A Season of Lent: On Mercy

The wicked naturally prefer mercy…

“Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets.” (Daniel 9:7-10)

“And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” (Luke 1:50 )

“Jesus invited a little child to stand among them. “Truly I tell you,” He said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.…” (Matthew 18:3)

Lenten Prayer: Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world. Amen. Ora Pro Nobis.

Chesterton gives us a clue as to why he chooses a children’s play to talk about mercy and judgement and our proper view of them when talking in the context of families and households: that they should not be understood as “timid and prim” but as “bold and vigorous” as children are in their clear assessments of people.  To them justice and mercy are ‘first things’. This is what Jesus is referring to when he tells us that we must become as little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Mercy and justice are elemental and wild things that we should fear and love as a child fears the nursery fire but loves its warmth, Chesterton says.  And when he does, he is making an allusion to what is known today as false mercy (indulgence) and harsh judgement (vengeance). These are not elemental things, properly balanced and essential in nature.  Real mercy and judgement, on the other hand, are paradoxical, wild and elemental, to be both loved and feared, just as we should feel about God and obedience to Him.  This is what the woman taken in adultery knows as she accepts the mercy extended to her by Jesus with the caveat: “Go and sin no more“.  She follows Jesus.  She doesn’t go back to her curiously missing adulterous partner and try to legalize the relationship and claim she won’t “sin” anymore now that she has what she wants.  Her response is like that of a trusting and obedient child.  Curiously, one of Chesterton’s most famous observations on mercy comes from an essay entitled “On Household Gods and Goblins” which begins with the review of a children’s play, “The Bluebird“:

“I will not go so far as to say that the Blue Bird was a Blue Devil, but it left us in something seriously like the blues. The children were partly dissatisfied with it because it did not end with a Day of Judgment; because it was never revealed to the hero and heroine that the dog had been faithful and the cat faithless. For children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” – G. K. Chesterton, On Household Gods and Goblins, 1922

Or to put it another way, Alexander Dumas, a subject of Chesterton’s highlighted the paradox of mercy and justice in one of his famous stories.

The mindset that wrote “The Count of Monte Cristo” properly understood the paradox of mercy and justice. Paradox, as you may recall, represents God’s higher thinking.  Our society today  no longer understand paradox because it has rejected God.  Now it thinks solely in a material and secular way.

That is why mercy has become false mercy and justice has disappeared in the face of its over emphasis. If one is lifted up, it is lifted up to the exclusion of the other. A story like The Count of Monte Cristo still appeals because people are not receiving the justice their hearts long for. But it could never be written today because evil hearts want false mercy too much.

In the days of Dumas, men needed to be reminded of mercy. In the days of present society, we need to be reminded of justice.

Some of us are trying to be as little children the way Christ told us to be because we can’t enter the Kingdom unless we become like them. (Matthew 18:3)  Children are more inclined to trust, that is true.  But they also long for and have not forgotten justice must be served as well.

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