting Hosea 6, where the Lord says:
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” —Hosea 6:6 (NIV)
I’m thinking about mercy because it came up in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). At the end of his story, Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who was beaten by robbers?” The reply given was, “The one who had mercy on him.” Then Jesus answered, “Go and do likewise.”
Go and do likewise. Go and be merciful. In the context of that parable, go and seek ways to be compassionate to those we encounter who are suffering or in need of kindness and help.
There are a lot of those kinds of people wandering the earth. In both Jesus’ parable and in Shakespeare’s soliloquy, true mercy is big, extravagant, unexpected and generous. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:4-5 that God’s rich mercy was shown to us by Christ dying on the cross for us even though we had rejected God.
In the case of the Samaritan, mercy looked like binding up the wounds of a complete stranger and paying for his care, despite the likelihood that the wounded man would have rejected any association with the Samaritan under normal circumstances.
How do we live out that sort of mercy, that sort of unconditional love, in our day to day encounters with the people God puts in our path? How do we get past the prejudices and self-centered instincts that cause us to look the other way when we see people in need?
How do we learn to live as people who rain down mercy on God’s earth?