The Bible offers two perspectives on mercy: (1) compassion for persons in need and (2) forbearance shown to an offender who is one under one’s power.
The first is illustrated by Jesus’ tale of the Good Samaritan who showed mercy to a victim of a roadside robbery. He told this story in answer to a question of who is my neighbor. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus instructed (Luke 10:29-37).
The second is shown in the plea of Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love!
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions (Psalm 51:1 NRSV).
God. The Hebrew Scriptures frequently specify mercy as an attribute of God:
Because the LORD your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you (Deuteronomy 4:31 NRSV).
For the LORD your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him (2 Chronicles 30:9 NRSV).
The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103.8 NSRV).
The 23rd Psalm affirms that the Lord is my shepherd who provides for my needs, keeps me calm, is with me in face of adversity so that I fear no evil. Accordingly “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:1-6 NSRV).
The Hebrews. As an expression of compassion, early on the Hebrew people learned to welcome and show hospitality to strangers. Thus, when three men appeared to Abraham (himself an immigrant) before his tent, he offered them food and drink. They turned out to be angels in disguise and told him that his wife Sarah, childless in old age, would bare a son, leading to a great nation (Genesis 18:1-15).
The strangers went next to Sodom to the home of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. He took them in, fed them, and protected them from men of Sodom, who wanted to gang rape them. Warned to flee by the angels, Lot and his family left Sodom before the Lord destroyed the city with fire and brimstone (Genesis 19:1-23).
The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament summarizes this experience in a single verse: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
As the Israelites were wandering in the Sinai wilderness, God had Moses instruct them, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Also translated “sojourner”, “stranger”, “foreigner,” “resident alien.”
Repeatedly the Israelites are told to care for widows, orphans, the poor, and immigrants. For instance, allow them to glean for grain, to pick up fallen grapes and olives (Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 24:20-21). A proverb teaches, “Those who are generous to the poor are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9. NRSV). The prophet Zechariah warned the people, “Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor” (Zechariah 7:10).
Jesus. Given the Jewish tradition Jesus was raised in, it was natural for him to show concern for those in need. From the beginning, healing the sick was a major feature of Jesus’ ministry. Scholars tell us that about one-fifth of the gospel narrative is dedicated to this story.
Although Jesus’ healing minister was directed mainly to fellow Jews, he also healed the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), the son of a royal official, a Gentile (John 4:46-54), the servant of a centurion, an officer in the occupying Roman army (Matthew 8:5-13), and a Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19).
In Jesus’ allegory of the Last Judgment, a variety of acts of mercy are rewarded: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, visiting prisoners (Matthew 25:31-46). Remember: in this story it is nations who are gathered before the Son of Man to be judged for their deeds. Individuals, of course, are expected to do these things, and also institutions of society.
On giving to the poor Jesus advised: Don’t do it publicly to seek praise as the hypocrites do but rather give in secret. Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (Matthew 6:2-4). For carrying out acts of mercy Jesus taught humility, telling his disciples that “the one who is greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).
Apostles. Following Jesus’ example, the apostles showed their compassion in healing ministry. Thus, one day when Peter and John were going to the temple, Peter cured a man who had been crippled since birth (Acts 3:1-10). Regularly the apostles would come together at Solomon’s Porch where “large numbers of persons from towns around Jerusalem would gather, bringing their sick and those harassed by unclean spirits. Everyone was healed” (Acts 5:12-16).
As a community of believers, they “were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them” (Acts 2:44-45). In the early church this sharing extended to congregations in such places as Antioch, Galatia, Corinth, and Macedonia which took up collections to send to the poor in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8:1-5). This set the stage for two millennia of diverse charitable activities by the Christian church.
In listing tasks of church leadership Paul included gifts of healing and the ability to help others (1 Corinthians 12:28). He told the church in Corinth, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). In a farewell address to the leaders of the church in Ephesus he said:
In everything I have shown you that, by working hard, we must help the weak. In this way we remember Lord Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
It is this heritage that we draw upon in our time as we offer mercy and show compassion for persons in need. It is another way of living in God’s kingdom here and now.
