The Price of Mercy – Full Text

The price of mercy

In this series on Mercy I have quoted from the Holy Father and from the Gospel. This month I’d like to consider a quote from Shakespeare. Now you might think that Shakespeare is not an appropriate source for a quote. He was neither a Pope nor a noted Catholic writer. There is, however evidence that he was a secret Catholic and he is a world famous writer.

In his play, The Merchant of Venice, his character, Portia is pleading for the life of Antonio with the following words;

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:

Now I was never the greatest Shakespeare scholar but that quote has stuck in my head for over fifty years. I can agree with some of the sentiments it contains but I disagree on one important aspect. The quote seems to suggest that mercy is free, dropping from Heaven. Now it is true that God’s mercy that brings us to salvation comes from Heaven but it is certainly not free. Jesus paid a heavy price to save us.

It is worth considering if mercy is ever free. The recent case of Fr. Hamel, the priest who was murdered while celebrating Mass in his parish in France poses a question for us. How are we to respond to the threat of such violence against Catholic priests and parishioners? Do we need to step up security in our churches? Will priests require someone riding shotgun at the Mass?

What is the Christian response? Perhaps we should look at the incident in France more closely. It was reported that Fr. Hamel said “Go away Satan” to his attacker. I find this very significant; it’s not what would spring to my mind in that situation. Why did he say that? What did he mean? My first thought was that he was referring to ISIS as the work of the Devil.

These attackers bring death to those whose religious beliefs differ from their own, even among Muslim believers. Christians see God as the giver of life, the great gift we all have from God. Only God can take back that gift. We see the Devil as bringer of death. For ISIS to boast about bringing death to other believers could be seen as being associated with the Devil. It could be then that Fr. Hamel was referring to his attackers as Satan. There may be another explanation however.

His short sentence, “Go away Satan.” Reminds me of the words of Jesus when he was tempted by the Devil in the desert. He said, “Get thee behind me Satan.” Was that in Fr. Hamel’s mind when he was attacked? Surely he was being attacked, not tempted. I would have given a more violent response in his situation. Is that where the clue lies? Did Fr. Hamel see past the immediate danger to his life and recognise another danger? If his response had been one of hate of his attacker than that would be contrary to his priestly life of preaching God’s love. Fr. Hamel perceived the attack as Satan’s attack on his faith.

Fr. Hamel’s response has highlighted the greatest danger that such attacks present. The natural response to violence is violence. Christ’s teaching and example refutes that. His response to violence was love. As Christians we too must resist the pressure to resort to violence. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbour – even when that neighbour is an enemy. If we abandon that then we are abandoning the core of Christ’s teaching and Satan is the winner.

What does that mean for us? Should we defend ourselves against attack or should we turn the other cheek and be killed? I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Followers in the early Church faced oppression and death for the sake of their faith. The Faith not only survived but grew and flourished. The Faith grew because it teaches values that make sense. In our western culture today those values seem out of place.

Human life is not valued as can be seen in modern attitudes to abortion and euthanasia. Human slavery still exists – even in our own country. A society which values money more than human life has a poor future. The biggest flaw in today’s society is the failure to value truth.

Truth is the basic value in any society. In a court of law we must promise on oath to tell the truth because we can never reach a correct conclusion based on lies. The recent referendum threw up many examples of people telling lies to persuade voters in one direction or other. Unfortunately there was no independent authority who could remove the lies from the debate. Now that we have a decision many people still know if we have done the right thing. People who told the lies, then admitted it have either walked away or are running the country. Truth still seems to be an outlaw.

As Christians we must be willing to tell the truth and be willing to pay the price for that. We must act with mercy towards our enemies and pay the price for that. It is interesting to remember that when Christ was crucified he prayed, “Father forgive them” for those who had lied, accused him falsely and killed him. As these acts of terror come closer to home will we be able to demonstrate the strength of faith that so many in Syria have shown by dying rather than convert?

So what should our response be if we are attacked? We can and should defend ourselves but proportionately. We must act out of love not hate. We can’t just bomb the Middle East out of existence as one American politician apparently suggested. And if you do die for your Faith; what then? Perhaps the many young people whose view of Christianity has been distorted by an untruthful society will see some value in love and mercy and return to Jesus.


Joseph McGrath

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