Mercy comes from Judgment

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

It may not always be true , but in my mind I cannot escape the reality that judgment is the action through which we may experience mercy.

Maybe I'm wrong.

In the New Testament, the term "mercy", or eleison in the Greek, is generally defined as "a great concern about someone in need."* Which gives great meaning for saying Kyrie eleison or "Lord, have mercy" at the beginning of our Sunday Liturgy.

But when Jesus tells the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, it seems that judgment actually wets the ground from which mercy springs. In fact, without judgment, mercy is not needed. Judgment says that a wrong has been committed and consequences are appropriate, if not wholly necessary.

In the parable that Jesus tells, a king wants to settle accounts with his servants. One of the servants owes an unimaginable debt of 10,000 talents of gold.

The servant is unable to pay the debt that he owes and the king rightly judges him for it. The judgment is for the servant and his family, and all that he has, to be sold into slavery to recoup the lost amount. But the servant pleads with the king to have mercy.

In the parable, Jesus says that the king looks with pity on the servant, cancels the entire debt, and lets the servant go.

In this case, the king's judgment was necessary for the subsequent showing of his mercy. And his mercy is such that the servant will never fall under judgment for that debt again. Mercy flows out of judgment. Light shines out of darkness.

The King could have said from the very beginning, "No one owes me anything, there's no debt here." But he came to settle his accounts and render appropriate judgment on those who could not repay. So perhaps an important take-away to this is that judgment allows the one judged to actually experience or feel mercy.

Judgment allows the one judged to actually experience or feel mercy.

This whole reflection came about because it seems the tendency in our modern conversation is to not judge anyone for anything. That the act of judging is in itself unmerciful. But, how can an actual wrong ever be made right if nothing is ever said?

Now, when someone wants to point out every perceived wrong done by others in order to elevate themselves or justify their own sense of moral superiority, this is judgmental-ism. The problem, it seems, is that in today's society, any judgment falls into the category of judgmental-ism. In doing so, I believe we've begun to deprive ourselves the opportunity to seek and know what true mercy feels like.

So what's the difference between judgment that leads to mercy and judgmental-ism? According to Jesus' parable, from a human perspective, it's the judger's own sense of how much mercy they themselves have received.

*BDAG, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, pg. 315.

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