Mercy in Action
We don’t have to be heroic like the Good Samaritan to offer mercy. (Though there are still occasions for heroism.) Rather there are many simple tasks we can undertake. Indeed “mercy” may be a too grandiose term for caring for others in simple ways.
Tasks for individuals and social groups. We can visit homebound persons, such as the elderly, the infirm, young parents, to show friendship, help them overcome isolation, run errands. We can give them rides to the doctor, church, shopping center, and other places. We can provide respite care so that relatives and other caregivers can get out of the house for a while. We can undertake these tasks as individuals or in collaboration with others in our congregation.
Matthew 25 provides an agenda for our expressions of mercy. We can feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and provide clothing for the ill-clothed. Among the tasks are making and distributing sandwiches to the homeless, cooking meals for persons living in shelters, serving as volunteers in organizations that provide drop-in meals, collecting and distributing clothing. We should perform these tasks with humility, realizing that persons in need don’t want to be looked down upon.
Congregations can band together to organize and operate such programs and make financial contributions to support their joint operation. Indeed many cities and counties have these kinds of organizations, funded by churches and other groups. Food banks operate with donations from wholesalers and grocery stores to provide perishable and nonperishable food for families and single individuals. Volunteers can work in such operations.
We can visit persons in prison, seek to understand their situation and their needs, help them prepare for release, support them in transition to freedom. In doing so we should heed Jesus’ teaching: “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged” (Mathew 7:1). We should remember the phrase: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” And Paul’s advice to the Romans: “don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” (Romans 12:3).
We can connect Jesus’ phrase “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” with the persistent counsel in the Old Testament to show hospitality to strangers (that is, sojourners, aliens, immigrants). Today this is a huge challenge in the United States and elsewhere as millions migrate to escape tyranny (as Jesus’ family did), seek freedom, and strive for economic opportunity. This is a justice issue, as we explore on another page, but it’s also an opportunity to show compassion for persons in need. Thus, congregations can assist immigrant families to find housing, obtain clothing, furniture and other household items, learn a new language, go through the adjustment of resettlement.
And there are other needs that Matthew 25 doesn’t mention. Housing for one. The lack of affordable housing for low income persons is a problem in many cities. Although needed response requires action by government and social institutions, church members can support individuals making a transition out of homelessness. Congregations can sponsor low-rent housing projects. Individuals can undertake home repairs for elderly persons and can volunteer with such programs as Habitat for Humanity to build new units.
Because getting a good education is essential for obtaining steady employment, individuals can serve as volunteers in local schools and as tutors in adult literacy programs. Persons with special knowledge can assist in job training programs.
There are other ways to serve persons in need. Look around and find tasks that you can fulfill, realizing that this is part of living in God’s kingdom on earth.
Government. As previously noted, in Jesus’ allegory of the Last Judgment it is “all the nations” that will be gathered before the Son of Man sitting on the throne in his glory (Matthew 25:31-32a NRSV). So it’s not only individuals who will be judged whether they serve “the least of these.” It’s nations, too.
Nations function through governments. At best these governments operate with “the consent of the governed”, as the American Declaration of Independence states. Using language of the U.S. Constitution, we the people use our governments to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
This means that we can use our governments to carry out acts of mercy by helping to provide food assistance, proper health care, adequate housing, quality education, employment opportunities, and other basic needs for everyone. We can also use our governments to achieve “liberty and justice for all.”
In this sense government is our servant, and we are its master. Accordingly, public policy advocacy is an important tool for bringing about good living conditions in God’s kingdom on earth. We talk more about this approach in the page on justice in action.
Beyond our personal efforts and governmental activities, charitable organizations can play important roles in carrying out missions of mercy. Altogether these endeavors respond to the first meaning of mercy: showing compassion for persons in need.
Forbearance. As to the second meaning—mercy as forbearance shown to an offender who is under one’s power—we can heed Jesus’ teaching, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36 NRVS). As we want God to have mercy on us for our transgressions, we should also show mercy to persons who have offended us.
This relates to forgiveness and to love for enemy, which we have previously discussed. It will come up again in the page on justice in action when we consider restorative justice.
When we offer mercy in this manner, we recognize the wisdom of Portia’s speech in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene I):
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes:
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
We can add Jesus’ beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7 NSRV).