The Fullness of Mercy
Western Literature & the Illumination of a Divine Attribute
by Christine Schintgen
The treatment of the theme of mercy in Western Literature confirms what Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice—namely, that "it blesseth him that gives and him that takes." In other words, mercy benefits not just the one on whom it is bestowed, but also—just as much, if not more—the one who bestows it. Mercy is the decision, on the part of a person who has the power to exact retribution or just payment from another, not to demand this payment or retribution. Properly understood, mercy does not conflict with justice; rather, it constitutes a deeperform of justice, one that recognizes that although the other has sinned against me, I have sinned many times as well. The fact that God has forgiven me prompts me to understand that everything I have has not been earned but freely given to me by God; and so, in justice to God, I should try to give to others and to forgive them as freely as God has given to me.
In what follows I would like to consider some notable situations involving mercy in Western literature and observe the movement from a suspicion of the value of mercy to a recognition of its benefits. For we find that in the literature of the ancient world, mercy is not particularly prized, but in that of the Christian world, it is valued greatly, both for what it can give to others, and for what it does for oneself—namely, keep one in right relationship with God.
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