Mercy of God
MERCY OF GOD
Biblical Basis. The Old Testament tells of God's love manifested in his mercy. This was first manifested in freeing his people from their slavery in Egypt. It is the merciful God who tells Moses that he has heard the cry of his enslaved people and that he will deliver them (Ex 3:7–17). However, God's mercy is manifested foremost in forgiving the infidelity of his people. "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving the iniquity and transgression and sin" (Ex 34:6–7). So important is this text for declaring God's mercy that it is repeated in various forms six times within the Old Testament (Ps 85/86:15, 102/103:8, 144/145:8; Jl 2:13; Neh 9:17; Jn 4:2). The Lord God is a merciful God (Dt 4:31, Ps 114/116:5), who will not turn away his face to those who return to him (2 Chr 30:9). Even though God sent his people into exile, he did not make an end of them or forsake them, "for you are a gracious and merciful God" (Neh 9:31). Similar examples and proclamations can be found throughout the Old Testament.
In the New Testament, the mercy of God finds its fulfillment in that the "The Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort" (2 Cor 1:3) so loved the world that he sent his Son into the world (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 4:10). "God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ" (Eph 2:4). In so doing God remembered his mercy to Israel (Lk 1:54) "to perform the mercy promised to our fathers… to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sin, through the tender mercy of our God" (Lk 1:72 and 78). Even the Gentiles are now to "glorify God for his mercies" (Rom 15:9). Though Paul was the greatest of sinners he obtained the mercy of God so as to be the most extreme example and so hope of God's mercy to all (1 Tm 1:13–16). Thus everyone can now see "how the Lord is compassionate and merciful" (Jas 5:11), for "by his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading" (1 Pt 1:3–4). Jesus is the everlasting great High Priest to whom we can draw near in confidence "that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb 4:16). Christians, therefore, are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation and God very people because "once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy" (1 Pt 2:10). God allowed all to become sinners precisely so "that he may have mercy upon all" (Rom 11:32). The New Testament thus accentuates the mercy of God manifested in the face of humankind's sin. It is the cross of Christ that displays most strikingly the mercy of God for through it the Father has granted forgiveness of sins and the divine transforming life of his Spirit. This mercy is exemplified in anticipation of the cross through Jesus' example and miracles. Jesus, in his mercy, has come to call sinners (Mt 9:13, 12:7). Those who desire to be healed cry out to Jesus to have mercy on them (Mt 9:27, 15:22, 17:15, 20:30–31; Mk 10:47–48; Lk 16:24,18:38–39), and he, in his mercy, attends to their need. Moreover, Jesus, through the parable of the Prodigal Son, illustrates the utter loving mercy of the Father (Lk 15:11–32). Like the Father then, Christians are called to love and forgive their enemies. Christian perfection consists in being "merciful as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36, Mt 5:48).
Christian Tradition. The Fathers of the Church continue the biblical theme of God manifesting his mercy through the redemption wrought in his incarnate Son and in the incorruptible life poured out in his Spirit. Irenaeus states: "To exercise mercy is God's own function" (Demonstration on the Apostolic Preaching, 60). Ambrose, in an astonishing statement, wrote that God did not rest from creating until he had made man, for now he could exercise his mercy, "there now being someone whose sins he could forgive" (In Hex., 6.10). Augustine, in his Confessions, bears witness to the mercy of God throughout the whole of his life. So much was the mercy of God esteemed within the Church's tradition that Aquinas could ask whether mercy is the greatest virtue. He answers that "mercy takes precedence of other virtues, for it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others, and, what is more, to succor others in their wants, which pertains chiefly to one who stands above. Hence mercy is accounted as being proper to God: and therein his omnipotence is declared to be chiefly manifested" (Summa theologiae, II–II.30.4). Mercy is God's greatest virtue because he gives not from any need of his own, but purely and freely from his own loving liberality and kindness (Summa theologiae, I.21.3, 4). For Aquinas, the chief manifestation of God's omnipotence is enacted through his omnipotent deeds of mercy, that is, in deeds that only he can perform. In his Commentary on Ephesians (2.2) Aquinas provides four examples of God's omnipotent deeds that display the richness of his mercy (Eph 2:4). First, the act of creation is itself an omnipotent deed of supreme mercy for in our non-existence, when we could not even cry out for mercy, God in his mercy brought us into existence. Second, God in his mercy made us in his own image and likeness so that we might enjoy his own beatitude. Third, he mercifully recreated us when we were corrupted by sin and death. Fourth, such a renewal was accomplished by the merciful Father sending his only Son. Pope John Paul II states that Jesus as the Incarnate Son "is mercy" in that he embodies in his own person the mercy of the Father (Dives Misericordia, 2). Likewise within the Christian tradition the mercy of God is found within the theology of and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The pierced heart of Jesus not only reveals the immense love and mercy of Jesus himself, but, through his open heart, we are also able to gaze into the merciful heart of the Trinity itself. Equally, more recently Bl. Faustina Kowalska (1905–38), because of her visions, promoted devotion to God's mercy through The Chaplet of Divine Mercy and Novena of Divine Mercy. Liturgically this has found expression in the Second Sunday after Easter being designated the Feast of Mercy.
For the relationship between God's mercy and his justice, see justice of god.
Bibliography: y. congar, "Mercy: God's Supreme Attribute," The Revelation of God (New York 1968) 49–62. b. davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford 1992). john paul ii, Dives in Misericordia (1980).
[t. g. weinandy]