When speaking about mercy there can be turns in the road, or forks even, were different aspects can be pondered. Like many other topics on the spiritual life, different facets can be dwelt upon, to the exclusion of others. Sometimes the best way to try to understand mercy, both human and Divine (though the mystery of the Infinite will always be that; mystery), is to contemplate how we experience it in our every day life. Both on the receiving end and in the giving as well… also observing it being distributed in the dramas played out around us.
Often when I am in the emergency room with a charge, I will often hear a sound that truly tears at the human heart. It is the wailing of incomprehension, of a very small child, having some kind of medical intervention done. I would think there are few people in the world who are not affected by such a sound. Here is a child, not understanding why its parents are allowing something truly horrible and painful being done to it, and doing nothing to help. No matter how deeply it screams and looks to its parents for assistance, they do nothing. They just sit there and allow the nightmare to play out. Being adults, we know what is going on. The parents are in reality, because of their love and compassion, having mercy on the child. Doing what is necessary for its well being and physical health.
Also because of the youth of the child, it may have little or no understanding of the pain that it is causing the parents, to have to watch and bear the suffering of their beloved child. Yet they would do nothing to stop it, would not want to in fact. Such is mercy, doing what is necessary for the well being of another, not matter what the cost.
In the parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’ we can see this also. For when the son asked his father for his inheritance; he was in fact saying that he wished his father dead. He, the father, being an obstacle to what he desired, the simple satiation of his greed, was simply in the way of that. The father understanding this, still out of love and yes mercy, allowed his son to go. To leave the father’s love and embrace, for the wider world, a place filled with danger, pain and possibly death. In one commentary that I have read on this parable, the author stated that in Jewish culture at that time, what the son did was an offense punishable by death, so the father again showed mercy by simply letting the son go.
So the son got what he desired and I guess lived the merry life, which is available for those who have the money to expend on it. Of course it ran out. Also the many ‘friends’ he acquired left him and went on to greener pastures. As is known, he ended up feeding pigs, a possible metaphor of how degraded he had become, both morally, as well as his abysmal poverty. So on thinking (for he was I guess narcissistic), he thought that he would return to his father’s house and become his slave. He just wanted food and a place to sleep, for he knew that he would get better treatment working for his father, than he was where he was at. It seems to me that it was not motivated out of love, but of simple need. So he was willing to live a life of servitude to his father. I am not sure the thought of mercy even occurred to him. For he himself was most likely merciless himself, in his treatment of others when he was rich.
The father, knowing his son, his callowness and lack of regard for others, most likely knew what would become of him. So against the advice of his family, he kept vigil for his son, perhaps making a fool of himself in the process, for again the son did a grievous wrong in asking for his part of the inheritance. In the same commentary mentioned above, the author also said that the son, if he returned and the father was not there to protect him, could have been severely punished by those in the village, perhaps even killed. For again, what he did was at that time a very serious crime.
So one day he saw his son, and filled with joy ran to greet him and yes to also possibly to protect him. In doing so he also made a spectacle of himself, for a man of his dignity, to run to greet an inferior was unheard of, for indeed his son was his inferior. He met the son, and before the son could say anything, the Father embraced him, welcomed him back and in the process overwhelming the son. For again the son was most likely unable to show such mercy and compassion on others. So the father’s mercy was something freely given. The father’s allowing the son to go was also a mercy. The son’s degradation, his suffering was also the fruit of the father’s mercy. The coming back, even if the motives were childish and self centered, was yes, also a mercy. Again the fruit of the father allowing the son to go, to do what he willed, to suffer the consequences of his choices, is true mercy.
Mercy does always mean that there is a happy ending. If the above story really happened as Jesus portrayed it, it does not mean that the son could not have done the same thing again, taking advantage of the mercy given to him. Even though mercy is always available, offering new life, a new beginning, there is no assurance that it will be accepted or even wanted. For the prodigal son returned out of need, not love, but it was enough for the father to extend it, for indeed it was never withdrawn.
Perhaps in order for mercy to truly take hold, we need to learn from our experience of receiving it, and by doing so, in understanding the sheer gift that it is, learn to extend it to others. Receiving and giving, give and take, a constant stretching of the heart with grace as the seed that was first planted. So our coming and our going, our sufferings, our failures, our illness and losses, they are all mercies given to us by God. Though we can scream and look to God for a certain kind of assistance, as a child does towards it parents, yet mercy dictates that we have to drink our own chalice, empty it.
When Jesus stated that we should become as little children, perhaps one aspect of that, is to simply keep the ability alive to be able to scream at God, enraged that he seems not to care or help. When in reality because of our youth, we do not understand the deep all consuming suffering God experiences with us, deeper than the most loving of parents, indeed infinite. Infinite love is not human love, it is greater, hotter, and more passionate, and yes ‘seemingly’ crueler than anything humans can do to one another. Mercy demands great faith from us. A child has to in the end, learn that loving parents simply do what they must, and the child must simply endure. Humility, the most childlike of the virtues, allowing us to stand naked before God and to be truthful about whatever it is we are going through. For in humility we know that God sees truth, sees us, and loves us. So whatever we say, express, is known already by God.
Love cast out fear.