Mercy (Middle English, from Anglo-French merci, from Medieval Latin merced-, merces, from Latin, “price paid, wages”, from merc-, merxi“merchandise”) is a broad term that refers to benevolence, forgiveness and kindness in a variety of ethical, religious, social and legal contexts.
The concept of a “Merciful God” appears in various religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Performing acts of mercy as a component of religious beliefs is also emphasized through actions such as the giving of alms, and care for the sick and Works of Mercy.
In the social and legal context, mercy may refer both to compassionate behavior on the part of those in power (e.g. mercy shown by a judge toward a convict), or on the part of a humanitarian third party, e.g., a mission of mercy aiming to treat war victims.
In the Old Testament God is considered “Merciful and Gracious” and is praised for it, e.g. as in Psalms 103 (8). The emphasis on mercy appears in numerous parts of the New Testament, e.g., as in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:7: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy”. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) Jesus describes fatherly mercy as “a gratuitous, generous gift”. In Ephesians 2:4 Apostle Paul refers to the mercy of God in terms of salvation: “God, being rich in mercy,… even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ”.
Psalm 117 calls upon all nations to praise the Lord, and that on account of his “merciful kindness”. This is quoted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 15:11 to show that God has now fulfilled this prophecy and promise through Jesus Christ, who has been merciful in giving his life as a sacrifice for his people, both Jew and Gentile. Thus St Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9,10, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light;Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.”
This devotional element of mercy as part of the Christian tradition was echoed by Saint Augustine who called mercy “ever ancient, ever new”. The Works of Mercy (seven corporal and seven spiritual works) are part of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the importance of the Works of Mercy (item 2447) and in Roman Catholic teachings, the mercy of God flows through the work of the Holy Spirit. Roman Catholic liturgy includes frequent references to mercy, e.g., as in Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.
In the 20th century, there was new focus on mercy in the Roman Catholic Church, partly due to the Divine Mercy devotion. The primary focus of the Divine Mercy devotion is the merciful love of God and the desire to let that love and mercy flow through one’s own heart towards those in need of it.
Pope John Paul II was a follower of the Divine Mercy devotion, due to Saint Mary Faustina Kowalska (1905–1938), who is known as the Apostle of Mercy. Pope John Paul II established Divine Mercy Sunday. In his long encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Latin for Rich in Mercy) he examined the role of mercy — both God’s mercy, and also the need for human mercy.
A number of Roman Catholic shrines are specifically dedicated to Divine Mercy, e.g. the Basilica of Divine Mercy in Krakow Poland, and the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy (Stockbridge, Massachusetts). During the dedication of the Basilica of Divine Mercy John Paul II quoted the Diary of Faustina and called mercy the “greatest attribute of God Almighty”.
In Islam the title “Most Merciful” (al-Rahman) is one of the names of Allah and Compassionate (al-Rahim), is the most common name occurring in the Quran. Rahman and Rahim both derive from the root Rahmat, which refers to tenderness and benevolence. As a form of mercy, the giving of alms (zakat) is the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam and one of the requirements for the faithful.
In the Jewish Bible mercy is one of the outstanding attributes of God. In the central revelation at Sinai is to recognize YHWH as “the Lord is a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (2 Exodus 34.6). This is emphasized in the Babylonian exile, “The Lord has comforted his people and is kind to his arms. […] Can a woman forget her infant, a mother the child of her womb? And even if they would forget him. I will never forget you “(Isaiah 49,13.15) why is the demand of mercy to the people”. It is good to pray and fast, to be merciful and just “(Tobit 12:8).
Psalm 117 in the Jewish Bible calls upon all nations to praise the Lord, and that on account of his “merciful kindness”. This is quoted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 15:11 to show that God has now fulfilled this prophecy and promise through Jesus Christ, who has been merciful in giving his life as a sacrifice for his people, both Jew and Gentile. Thus St Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9,10, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light;Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.”
Other religions and beliefs
Karuṇā (often translated as “compassion”) is part of the beliefs of both Buddhism and Jainism. Karuṇā is present in all schools of Buddhism and in Jainism it is viewed as one of the reflections of universal friendship.
Law and ethics
To be mercy, the behavior generally can not be compelled by outside forces. A famous literary example that alludes to the impact of the ethical components of the mercy on the legal aspects is from The Merchant of Venice when Portia asks Shylock to show mercy. He asks, “On what compulsion, must I?” She responds:
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.
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- Divine Mercy
- Fathers of Mercy
- Mercy Corps
- Our Lady of Mercy
- Sisters of Mercy
- Works of Mercy
- Virgin of Mercy
- Mercies Remembered by Matthew R Mauriello 2011 ISBN 1-61215-005-5 page 149-160
- World religions and Islam: a critical study, Part 1 by Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi, 2003 Sarup and Sons Publishers ISBN 81-7625-414-2 page 211
- Forgiveness, mercy, and clemency by Austin Sarat, Nasser Hussain 2006 ISBN 0-8047-5333-4 pages 1-5
- Reflections of equality by Christoph Menke 2006 ISBN 0-8047-4474-2 page 193
- We Believe in the Holy Spirit by Andrew Apostoli 2002 ISBN 1-931709-31-9 pages 105-107
- Hooker, Richard (July 14, 1999). “arkan ad-din the five pillars of religion”. Washington State University. 
- Augustine, Confessions, Book X, 27
- Am With You Always by Benedict Groeschel 2010 ISBN 978-1-58617-257-2 page 548
- Vatican website Catechism item 2447
- Catholic encyclopedia: Kyrie Eleison
- Ann Ball, 2003 Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices ISBN 0-87973-910-Xpage 175
- Butler’s lives of the saints: the third millennium by Paul Burns, Alban Butler 2001 ISBN 978-0-86012-383-5 page 252
- Saints of the Jubilee by Tim Drake 2002 ISBN 978-1-4033-1009-5 pages 85-95
- Vatican website: Dives in Misericordia
- Vatican website: Shrine of Divine Mercy
- Vatican website: Dedication of the Shrine of Divine Mercy
- Zenit April 2, 2008
- Catholic News Service, APril 3, 2008
- After the exile by John Barton, David James Reimer 1997 ISBN 978-0-86554-524-3 page 90
- Guan Yin: goddess of compassion by Kok Kiang Koh 2004 ISBN 981-229-379-5 pages 6-8