"The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
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." --Shakespeare
Mercy is a mystery, perhaps. It's not a word most of us use in everyday conversation, unless we have the habit of saying, "Mercy!" instead of cussing.
Instead of trying to define the word, I'd rather point to the way mercy functions. The gift of mercy spreads the kingdom of heaven; it is the rain that waters the seed of the Kingdom of Heaven and, with regular and gentle repetition, eventually leads to a bountiful harvest. Jesus gives a good description of the cause and effect of mercy:
36 "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
In the parable of the ungrateful servant, the King--God--does not ask us to pay the unbearable debt we owe him; he excuses it. He acts toward us with mercy. A lot of people would describe this as the gospel: the good news. Yet Jesus stipulates: God shows mercy toward the merciful. The unmerciful, however, will not be excused their debt.
If I were a theologian, this sort of parable could drive me nuts. What happened to our good news? Do all who are thirsty get to drink freely from the waters of life, or don't we? Is showing mercy a work of our own, and if it is, will works actually save us? Was Luther barking up the wrong tree entirely? How does God get away with failing to show mercy, yet hold everyone else up to the standard? Does the gospel of grace fall apart on the point of mercy, received and given?
When I was young, my father would lecture me for not understanding the value of money. He was brought up in the Depression and I wasn't, so I'm sure I still don't understand money the way he did.
What was worse, perhaps, was that I did not understand the value of mercy. When I began to appreciate the value of mercy, I understood the obligation that accepting the free gift of forgiveness placed on my heart. I had no choice but to forgive the injustices others had enacted on me. I learned to step aside and let God act through me and do what he does best: I consciously forgot the obligations of others and I passed the mercy along. Sometimes I still fail, but everytime mercy happens through me, I realize that my bond to the giver of the gift is more powerful than any debt owed to me.
When I began to look at God's mercy to us as a free gift, and the mercy we extend to others as an outward sign that we have recieved that gift, it all fell together. Mercy is not a work that saves us, it's sign of a well-watered garden. It shows we've been blessed with showers of grace, we've been immersed in forgiveness, and we are drinking the living water of God's presence in our lives.
If I have been shown mercy and my own debt has been forgiven but I demand every last penny from my friend, it's as though I went to the fountain, I talked about the fountain, I had the water in the fountain analyzed, I read the report about the water in the fountain, I rejoiced in existence of the fountain, perhaps I even threw a party to celebrate the fountain and served up Coke and Sprite from a fully stocked open bar, but I never really drank from the fountain. And if I insist on talking about the living water and never drinking it, then I must not be thirsty. Not God nor anybody else can make me drink the living water when I don't choose to.
If I do at last drink the living water, everyone will know it. Mercy will begin to flow freely from me out to people around me, and never stop.
The kingdom of heaven is not built on lip service, selfishness, and opportunism but on experiencing the presence of God in spirit and in truth. When we embody God's grace with our own actions, we allow others to experience God's presence in their lives and we take part in spreading the Kingdom of heaven.
Like God's free gift of rain on the just and the unjust, mercy increases the harvest. Let mercy lead.