Tuesday, April 21, 2015
As a student in the public school system—I was known by my confreres who were able to attend Catholic schools as a publican—high school English classes brought the need to read and memorize passages from Shakespeare’s plays, be they history, tragedy, or comedy. One passage that I had to memorize and recite was from “The Merchant of Venice”: Portia’s “the quality of mercy” address, Act IV, Scene 1. In the play, Shylock seeks the legal remedy to which he is entitled: a pound of Antonio’s flesh, but neither a drop of his blood nor an ounce more of his flesh than a pound. If Shylock sheds even the slightest amount of Antonio’s blood or takes even the slightest excess of his flesh, all that he owns will be forfeited under the laws of Venice.
Portia reminds all that the law is the law and is to be followed, but even the highest temporal authority must remember the authority of God, which includes His mercy, which tempers the law. God’s mercy is free; as Portia says, “it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” As mercy is an attribute of God, Himself, the temporal authorities would do well to reflect God’s mercy in the justice they administer—for “mercy seasons justice.” Portia reminds Shylock that, if justice be his plea, “in the course of justice none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy. I have spoken thus much to mitigate the justice of thy plea…”
In some ways, the recent film “The Judge” displays some of Shakespeare’s lessons about justice and mercy. When Judge Palmer awards mercy to a young trouble-maker, this decision returns to haunt him when he, the judge, is accused of killing the young trouble-maker by running him over with his Cadillac. Lessons of justice and mercy continue throughout the film, but I shall be no plot-spoiler.
The themes of justice and mercy also punctuate Pope Francis’s recent Bull, Misericordiae Vultus, issued on Divine Mercy Sunday—the Second Sunday of Easter. Indeed, the pope has addressed in abundant fashion God’s mercy, but—and this is a point less reported in many media outlets—he has also abundantly addressed sin and the imperative that the sinner must acknowledge one’s sins to receive God’s abundant mercy. As the Holy Father states, “All one needs to do is to accept the invitation to conversion and submit one’s self to justice during this special time of mercy offered by the Church.” If one were to think and say that Francis is divorcing God’s mercy from the need of the sinner to be penitent and confess one’s sins, this view of the papal bull would be erroneous. As the Pope reminds us, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came not to call the righteous but sinners. Matthew 9:13. “Jesus is bent on revealing the great gift of mercy that searches out sinners and offers them pardon and salvation.”
But, to receive God’s mercy, pardon, and salvation, one must first acknowledge one’s commissions and omissions that constitute sin. As Pope Francis also asserts, “anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelopes it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.” Before the Prodigal Son received his father’s mercy and forgiveness, the son confessed: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Luke 15:21. Without this acknowledgement on the part of the sinner that one has sinned, how can the quality of mercy drop upon him or her as the gentle rain from heaven?