Mercy is that gracious disposition by which a wronged person unilaterally cancels out the wrongs and transgressions of the offender. Mercy is a sheer gift. No one ever deserves mercy. What we all deserve is justice. Mercy on the other is never deserved. It is entirely gratuitous. Mercy does not suggest that the guilty are not guilty. It recognises the guilt of the offender, but does not demand satisfaction for the wrong done. In John 8:1-11 we read the story of the woman caught in the very act of adultery. She was dragged out of the place by the Pharisees and the Scribes and brought to Jesus to hear what he had to say.
The Mosaic Law prescribes that such a person should be stoned to death (see Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22-24). Perhaps they already had stones in their hands, ready to execute this terrible sinner, but they must use the occasion to set a trap for Jesus. He had been speaking so much about mercy, forgiveness and compassion. He had been keeping the company of tax collectors, prostitutes and others who live outside the law. How was he going to react this time? Disobey the sacred law on those convicted for adultery? Was he going to become an advocate for the adulterer? What kind of a prophet would disregard such a clear injunction of God?
Adultery is no doubt a very serious sin, severely condemned in all civilisations. No sane society tolerates aberrant sexuality. Jesus himself was known to be very strict in matters relating to the indissolubility of marriage and marital fidelity. He condemns adultery unequivocally. For Jesus, even the interior consent to an evil desire in matters of sex is already a sin. In Matthew 5:28 he says “a man that looks at a woman lustfully has already committed fornication in his heart.” So the goodness, love and mercy of Jesus does not amount to a laissez-faire attitude towards sexual impurity or marital infidelity. So how was he going to handle this matter brought before him, to test him?
The prosecutors said to Jesus: “Master, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery; and according to the Law of Moses, such a woman is to be stoned to death. What do you say?” But seeing the way they debased, humiliated and dehumanised the woman, Jesus turns away in disgust. He neither looked at the accusers, nor did he look at the woman. Instead, he writes on the ground. However at their continued insistence, he challenged them: “if there is anyone of you who has not sinned, let him be the one to throw the first stone.” On hearing this reaction of Jesus, they must have looked at Jesus, looked at the woman, looked at the stones they had in their hands, then looked at one another, and suddenly it must have dawned on them what he meant. They dropped their stones and from the eldest to the youngest of them, they disappeared as quickly as possible.
When Jesus saw that they had gone, he raised his eyes up, and looking at the woman standing there alone, he asked her: “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And the woman answered, “no one sir.” He then said “Neither do I condemn you. God and sin no more.” So left alone with the woman, with all the adversaries gone, Jesus rehabilitates the her. He restores to her, her God-given dignity as a person, irrespective of her moral state. He frees her from being an object of religious controversy. He relates with her as a person, beloved of God, with endless potentials. The Pharisees and Scribes wanted to take her life, because for them she was a lost cause. They saw no other solution to her sinful life. But Jesus could see the divine potential in her, and so he gives her another chance. He demonstrated to her the love of God which is always available to the believer, constantly calling the sinner her to repentance.
Jesus had succeeded in situating the debate at a different level, a higher level. In the eyes of God, he tells them, all men and women are sinners, and need forgiveness (Luke 6:36-38). We often stigmatise people who are guilty of certain categories of sin. We draw circles around those we identify as big sinners, as if we were free of sin ourselves, as if we are the good ones, and they are the bad ones. We arrest, torture and execute, often by way of mob justice those among us who are guilty of certain categories of sin. With the prevalence of armed robbery in Nigeria, our numerous vigilante groups these days take the license to drag some suspects out of their bed rooms, throw tyres around them or pour petrol over them and set them aflame in broad day light. The police themselves these days hardly take the trouble of taking going through the process of the law with armed robbery suspects. They simply “waste” them. And some of those preside over these merciless acts and others who applaud them, are often in church the following Sunday to pray the Lord’s Praying, asking the Lord to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The greatest attributes of the God we serve are mercy and compassion. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the father of Jesus Christ, is known as the God of mercy and compassion (2 Chron.30:9; Psalm 100:5; Psalm 111:4). He is a God who is rich in mercy; whose anger is for a while, but whose mercy is everlasting. The God we serve is so merciful that he sent his only son to die in our stead, so that we may no longer have to bear the full consequence of our sins (John 3:16). The God we serve allowed his Son to be killed, as an act of mercy and forgiveness, so that his kingdom of love and compassion, his kingdom of forgiveness and reconciliation, his kingdom of peace and happiness, might be established.
Having sacrificed himself for us, the Son of God made love, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion towards those who offend us as the "conditio-sine-qua non" for our admission into his kingdom. He says in Matthew 5:7 "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. In Luke 6:36 he says: "Be compassionate just as your heavenly father is compassionate..." He adds that "the measure you give out is the measure you will receive. In Matthew 6:19 he says, "if you do not forgive your neighbour who sins against you, your heavenly father will not forgive you your own sins also. And in the parable of the unforgiving debtor, whose debts were cancelled when he pleaded with the master, but who dealt ruthlessly with his fellow servant, Jesus said: "that is how the heavenly father will deal with you unless you each forgive from your heart (Matthew 18:35). In what we know as the golden rule, Jesus told us to do unto others what we would like them to do unto us (Matthew 7:12).
The Lord has been very generous to us. He sent His only Son to die on the cross so that we might not perish but have life. It is by God's mercy that we are alive today, in spite of the damnable sins we have committed in the past. We have experienced an undeserved mercy,
Pope John Paul II says in an Encyclical Letter titled "Rich In Mercy" that the greatest weakness of the world today is its lack of mercy. He says that the pursuit of justice in the strict sense is not enough for a humane society. He calls on the world to go beyond strict distributive justice, which means giving each person what he or she deserves, to embrace love, which includes forgiveness, mercy and compassion. The Pope observes that a world without forgiveness will be a cold world of permanent tension, strife and violence.