Thinking Anew – The quality of mercy
It isn’t fair that certain things happen but life isn’t always fair. It is only natural that we would see unfairness as injustice. When bad things happen good people, when effort is not recognised; when effort is not thanked; a person can easily feel they have been treated unjustly. Usually they are correct in this feeling but not always. Who is responsible for sicknesses, accidents and natural disasters? When we have nobody else to blame for our suffering we can always blame on the God whose actions are not covered by our insurance. God takes the blame for natural unfairness.
From the moment we started to believe in God we have always imagined God as the paragon of good human behaviour. We have made God all-knowing and all-deciding so God is easy to blame when our natural sense of fairness is disturbed. That disturbance is one of the best features of humanity. Something inside us can identify something as being wrong without knowing why it is wrong.
There is little doubt that the son who said he would help in his father’s vineyard but did not did not do his father’s will. The second son defied his father but then went to work in the vineyard. He is mostly perceived as the good son. Our natural sense of fairness sees the son who went from bad to good as better than the son who went from good to bad. When a good person does something bad we treat it as a scandal. When a bad person does something good we treat it with caution. The sons in Jesus’ story are fictional and easy to judge. When fiction turns to fact the answers are not always as easy.
Take the question about the obedience of sons and change it to the recovery of an addict, the rehabilitation of the outsider or the return of the wanderer. It isn’t always easy to believe or accept reform. Apprehensiveness comes naturally to most of us, even though it is not fair and can make the reformation unnecessarily difficult. This is an unfairness that cannot be blamed on God. It is an unfairness of our own making even though it occurs naturally. Going beyond our natural apprehension can make us great people.
Ultimately, our storyteller would face the great unfairness of his own execution. Rather than ranting about the unfairness of his case he offered forgiveness and mercy to those who killed him. It is an example that has been repeated many times. While it never prolonged the life of the condemned it certainly made them worth remembering. Whether religious or political the one who forgives the executioner has some esteem. Do we have a natural appreciation of the magnanimity of mercy? There will always be diehard cynics who will deride it, but mercy usually impresses people when it is given.
We can regulate or legislate against the unfair things we do to each other. God will shoulder the blame for the unfairness of nature. How do we deal with unfairness that is neither illegal nor unnatural? Just as the two sons in the Gospel had the power of decision, so do we all. Every one of us has the power to decide to avoid unfairness. It might not be as dramatic (or draconian) as an execution but Christian mercy is at its best when we freely decide to do something better than a legal minimum.
Shakespeare told us that mercy blesses both giver and receiver. Life gets better for everybody when we choose higher standards than justice and fatalism.