The office I worked in had an employee manual as thick as a phone book. During my first week on the job, I read the whole thing—attendance policies, dress codes, work-station guidelines—and like all the other employees, I signed the first page, attesting to the fact that I had understood the rules.
“Maybe you could just give the guy a break.”
Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw coworkers eating entire meals at their desk, wearing jeans on days other than Fridays, and chitchatting in the copy room when there were strict policies against these behaviors. Another teammate arrived a few minutes late almost daily, and I wondered why she hadn’t been written up, in accordance with the attendance policy. And when I heard the man in the cubicle next to mine making and receiving personal calls throughout the day, I was incensed. Why can’t they just follow the rules?
One day I was complaining to friends about work, feeling outraged over the latest policy violations.
“Basically, this one guy just stands around talking all the time and never actually gets any work done,” I said.
“Could you talk to his supervisor?” Kelly suggested.
“I guess,” I said, nodding slowly. “I could probably talk to my supervisor, even.”
I turned to Erik to see what advice he might have, but he simply said: “Do you know you have a high justice quotient?”
I stared at him blankly.
Most of the times that the word mercy is used in Scripture, it refers to God extending a hand to those in need. But God also desires mercy from us.
“You seem to take it personally when people don’t obey the rules,” he explained. “Maybe you could just give the guy a break. What if he had to arrange child care?”
When Jesus delivered His famous Sermon on the Mount, He told the crowds that the merciful are blessed because they’ll receive mercy. I imagine at least some in the audience wondered, as I do, how regular people like us could extend mercy in a meaningful way to others. We have such little power over other people. Few of us are owed serious debts. And certainly none of us have the power to exonerate criminals or excuse offenders. God is the merciful one. He alone ultimately holds the power of pardon and forgiveness.
To be sure, most of the times that the word mercy is used in Scripture, it refers to God extending a hand to those in need. But God also desires mercy from us. When Jesus told His disciples and the Pharisees to “go and learn what this means” (Matt. 9:13), surely He was making a way for us to learn mercy as well—including the lesson that mercy prioritizes compassion over strict adherence to rules.
I don’t ever want to hear that you’re short-staffed,” I snapped at the nurse and case manager of my mom’s nursing home not long ago, “because that’s not my problem.”
“We understand,” one of them replied softly. Tension hung thick in the room.
“I don’t actually care whether you are short-staffed or not,” I said, repeating myself, “because Mom still needs to be cared for.” I felt my throat catch but was determined not to cry. That was last summer’s approach to helping mom navigate the new world of assisted living and skilled nursing. This was the year of strong and firm. Confident.
“You’re absolutely right. Staffing is not your problem,” the case manager said. “But when someone calls in sick at the last minute, the staff just can’t get everything done. They have to decide what’s most important at the time.”
I felt myself softening.
In a place where compassion should be everyone’s first order of business, occasionally needs get overlooked and tasks go undone. No one likes it—the nurses and aides least of all. And often it seems easier for me to get mad and lash out than to work toward a solution. But when the work of compassionate care falls short, shouldn’t I set things aright with more mercy and not less?
We see Jesus address this issue more than once with the Pharisees when they find Him breaking the Sabbath (Matt. 12). According to The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, the conflict over what it means to rest from work illustrates Jesus’ model for interpreting the law, which differed from the Pharisees’. Whereas they built “an ever tighter fence around the strictest interpretation of the law to keep from breaking it,” Jesus “instead pursued the point of biblical texts in the situation in which they were written.” And when it came to human need versus adherence to rules, He said over and over, quoting the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6 NIV). Or, as the IVP Commentary suggests, “Human need in general takes precedence over regulations.”
On the other hand, mercy doesn’t eliminate the need for justice. In fact, Jesus said we need to learn the difference between mercy and sacrifice, not mercy and justice. God’s kingdom operates on the principles of making things right. If that didn’t matter to God, He wouldn’t have sent His only Son to mend what had been broken by sin. But the rule-keeping of justice is different than the rule-keeping of sacrifice, or ritual. In the former, we uphold a standard of fairness for both ourselves and our communities. In the latter, we cross t’s and dot i’s in trying to please God yet fail to realize what He really wants is for us to love Him and each other.
When it came to human need versus adherence to rules, He said over and over, quoting the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
It’s the principle Micah explains to Judah, a nation who kept God’s rituals but lacked both compassion and principle.
“Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil?” Micah asks. And in the next breath, he answers: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:7-8).
Jesus says the same thing to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23: You’re great at the easy parts of the law, like tithing, but when it comes to the weightier matters, like justice and mercy and faithfulness, not so much. “These are the things you should have done without neglecting the others,” He says. In essence, Jesus actually does want our sacrifices, but He just doesn’t want us to prioritize them above what really matters.
In Matthew 9:10-13, we find the Lord reclining at the table with “tax collectors and sinners”—possibly friends of Matthew, the tax collector whom He had just invited to be a disciple. When the Pharisees saw Jesus with unsavory people, they asked His disciples why a so-called teacher would associate Himself with such a crowd? I’ve often wondered what the disciples would have said if Jesus hadn’t stepped in and answered the question Himself. Did they understand, as He had told them, that it’s the unhealthy who need a doctor, and not the well? And perhaps more importantly, did they realize that disciple, Pharisee, and tax collector alike were equally sick?
In other words, to receive mercy, people need to realize they’re sinners, but they also need to see their own sinfulness in order to extend mercy. It’s like a doctor who suddenly practices medicine more compassionately after he finds himself on the other side of the scalpel. Over the years, I’ve read dozens of these stories, like the one about Kamal Malaker, a clinical oncologist in Antigua, who suddenly needed heart bypass surgery. After decades of treating others, Malaker said finding himself in the vulnerable position of patient gave him more empathy and helped him “exchange shoes with [his] patient[s].”
“I now spend a lot more time … when they come asking for help,” he said. “Whatever they want to talk to me about, I listen.”
What’s more, in the school of mercy, facing our own sin teaches not only humility and empathy; it’s also a beginning-level course in the arithmetic of spiritual debt.
In Matthew 18, Jesus tells the story of the unforgiving servant, who, after being forgiven a large debt, refuses to extend even a little mercy to a fellow servant owing him much less. When the master finds out, he chastises the wicked servant: “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matt. 18:32-33 NIV).
Of course, the master doesn’t mention the size of either debt, but the amounts owed don’t really matter—at any level, forgiveness comes at a cost. Mercy also can never be paid back; it doesn’t create a new layer of debt when we give it away. Instead, it’s like an investment: With each act of forgiveness, we give and receive the mercy we need in order to pardon the next debt that’s owed.
But like the unforgiving servant, I sometimes feel as if I’ve come to the end of my capacity to forgive or am facing a debt too large to pardon. In fact, it seems Peter was getting close to that point himself when he asked Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother who sins against him—the very question that prompted Jesus to tell the parable in the first place.
By the end of the story, though, Jesus’ point is clear: Others’ debts don’t determine how much compassion we should show them. God’s lovingkindness does. And perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn in Jesus’ school of mercy is simply this: Though we can never “out mercy” God, He invites us to keep trying, as often as it takes—seventy times seven, and beyond.
Illustrations by Ilya Milstein