Mercy is a word that conveys within it both power and compassion.

First, the power to make a decision that is NOT merciful. In fact, some might argue, the right; perhaps even the responsibility. But the word also reflects the compassionate heart of the person making judgment, and quite often incredible wisdom.

We’ve all heard tales of folk who have managed somehow to bypass the intricate security measures that surround heads of state. One little known story has to do with US President Calvin Coolidge, and he recounts it in his personal diary. It only came to light several years after his death.

Shortly after he took office in 1923, Coolidge was awoken in his hotel room by the presence of a burglar going through the pockets of his clothing. Rather than alert the Secret Service, he asked the burglar not to take his watch chain, since it had a special sentimental value to him. When the burglar agreed, President Coolidge continued the conversation only to discover that the would-be thief was a college student who had no money to pay his hotel bill or buy a ticket back to campus.

Coolidge asked the young man to hand back the wallet he had just stolen, and proceeded to count $32 out of his newly-returned wallet. He handed the cash to the bewildered young man and declared it was to be a loan. The President then dismissed him with the advice that he should depart however he came, so as to avoid the Secret Service!

The diary entry recounting the incident had been written because the loan had just been repaid.


Mercy is a characteristic not often discussed, but very often needed.

Matthew, the apostle who wrote the first gospel, understood what mercy meant. It had been shown to him. Matthew had been employed as a tax collector when Jesus called him to follow Him. Now being a tax collector today is not a profession highly honored, but back then these men were society’s most despised.

First of all, it meant total collusion with the hated occupying Roman forces; with the tax collector doing Rome’s bidding and extracting money, food and goods from their own countrymen. So he was a Jew who had turned his back on his own people. Probably the very type of person who was attracted to such a job in the first place would be societal outcasts. It was a great position from which to extract their revenge. In their position, they had full authority of seizure and could, in fact, demand and levy whatever amount they felt they wanted regardless of how much Rome was actually collecting. Tax collectors would thereby line their own pockets with the additional sums. The hatred and disdain felt for them was massive.

Into this situation walks the merciful Messiah. He finds Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth in Capernaum. When you think about the things Jesus COULD have said, the list is a long one. But Jesus didn’t begin a teaching on honor, or a parable on righteousness. He didn’t speak about trust, character, forgiveness or a hundred other things. Jesus simply looked at Matthew and said, “Follow Me.” Two words that spoke volumes.

Mercy says that your past doesn’t need to define you, for we all have a past. It says that your sin doesn’t need to control you. Your failures aren’t final, your faults aren’t fatal. Jesus invites you to stand up and walk away from them — with Him. He’s neither angry nor judgemental; not phobic or demanding. He’s merciful. He looks at us sitting in the very situation that is our sin and says, “Look at you! You and I both know you’re not truly happy, though you’re desperately searching. We both know your sin is eating you alive from the inside out. You don’t need this. You don’t even want this. Come on, let’s go. Together”


Later, probably that night, Jesus was the guest of honor at a dinner Matthew was hosting. You can imagine the sort of people Matthew was able to invite. It was primarily attended by people who had sold out their own people and agreed to work for the enemy, and also by people who had sold out their morals to take advantage of the large sums of money available to the first group. Matthew describes them as “many tax collectors and other sinners.”

The religious folk of the day are public with their shock. They were too holy to come into contact with people like this. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The question was dripping with accusation. “Hmmm, I wonder why your teacher is hanging around men with scads of money and women of questionable morals?”

But the Pharisees got their answer directly from Jesus. He told them that it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Then he told these great and revered teachers they needed to repeat a lesson from first grade. They had missed it! He said, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

He was reminding them of the reason for being close to God, which was bringing OTHER people close to God. It wasn’t to focus on how generous they were with their offerings; it was to let others know how generous God was with His mercy. He was demonstrating for them that, if they were to fulfill the mission God had called them to, they needed to be about reaching the people God was still calling. In other words, He was saying to them, “Don’t you see where I am going? Come, follow Me.”

Mercy, as we see, doesn’t ignore the demands of justice. It pays them.

Jesus didn’t come and say, “The wages of sin is death. But that’s OK, don’t worry about it.” No, Jesus knew that death was required. So He came and died. Yet He also knew that life had to be restored to those who had died in sin. So the one who had laid down His life took it back up again, and then offered it to those who would receive it.


The story is told, and I hope it is true, of a night in 1935 when Fiorello LaGuardia, the Mayor of New York City, showed up at a night court in the poorest ward of the city. He dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench, judging cases. New York mayors were empowered to act as magistrates in those days, and it was a right LaGuardia exercised on more than one occasion.

The particular case involved an elderly woman who was caught stealing bread to feed her grandchildren. La Guardia said, “I’ve got to punish you. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But as he spoke the sentence, he threw $10 from his own wallet into his hat. Mercy, as I said, doesn’t ignore the demands of justice. It pays them.

But the story doesn’t end there. LaGuardia then fined everyone in the courtroom 50 cents for living in a city “where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat.” The hat was passed around, and the woman left the courtroom with her fine paid and an additional $47.50.

Our Heavenly Father is a loving and merciful God. So we can confidently draw near to His throne of grace. As we do, we will receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Then, having received so freely, He calls us to follow Him. Freely you have received, freely you should give. Blessed be God, for He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He calls us to be merciful, even as He is merciful.

Don’t take from the story of Mayor LaGuardia that he was some sort of judicial pushover. Many a time folks who had hoped for a slap on the wrist by the regular judge found the Mayor imposing harsh sentences, seizing illegal gambling devices and imposing stiff fines.

James warns us that judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.

He calls us to be merciful, even as He is merciful. And He expects us to obey.


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