Just deserts

I remember studying George Bernard Shaw’s play Androcles and the Lion. Androcles comes across a lion in terrible distress with a thorn in its paw. He takes pity on it, quells his fear, and removes the thorn. Some time later, Androcles finds himself facing death in the Roman circus for his Christian faith. He is confronted by the same lion, who remembers his kindness, and refuses to attack him. The emperor is mightily impressed and sets them both free: the fruit of mercy – just as Jesus said in Matthew 5:7 – “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.”

I think the Jesus was also meaning it in a spiritual sense, as in the Lord’s Prayer – “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”. We are in need of mercy from God, and therefore must show it to others. Much has been written on why we need to forgive, let go, move on, irrespective of whether our debtor deserves or appreciates it.

So with mercy. It’s easy to show mercy to those immediately in front of us, who are in dire straits, who deserve it, who will appreciate it. There is a great feel-good factor to helping a fellow human out of a hole. And there’s the additional reward of qualifying myself to receive mercy should I be requiring help. So we are motivated to donate to charities, or to help out in practical ways when a need arrises.

What is more challenging, is when the human in need appears thoroughly undeserving. When he/she has shown no mercy to anyone else. When they are getting their comeuppance. A neighbour of ours had systematically broken into many homes (including ours) in the vicinity, caused untold damage and misery, and was a downright unpleasant character. After serving 3 months in prison, he was released back to continue his malevolence on the area. Shortly after, he and his friend were both instantly killed racing their cars down the main street, crashing into each other. It was hard to mourn. He was now beyond mercy, but what about me? What does my attitude say about me?

Actually, I need to be merciful because it’s good for me. Not because of the incentives of feeling good, or so others will be kind to me, but because I need a tender heart. I need a character that can rise above judging whether someone else deserves my mercy.

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