One of my favourite movies is Les Miserables.
The story begins in 1815 in Digne, as the peasant Jean Valjean, just released from 19 years' imprisonment in the Bagne of Toulon — five years for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family and fourteen more for numerous escape attempts—is turned away by innkeepers because his yellow passport marks him as a former convict. He sleeps on the street, angry and bitter.
Digne's benevolent Bishop Myriel gives him shelter. That night, Valjean runs off with Myriel's silverware. When the police capture Valjean and throw him at the feet of the bishop, Myriel states that he has given the silverware to Valjean and presses him to take two silver candlesticks as well, as if he had forgotten to take them. The police accept the bishop’s explanation and leave. Myriel tells Valjean that his life has been spared for God, and that he should use money from the silver and the candlesticks to make an honest man of himself.
An incredible act of mercy toward a human being who has been caught in the depravity of their sin. And instead of demanding justice and handing him over to the police, Bishop Myriel gives Jean Valjean the opportunity to become an honest man.
Even though I have watched this movie many, many times, this scene never fails to move me. The expression of mercy of Bishop Myriel towards Jean Valjean is a beautiful expression of compassionate love and mercy between two human beings.
Mercy has deep connections to our Christianity, but also can be lived out in our everyday life. Christianity is the religion of compassion and mercy — God’s mercy is central to Christian belief.
Scripture tells of God’s love for human beings and how he extends mercy to them, and the human person is dependent on God’s mercy. “Have mercy on us” is the most important request man can have towards God, and we direct our request for mercy to God because we are intensely aware of our own deficiencies and guilt, the complete depravity of our sinful state.
However, as we are grow in union with Him, maturing in our walk with Him, we can in turn — with Christ in us — extend out acts of mercy.
Hillsong Worship has this great song Hosanna with the beautiful lines;
Show me how to love like You have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks Yours
As we allow Christ to live through us, and our hearts are moved like His, we are moved to acts of mercy: feeding the poor, providing water for those who need clean water, clothing for those in need, building homes for the displaced, education for those who cannot afford it, helping those who are broken.
No-one wants to appear merciless — to have mercy is to be a model of human existence.
There are many acts of mercy in society and these are lauded as exemplary. Just scrolling through social media I often come across people rescuing animals in horrific situations and being loved back to healthy life — sometimes with millions of “likes”.
“Mercy is more than a mere emotion such as fear or anger. If mercy was a mere emotion — there would be no obligation to act mercifully” — Holger Zaboroski, German professor and author.
Many governments have put programs in place to take care of the needy so mercy has become no longer a personal responsibility or character need.
Social justice, solidarity, non-profit organizations, social programs seem to have replaced the human need to act mercifully. We have a crisis of mercy in our contemporary culture. In fact, even saying the words “have mercy” seems old-fashioned, and no longer relevant, syrupy religious. Mercy is therefore limited to a small number of human beings who work in the “mercy business.”
What is the definition of mercy?
It’s glaringly obvious when there is no mercy. In current world events, we can quickly give examples of mercy and those acting without mercy. This is what people call a ‘no-brainer’.
How should we act towards other human beings? What is the responsibility of man towards man?