Pope Francis, curiously enough, chose this year to be a “year of mercy” (2016). Given the fact that there is so much trouble around the world would most likely explain why.
But what does having “mercy” actually mean? Forgiving culpably guilty people who remain unrepentant? Not likely. I suspect that the concept of “mercy” is more like that of “compassion.” “Compassion” comes from the Latin which means “to suffer with…” That is to say that you somehow feel the pain of the other, and, given the proper motivation, are willing to help. It would boil down to this: Hate the sin, but love the sinner.
One classic example of this notion can be found in the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (John 8:1-11), the woman taken in adultery. Simply put, some Scribes and Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery over to Jesus in order for him to make a judgement. Jesus was becoming quite popular and this caused concern to many of the Scribes and Pharisees.
This “judgement” was obviously a test to see whether Jesus would agree with the Mosaic Law or not. The law demanded stoning. Would Jesus say “yes” (according to the Law) or “no,” a sign of his compassion, which would mean opposition to the letter of the Law.
In truth, Jesus showed “mercy.” That is, hated the sin but loved the sinner. For example, the Scribes and Pharisees asked the pointed question that had to do with the letter of the Mosaic Law which demanded that a woman caught in adultery be stoned to death. They asked Jesus, “What do you say?”
After a few lengthy pauses, while doodling on the ground, Jesus ignored the question and focused on the motivation of the question and ultimately retorted: “He among you who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”
I strongly suspect that that group of Scribes and Pharisees knew each other very well, and most likely each of the individuals participated in any skulduggery about which the others knew. So…they remained silent, and gradually slunk away.
Jesus then turned to the woman and said: “Has no one stayed to condemn you?” She replied, “No one.” Then Jesus answered, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Note clearly what takes place here. Jesus recognized that sin had taken place (John 8:11) but told her to sin no more. What does this mean? Above all, I think that Jesus wanted all of us to distinguish between the letter of the Law and the spirit of the Law. We have the case of Jesus and his disciples crossing grainfields-on the Sabbath. The disciples were hungry, so they plucked the grain. This, of course, made the Pharisees unhappy because the Sabbath had been “violated.” So, Jesus commented, “…The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) This was obviously a case regarding priorities. Letter or spirit of the Law?. [See similar example: Mark 3:1-6]
In the case of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus showed compassion, and thus mercy. In the case of the disciples in the grainfields, Jesus made a distinction between the letter and the spirit of the Law, which also indicated mercy. One of our lessons from this Gospel reading is to show mercy on ourselves and others by distinguishing the sin from the sinner and by establishing our priorities of whether the spirit or the letter of the Law is more important.
If ever we are in the situation of being caught in the act of, or of catching others about to be caught in the act of regarding the effects of temptation, it would be well to remember the above two points.